IN THE LATE fifteenth century, perhaps 100,000 people lived on the cluster of canal-laced islands within the laguna of the northern Adriatic that comprised the city of Venice. Known to its residents as the Signoria, the compact archipelago was the heart of the Venetian republic of the eastern Mediterranean. The Signoria’s artisans produced for export fineries of silk, damasks, satins, and crystal; other goods were sourced by merchants from around the Mediterranean, and from distant England came wool and hides. The republic was renowned foremost for its command of trade in precious commodities of the Orient, which arrived from its Levantine ports of Beirut and Alexandria from as far to the east as Borneo: ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, saffron, camphor, rhubarb, ambergris, sugar and molasses, and above all pepper. A Venetian merchant, Marco Polo, had explored the Indies of Asia two centuries earlier, but the Orient’s wares reached the Levant through middlemen Muslim traders. Lands such as Cathay, which Europeans understood to be the realm of the Great Khan, remained remote—imperfectly described, riotously imagined, the most tangible and most elementary proof of their existence being found in the holds of Venetian ships and the Signoria’s aromatic warehouses.
The business details of import and export, of items common and extraordinary, were hashed out in the confines of the Rialto, a small plaza on the island of the same name—“the richest place in the whole world,” as diarist Marin Sanudo boasted in 1493. The Rialto, he explained, was “a piazzetta, not very large at all, where everyone goes both morning and afternoon. Here business deals are made with a single word ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ There are large numbers of brokers, who are trustworthy; if not, they are reprimanded. . . . Furthermore, throughout the said island of Rialto there are storehouses, both on ground level and above, filled with goods of every value; it would be a marvelous thing if it were possible to see everything at once, in spite of the fact that much is being sold all the time.”
The Rialto plaza was animated by gesticulating, darting shadows: Citizens and nobles who did not hold high office went about somberly clothed in long black robes, with hoods of black cloth or velvet, and black caps. Flitting among the merchants in the 1470s and 1480s was a man whose life proved to be an exercise in constant motion through geography, opportunity, and identity, with no certain beginning and an as yet uncertain ending. He wrote his name in a 1484 Venetian testament in a telling blend of dialects: His first name was true to Venice, rendered as Zuan rather than Giovanni, but he preserved the out-of-town family name Chabotto rather than using the Venetian Caboto, then proceeded to identify himself in the Venetian dialect as being fo de Ser Zilio—the son of Zilio. Comfortable in the Venetian tongue, the merchant who would be known to the English-speaking world as John Cabot probably was raised there from a fairly young age, but he had not forgotten that his family had originated outside the laguna.
Citizenship standards fluctuated over the course of Venice’s history, answering the ebb and flood of war, conquest, and population-robbing plagues. In 1472, it was decreed that nonnoble citizenship (popular nostro) could be conferred by a senate vote on anyone who made his residence in the city for fifteen continuous years and paid his taxes to the Signoria during that period. By a vote of 147 to 0 the senate agreed on March 28, 1476, that Ioani Caboto had met this requirement, which meant he had been living there since at least 1461.
Cabot secured full citizenship (de intus et extra), making him recognized as a Venetian both within the republic and when abroad. Only about 10 percent of Venetians (above and beyond nobles) secured full citizenship; its main advantage was the avoidance of duties foreigners had to pay on goods brought to the city. Citizenship thus was necessary for Cabot in trading abroad, which we know he did. But we don’t know where he was originally from. There was an unfortunate omission by the careless scribe who produced a 1501 document summarizing the conferrals of citizenship since 1472. He omitted the place of origin of the last six names, and Cabot happened to be one of them.
Being born in any territory held by the greater republic would not make one a full-fledged Venetian. A 1313 law had extended full citizenship to everyone born from Grado, more than fifty miles east on the Adriatic coast, to Cavarzere, eleven miles southwest of Chioggia, and so Cabot could not have been from anywhere in the greater laguna region—including from Chioggia, as one tradition would have it. Don Pedro de Ayala, a Spanish ambassador in London in 1498, called Cabot “another Genoese like Colón [Columbus].” By “Genoese” he could have meant someone from the city, the greater territory surrounding it, or the coastal region of northwest Italy known as Liguria. But Cabot may have come from much farther south, from Gaeta in the Kingdom of Naples, as the family name could be found there until 1443, which suggests that they may have moved on to Venice after that.
Ayala may have been misled about Cabot’s origins, but in the Spanish ambassador’s mind, John Cabot and Christopher Columbus were two of a kind, in both ambitions and origins. In truth, although their careers were deeply entwined in a race to prove a profitable new route to Asia’s riches that would defeat the Levantine monopoly of Venetian merchants, they were very different people, with one determined to remake himself as the other.
THE FACT THAT THE Spanish ambassador Pedro de Ayala was confident Christopher Columbus was Genoese is noteworthy, as few historical figures have engendered as much controversy about their origins. He has been declared the son of a Spanish noble, a secretconverso Jew from Catalonia, a Portuguese spy, and a French pirate, among numerous other guises. Yet the record within his lifetime is rife with references to his Genoese character. In a trust deed dated February 22, 1498, Columbus himself declared yo nacio en Genoba—“I was born in Genoa”—which would seem to settle matters unequivocally.
Angelo Trevisan met Columbus in 1501, while Trevisan was secretary to the Venetian ambassador in Spain. Columbus had been brought home from the Caribbean in 1500 in irons, his reputation in ruins. Trevisan befriended and questioned him, and also copied an unpublished account of the voyages by Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, a Milanese poet and humanist scholar. Martire (known in English historiography as “Peter Martyr”) held a prominent position in the Spanish court and drew on his own personal experience with Columbus in composing the manuscript that Trevisan copied. Martire’s published writings called Columbus a Ligurian as well as a Genoese. An anonymous libretto about Spanish discoveries in the New World, largely based on Trevisan’s writing, was published in Venice in 1504, and it opened with an authoritative and rare description of Columbus: “a Genoese, a man of tall and eminent stature, ruddy, of great intelligence and long in face.”
Antonio Gallo, a Genoese notary public and chronicler, was quite familiar with Columbus. In 1502, he received for safekeeping from Columbus two copies of his Book of Privileges—the compilation of capitulations, or agreements with the Spanish monarchs, that secured his hereditary rights in the Indies. Gallo was also chancellor of the Banco di San Giorgio (Bank of St. George), which effectively administered the republic, and received Columbus’s communication from Seville that same year in which the explorer promised a 10 percent annuity in relief of Genoa’s poor. “Although my body is here,” Columbus wrote Gallo from Seville, “my heart is still there.”
Gallo wrote in 1506 that Christopher and Bartolomé Columbus were “brothers of Ligurian birth and raised in Genoa among plebeian relatives, and who made a living in the textile trade—for their father was a weaver, and the sons were sometimes carders.” Columbus indeed was born in Genoa in 1451, the first of five children of Domenico Colombo and Susanna Fontanarossa; Bartolomé was about four years younger. (As was the case with John Cabot, Columbus’s name had a wide variety of spellings in contemporary records. In Spain he was most commonly called Cristóbal Colón.) Domenico Colombo was a master weaver, but he also was a tavernkeeper and cheese maker, in addition to dealing in wool and wine. Christopher Columbus made his debut in the notarial record in 1470 at age nineteen, working with his father, and in 1472 was identified as a lanaiolo, or wool worker.
Christopher Columbus’s life story, particularly his early years, vanished into a fog of innuendo and speculation almost from the moment of his death, with competing recollections shaping a narrative that is incomplete, sometimes contradictory, and not infrequently incoherent. Le Historie di Cristoforo Colombo was a biography attributed to his son, Fernando, an illegitimate if beloved offspring, born around 1488 to Columbus’s companion, Beatriz Enriquez de Arana. Fernando participated in the fourth Columbus voyage and, after his father’s death, briefly visited Santo Domingo in 1509, where his half-brother Diego served as an incompetent governor. The Fernando biography, published in Venice in 1571, has been influential yet problematic, as five different hands likely were involved in its creation.
“Though they received only a limited education in the years of childhood,” Antonio Gallo wrote of Christopher and Bartolomé, “they turned to sailing as youths, in the manner of their countrymen.” In the abstract of the 1492 voyage journal produced by Bartolomé de Las Casas (the only version that survives), Columbus attests to a lengthy seafaring career. Las Casas paraphrased him: “I have spent twenty-three years at sea and have not left it for any length of time worth mentioning, and I have seen everything from east to west, by which he means that he has been to the north, that is, to England, and I have been to Guinea.”
Columbus probably did visit England, almost twenty years before John Cabot appeared there, as well as the Portuguese trading post of São Jorge de Mina on the Guinea coast of West Africa, but his weary boast of incessant seafaring otherwise was assuredly an overstatement: For one thing, his life after arriving in Spain around 1485 seems to have been largely landlocked. Still, after taking to the sea, Christopher established himself as a Genoese merchant’s representative, and during his years in the Portuguese realm, he would have spent considerable time on ships in his mercantile duties and could have reached most or all of the constellations of Atlantic islands possessed by Spain and Portugal: the Madeiras, the Cape Verdes, the Canaries, the Azores. Although the eastern Mediterranean was substantially a Venetian trading monopoly, the island of Chios continued to be operated by Genoese merchants under Ottoman rule, and Columbus probably visited it in the 1470s, as he claimed to have done in the 1492 journal.
“The [Genoese] nation is very powerful at sea, its carracks in particular are the best in the world,” recounted a Spanish noble, Pero Tafur, who visited Genoa in 1435, “and had it not been for the great dissensions which the people have had amongst themselves, their dominion would have extended throughout the world. The inhabitants are very industrious and without vice, nor are they addicted to sensual pleasures, for which the nature of the country is unfavourable.”
It was true that the Genoese were so fractious that they could not govern themselves and were given over to a succession of neighboring powers. During Columbus’s time, from 1464 to 1499, Genoa was ruled by the Duchy of Milan. As mariners and merchants, the Genoese had been leaders in expanding Mediterranean trade into the Atlantic realm. The first record of a Genoese galley in England dates to 1281; the Di Negri (di Negro) family was trading to the Thames by 1304, and by 1306 Genoese merchants were being given the choice of London, Sandwich, or Southampton as a destination for goods in shipping contracts. The rediscovery of the Canary Islands (which most likely were known to the Phoenicians and Romans, and were also called the Fortunate Islands) around the year 1300 is credited to a Genoese, Lancelot Malocello.
The activities and influence of Genoese merchants accelerated in the Andalusia region of southern Spain during Columbus’s life. They operated in business networks—chiefly consisting of houses or partnerships involving family members and associates—that linked the major trade centers: Seville, Valencia, Cadíz, Cordóba, and Málaga (after the Granada conquest), to name a few, as well as offshore nodes, such as Mallorca. They dominated trade, manufacturing, coastal shipping, and finance in the western Mediterranean while underwriting Spanish conquests from Granada to the Canaries and, eventually, the New World.
The only firm evidence for Columbus’s mercantile activities after departing Genoa in the early 1470s comes from the Portuguese Atlantic realm, in the so-called Assereto document, which contains his testimony in a lawsuit at Genoa on August 25, 1479. The suit involved a sugar deal gone sour and two of Genoa’s most prominent merchant and banking families, the Centuriones and the di Negros. Columbus testified that he was in Lisbon when he received an order through Paulo di Negro in July 1478 to buy 600 quintales of Madeiran sugar for Luigi Centurione. Di Negro planned to pay for part of the order with proceeds of a wool sale, but when that fell through, Columbus could ship to Centurione only the part of the order that di Negro had paid for with cash.
Exactly whom Columbus was working for at this time isn’t clear. But the deal linked him to the di Negro family, and that helps sort out a particularly tangled narrative mess left by the Fernando Columbus biography. It claimed that Columbus the explorer was related to a notorious corsair named Columbus the Younger and had sailed with him for some time. Between Lisbon and Cape St. Vincent, they set upon four Venetian ships of the annual merchant flotilla, known as the Flanders Galleys, that serviced northern Europe: “[T]hey fought fiercely hand to hand with great hatred and courage; and they were so heaped up together that they mounted from one vessel to another killing each other and striking each other without pity with various hand-arms and implements.” Columbus’s ship was chained to a Venetian galley, and fire erupted. Columbus leapt into the sea, grabbed an oar to stay afloat, and swam two leagues to shore, thus arriving in Portugal. Or so the story went.
There actually was a notorious corsair whose name was Coulomb (or some variant), but he was French and of no relation to Columbus the explorer. However, a Genoese merchant flotilla was attacked by Coulomb off Portugal in 1476, and one of its captains was a di Negro named Giovanni Antonio. Giovanni Antonio, not Paulo of the 1479 sugar lawsuit, may have been the actual di Negro employer of Columbus in these years, and thus Columbus could have sailed with Giovanni Antonio on the fateful 1476 voyage. Paulo di Negro would command a Genoese relief flotilla that December, picking up the survivors in Lisbon and taking them to England—they would have landed at Southampton—on a trading voyage. That would account for Fernando Columbus’s further contention that Columbus visited England with a di Negro around 1477.
One way or another, Columbus was established in Portugal by the mid- to late 1470s and spent some of his time in the Madeiras. He may have served as the local factor for Antonio Spinola, a member of one of Genoa’s great merchant, banking, and diplomatic families. Working for Spinola would have granted Columbus the means to travel to every corner of the Portuguese Atlantic realm. He also would have been allied with one of the most influential Genoese families in Spain, Portugal, and England—and in most any other European locale where there was money to be made.
A prominent member of the family in Seville, Gaspar de Spinola, would become a key financial partner of Columbus in his Indies voyages. And the English branch of the Spinola empire would figure in John Cabot’s career in England, as its members diversified into diplomacy there and wrote historically crucial letters in the seminal years of 1497 and 1498. Through their networks flowed not only goods and cash but information that was worth its weight in gold.