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Columbus: The Great Adventure

| 27.12.02
Columbus: The Great Adventure, by Paolo Emilio Taviani

Taviani paints a complex yet sometimes contradictory image of Christopher Columbus. Unlike other scholars who portray Columbus as a medieval stereotype hearkening the modern age, Taviani gives us the dual image of Columbus the Renaissance man, and Columbus the medieval man. Through this use of the Italian Renaissance Taviani attempts to claim Columbus as a great Italian navigator, even though Columbus was Genoan and Italy as a nation did not exist during Columbus’ time. Thus this historical work, while detailed, has nationalistic underpinnings.

Taviani supposes that Columbus had a “grand design” of discovery. Because Columbus, as an expert navigator, had empirical knowledge of the Atlantic trade winds before his first voyage to the new world, he deliberately chose the south west route on the outbound voyage, and the north east route back to Spain. Taviani cites trips to made to Iceland as a youth as the source of Columbus’ knowledge of the proper routes. (41) Yet while one would think that Columbus would also have heard rumors of the New World in Iceland, Taviani holds firmly to the notion that Columbus believed he was sailing towards Asia, even after he arrived at his destination and began to see negative evidence with his own eyes. Naked natives, no iron working technology, no cities, no “Grand Khan”-- nothing Marco Polo outlined in his account of the Orient. “Why? Because the Discoverer was obstinate and ruled by ambition and pride.” (108)

This is the crux of Taviani’s Columbus. A modern man on the one hand, who used the Old Testament, the classical texts, his own observations as a navigator and the writings of Toscanelli to buttress his argument for making his voyages to the scholars of the royal courts of Europe (66) while on the other hand Columbus “was the man who would open the door to the third age, that of the Holy Spirit, prophesied by Joachim of Floris.” (256) Taviani states it best when he characterizes Columbus’ motivations as “ambition, pride, scientific curiosity, a spirit of adventure, a fascination with the unknown, and a mystical feeling of being chosen for a divinely inspired mission.” (128)

Taviani’s book also attempts to give the reader a background into the cultures that Columbus encountered on his first voyage. Drawing upon archeological data he portrays the tainos as having a stratified matrilineal society based upon three classes --nobles, commoners, and slaves. The chiefs (caciques) held the power of life or death over their subjects. (121) Like the diario, he differentiates between the gentler tainos and the caribs, who, according to records made by Dr. Chanca and Michele de Cuneo on Columbus’ voyages, consumed human flesh. (147) Taviani uses the existence of at least two separate indigenous cultures to help justify the difference in treatment Columbus gives to the Indians from the first to the second and subsequent voyages.

On the whole, Taviani is generally sympathetic in his interpretation of Columbus. Columbus is a great navigator, a daring adventurer, and issues such as his enslavement of the Indians and his mismanagement of the colony at La Isabella are conveniently consigned to “the times” or politics. On the slavery issue, Taviani says “Columbus lived in his own time, was a man of this own time, thinking like the leaders --and others-- of his time, not like the saints.” (103) On Columbus’ leadership at La Isabella, the author states that “. . .anything he did to defend the Indians and punish the Spanish would be interpreted by the Spanish in Nationalistic terms.” (176)

Yet Taviani needs Columbus to be a forward thinker in order to tie him in with Italian nationalism. “Without the Italian Renaissance there would have been no modern age. Christopher Columbus symbolizes the creative genius of Italy shaping the beginning of the modern age.” (263) Taviani is correct in portraying Columbus as a complex historical figure, operating from many different and sometimes contradictory motivations. However, by claiming Columbus as the first Italian, Taviani weakens the rest of his argument considerably.

PUBLISHER: New York, Orion Books, 1991

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