Paradoxplace Portraits

Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón)

1451 - 1506 (55)

First crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1492




Link to the Convent of Rábida in Spain and Full-Sized Replicas of Colombus' Three Little Boats


Portrait of Christopher Columbus, Cristofano dell'Altissimo Portrait of Christopher Columbus, Ridolfo Ghirlandaio
Portrait of Christopher Columbus, Sebastiano del Piombo

There is no evidence that Columbus ever sat for a portrait, and it would have been an unusual thing to do in those days.  So the sources (and the artists) for these works and what if any resemblances they bear to the real Columbus are not clear.


The portrait top left is a Cristofano dell'Altissimo copy of an unknown original that was in the famous collection of Paolo Giovio and it is in the Uffizi.  The portrait on the right is attributed to Ridolfo Ghirlandaio. On the immediate left is a portrait possibly by Sebastiano del Piombo (1485 - 1547 (62)) which was painted posthumously, though it is also possible that Piombo (Clement VII's portrait painter) had earlier done some studies of Columbus whilst he was still alive.  And there is one by Lorenzo Lotto, and ...... link


Christopher Columbus 1451 - 1506 (55)

reached the New World (thinking it to be Asia)

on 12 October 1492*


Born a wool merchant's son in Genoa, swum into Portugal in 1476 after his ship was sunk in battle.  Conceived of "The Enterprise of the Indies" in 1484 as a result of his own voyages from Iceland to Guinea, and encouraged by Toscanelli's calculations and the economic attractiveness of the "go west to China" school of thought which said it would be much cheaper to sail straight there across the Atlantic than to go by sea or land the other way. 


Columbus' challenge was that no one knew the diameter of the earth, and thus how far he had to sail to reach the East Indies or China.  The diameter estimates he worked on (for example by Toscanelli) were seriously under the real figure (24,900 miles if you are interested), but luckily for him the continents later to be known as the Americas were in the way, otherwise he pretty certainly would have disappeared from history without trace.


Columbus spent two years trying unsuccessfully to convince the Dominicans at San Esterban in Salamanca to intercede on his behalf to persuade the Spanish Monarchs to bankroll his harebrained scheme to sail west to China.


Convent of Rabida, Andalucia and Christopher Columbus



He finally gave up on them and  took up an offer of lodgings from the Franciscan Convent at Rábida near Huelva (West Andalucía - about as far west as you can get in Southern Spain) in 1485.  The meeting room at Rábida  (pictured above) is said to be the room where Columbus met with the friars and explained what he was about.


Queen Isabella's confessor - the Franciscan Friar Juan Pérez - arranged a royal audience for Columbus, and from then it took him just seven years to close a deal with Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, which was finally signed as the "Contract of Santa Fe" in the wake of the early 1492* fall of the last Muslim State in Spain - the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada.


At one stage during these prolonged negotiations the deal was offered to the Portuguese King John,  and also to England's first Tudor Monarch, Henry VII, both of whom turned it down ...... silly fellows!


* 1492 was also the year in which Lorenzo de'Medici ("Il Magnifico") died in Florence, then Columbus' discovery of America gave it a good claim to being the marker of the end of the European Middle Ages.



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Columbus' boats at Rabida - Nina, Pinta, Santa Maria


Full scale replicas of Columbus' three tiny boats moored below the Convent of Rabida in Andalucia



Cruz de la Parra - Columbus' Cross - Baracoa, Cuba

Photo: John McNamara



Baracoa, Cathedral

Photo: John McNamara



Remains of a wooden cross ("Cruz de la Parra") erected on Saturday 1 December 1492 by Columbus in what in 1512 became the harbour of the first Spanish settlement in Cuba - Baracoa.    It is now displayed in the rather dilapidated Cathedral Nuestra Señora de la Asunción in Baracoa, Cuba (built in 1833 to replace a 1512 church burnt down by the French in 1652). 






Extract from a paper by Dr B.W.Ife of Kings College, London


When Columbus set sail for the Far East in August 1492 he decided, in view of the significance of what he was about to attempt, to make a documentary record of the voyage in the form of charts and a log book:


"... I decided to write down the whole of this voyage in detail, day by day, everything that I should do and see and undergo, as will be seen in due course. (Prologue)"


Keeping such a Journal was by no means routine at the time and did not become a legal requirement for captains of vessels flying the Spanish flag until 1575. The importance which Columbus attached to the accurate day-to-day recording of the events of the first voyage cannot be underestimated. By setting the voyage down in writing he ensured a place for himself in history which others have disputed but from which no one has succeeded in displacing him. The written record has become the touchstone of his achievement.


On returning to Spain in the spring of 1493 Columbus presented his record of the voyage to Queen Isabel. She had it copied, retained the original, and gave the copy to Columbus before he set out on the second voyage in the autumn of 1493. The original has not been seen since 1504, the year in which the Queen died.


In 1506, on the Admiral's death, the copy passed to Columbus's eldest son Diego, and then in 1526 to Diego's son, Luis, the Third Admiral of the Indies. Luis was granted permission to publish the Journal in 1554, though it did not in fact appear. This is thought to indicate that he sold the manuscript, as he did that of his uncle Ferdinand's biography of the Admiral, in order to subsidise his legendary debauchery. Whatever the explanation, it is clear that both the original Journal, and the only copy known to have been made of it, have both disappeared.


We should have very little knowledge indeed about the conduct and events of the 1492 voyage had it not been for the intervention of the historian Bartolomé de las Casas.  Las Casas, whose father and uncle had accompanied Columbus on the second voyage in 1493, began collecting material for a history of the Indies as early as 1502. After his conversion in 1514 he dedicated himself to exposing in writing and by personal advocacy the oppression of the Indians and the illegitimacy of the Spanish presence in the New World. In 1527 he began his great Historia de las Indias. Chapters 35 to 75 of the Historia rely heavily on the evidence of Columbus's Journal. It is not clear when Las Casas consulted it, though from remarks made in the Historia about scribal errors and confusions, we may be sure that what he consulted was a copy, possibly Columbus's own copy, and not the original. The access which Las Casas had to the Journal was evidently restricted. However he came by it, he was evidently not able to take it away with him or to keep it over a period of time. He therefore made an extensive digest for his own use, summarising the majority of the text, but copying out word-for-word those parts of the original which he thought were particularly interesting or worthy of quotation in full. Failing the discovery of the full text, Las Casas's summary, preserved in the National Library in Madrid, is the closest we are likely to get to Columbus's original.


Link to a web site dedicated to Bartolomé de las Casas




Both caravels and crewmen for the expedition that set sail on 2 August 1492, and changed the face of world history when it discovered the "New World" (=Bahamas), which was sighted at 2am on 12 October 1492, came from Huelva, though the monetary rewards of this and subsequent expeditions went to Seville who had been given monopoly rights over all expeditions.


In accordance with his contract, Columbus was made Admiral of the Ocean Sea, viceroy of his discoveries and owner of 10% of any new wealth.  But it never really worked out as he (possessor of advanced nouveau riche values) wanted.  Three other expeditions followed with mixed results (in a class of his own as an intuitive navigator, there was nothing intuitive or classy about his leadership or organization skills!) and he died in obscurity in Spain in 1506, still convinced that what he had reached was Asia.


Worse still for his posterity, his discoveries were named after another Italian, the Florentine Amerigo (=America) Vespucci.


In 1502 he had all the agreements he had made with the Spanish Crown, along with an associated Papal Bull, bound together into a book "The Book of Privileges", and all three vellum copies of this still exist.  There is also an unusual gastronomic insight into the first voyage from Castello Banfi in Montalcino.


After his death, his bones kept travelling for 400 years until they ended up in an ugly tomb in Seville Cathedral, though it is by no means certain that they entombed the right bones.


Cape St-Vincent, Portugal


Cape Saint Vincent in SW Portugal - most westerly point in Europe.  Once Columbus' tiny boats got past here, they thought it was next stop China.  Luckily, America was in the way, otherwise we would never have heard any more of the "Admiral of the Ocean Sea".






Novelists and several historians who should know better, have made a play out of the supposition that the common belief in the middle ages in Europe - pushed by the church -  was that the world was flat, and even sometimes that the trial of Galileo was about whether the earth was flat (it was actually about whether the earth revolved around the sun).


The explorers of the 1400s had plenty of things to be seriously worried about (like most of them never came back), but falling off the edge of the world in the middle of the night was not one of them.  Pythagoras had shown in around 500 BC that the earth was spherical, a notion picked up later by Aristotle.  The early fathers of the church did not dispute this by then pervasive belief, despite some ambiguous statements in the bible (what's new?!).  The Northumbrian Venerable Bede went much further in terms of positive written affirmation in  the early 700s AD and was widely quoted on the subject.  On the other (flat earth) side was no authoritative voice - in fact hardly any voices at all.


Columbus' challenge was that no one knew the diameter of the earth, and thus how far he had to sail to reach the East Indies (his objective).  The diameter estimates he worked on (for example by the Florentine Toscanelli) were seriously under the real figure (24,900 miles if you are interested), but luckily for him the continents later to be known as the Americas were in the way, otherwise he pretty certainly would have disappeared from history without trace.


Then much later, in  1896, an obscure writer called Andrew Dickson White wrote a weighty tome called "The Warfare of Science with Theology" in which amongst other things he claimed that the church of the middle ages worked assiduously and successfully to propagate the flat earth theory.  Problem was that he had next to no evidence to support this.  No matter, it was a catchy "conspiracy theory" with the church as the bad boy (shades of the da Vinci Code) and achieved much more currency than it deserved, being as how it was wrong.


And as a quirky postscript a much earlier measurer, Eratosthenes, Librarian of Alexandria, wrote a treatise "On the Measurement of the Earth" (now lost) in which he gave a figure for the Earth's circumference of the equivalent of about 23,000 miles.  His method involved pacing out the distance between two points 500 miles apart, and was obviously subject to significant error limits.  Although it turned out to be 2,000 miles short of the truth, most people at the time thought that his figure was a significant overestimate.






Paradoxplace Insight Page on Travellers, Traders and Explorers 1000 - 1600


Link to the Convent of Rábida in Spain (Colombus' expedition base), replicas of Colombus' three boats and the wooden cross he left in Baracoa, Cuba


Books by and about Travellers in the Middle Ages


Books about Exploration and Mapmaking



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