Christopher Columbus: the legend

Despite having been portrayed several times, there exists no authentic portrait of Columbus. In the History of the Indies, Bartolomé de las Casas, missionary and then Spanish bishop who transcribed the logbooks for Columbus’s many journeys, described him as "all-bodied […]; the face long and authoritative; the nose aquiline; the eyes gray-green […]. His presence and his venerable appearance denoted a person of high standing and authority, worthy of all reverence".

While his date of birth is only presumably placed between July and October 1451 based on indirect evidence, it is now indisputable that Columbus was born in Genoa. Born into a family of wool workers, he spent his youth between Savona and Genoa and embarked early. After moving permanently to the Iberian Peninsula, he got married in Portugal around 1479 and had a son, Diego; later, in Castille, he had a second son, Fernando.
As revealed in his writings, a strong pragmatism, importance attributed to experience, social ambition, intense religiosity linked to mystical tension, and liking of the fantastic were some of the traits of his character.
His dream was part of a time and place of quest for routes essential to advance even the most daring hypotheses. Before leaving for his famous voyage, Columbus had gained first-hand navigation experience on the Mediterranean and Atlantic routes, facing winds and currents, storms and calms.
The image of the world following well-established traditions lived on in Columbus’s mind: in God’s creation, the earth is depicted as an orb, two-thirds of which are covered by water, a third by land. However, his education was, so to speak, “scientific”, primarily resulting from his work as an expert cartographer. Well known to his contemporaries, his culture and expertise as cartographer were part of a wealth of technical skills with Mediterranean roots, in which the Genoese have always played a very important role. His shipping experiences from a young age and his voyages on the Atlantic Ocean alongside men experienced in this field are the basis of his personal improvement, which will eventually allow him to realise his grand project. Also, Columbus had developed a vast knowledge by thoroughly reading and commenting the works of different authors, such as Pliny, Marco Polo, Enea Silvio Piccolomini, or the French astronomer Pierre D’Ailly.
However, his commitment and determination would not have been sufficient to achieve his dream without major funding and decisive protection by a powerful Crown like the Spanish. Already in Portugal, Columbus had looked for a sponsorship for his project of reaching Asia and the East by sailing westwards. However, King John II of Portugal was more interested in the economic and military expansion on the African coast and refused to finance such a risky expedition. Columbus thus fled from Portugal, possibly for political reasons, and embarked for Spain, with the aim to propose his ambitious project to the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille. After years of failed attempts, on 17 April 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella officially approved of Columbus’s great enterprise and named him viceroy and governor of any land he would discover during the journey. The monarchs were particularly interested in the commercial purpose of his voyage: the discovery of a sea route shorter and less expensive to exploit the rich markets of China and Japan.