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Columbus: Quite a Character!
There are lots of unknowns about the explorer Christopher Columbus, but Italians insist he is one of them – and that's it
By Francesca Di Meglio
A crisp fall breeze is upon us and the kids are back in school, which means I, an Italian American reporter, have Columbus Day on the brain. It's like Christmas or the Super Bowl for Italian America. There are star-studded parades, events, and an entire month devoted to Italian American heritage all because of the mythic explorer Christopher Columbus, better known to Italians as Cristofero Colombo. Some U.S. companies even give workers the day off. The irony is that the man we tout as a hero may not have been so nice, and some scholars are suggesting he might not have even been Italian. In fact, after a Google search, I realized that I - along with the rest of the world - know very little about this man who has come to symbolize Italian America.
My investigation is far from scientific but if Columbus was alive today, his life certainly would have been fodder for all the gossipers hanging out in the piazza and blogging on the Internet. Here are some of the scandalous - but super interesting - tid-bits I found online:
Most people still believe Columbus was born between August and October 1451 in Genoa, which at the time was a very wealthy city-state but not yet part of Italy. Columbus spoke several languages including Latin, Portuguese, Spanish, and Catalan, according to columbusnavigation.com. He probably also spoke Genoa's native tongue, Ligurian.
He had a brother Bartolomeo, who was a mapmaker. How fitting! He married the daughter of a Portuguese nobleman and they had a son, Diego, who was born in 1480. But Columbus' wife, Dona Felipa Perestrello y Moniz, passed away in 1485.
We all know that Columbus and his crew set sail on the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria ships on August 3, 1492 from Palos, Spain. On October 11, he spotted the Caribbean islands and landed in Guanahani, which he later renamed San Salvador, according to enchantedlearning.com. He thought he had reached his goal of arriving in Asia, and he called the land the Indies and its people Indians. He met the Taino Indians there and many of them were captured by Columbus' crew and later sold into slavery, according to the site. Lots of Italians don't buy that Columbus was an evil, greedy slave owner, and just the suggestion of this causes lots of controversy that has surfaced in the media in recent years. Many think he was simply a product of his times. Others vehemently disagree.
After looking for gold in the area, Columbus and his crew were ready to sail home in 1493. But the Santa Maria was wrecked (I never learned about this in grade school) and the captain of the Pinta wanted to race Columbus home and took off without him. Columbus arrived in Spain in the Nina on March 15, 1493, according to enchantedlearning.com. I didn't find out who won the race.
Ibiblio.org suggests Columbus was somewhat of a diva and had many demands of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, who financed his work. If he returned and accomplished his mission in 1492, he was to be knighted, appointed Admiral of the Ocean Sea, made viceroy of new lands, and awarded 10 percent of new wealth. But by 1502, Columbus had been charged with maladministration in the Indies and his career was at risk. But he was far too popular a figure to let a little setback get in his way.
Reports indicate, in fact, that Columbus received lots of press for his 1492 trip and became a rock star of his times.
The most interesting scoop I came across was the debate about his death. First, there was lots of discussion about how he died. His son Diego listed gout as the cause of death, but he suffered a long terminal illness, according to columbusnavigation.com. Recent research has showed he probably had Reiter's Syndrome, a rare tropical disease.
No one seems to know where the guy is buried. He was initially buried in Valladolid, Spain, where he died. Then, he was moved to Seville. Then, his son Diego died and was buried next to him. Then Diego's widow petitioned Spain to get their bodies moved to the cathedral in Santo Domingo on Hispaniola, which was Spanish territory. Then, France captured it from Spain and the Spanish did not want to lose Columbus' remains, which were considered a national treasure. So, the government moved Columbus' remains to Cuba. When Cuba got independence from Spain, the government moved him back to Seville. Sounds like one of his sailing adventures! The funny thing is that in 1877, according to columbusnavigation.com, workers restoring the cathedral found a box of human remains bearing Columbus' name, which led people to believe that Columbus' son Diego was the one moved all those times. Recently, with DNA testing, according to the site, that theory was confirmed. The Christopher Columbus was in Santo Domingo the whole time. I think. At least that's what this site says.
The bottom line is that Columbus, regardless of the rest of his life and whether any of the above is true, was a smart dude who knew the world was round and proved it to everyone. He was courageous to sail to new places when few people believed in him. Most people in Italy will tell you he is one of them. And he is a hero. They'd like us to think of him as representing the Italian spirit and desire to think outside the box, never take no for an answer, and do it all with flair and style. That's why he has come to be a symbol of Italian culture - even if he ends up being Spanish or something else entirely. Happy Columbus Day!
For information on all things Italian, visit www.francescadimeglio.com. Di Meglio has written the Our Paesani column for ItaliansRus.com since 2003. You can follow the Italian Mamma on Facebook or Twitter @ItalianMamma10.
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