Academic journal article American Journal of Italian Studies

Early Italian Images of America (1)

Academic journal article American Journal of Italian Studies

Early Italian Images of America (1)

Article excerpt

Before I enter the subject of Italian reactions to the exploration and conquest of the Americas, allow me a brief mention of reports of earlier travel to extra-European territories in the Atlantic before Columbus. The literature on the Vikings' much debated expeditions and landings in North America is well known but does not concern us here. A somewhat parallel episode, however, does enter our discourse because it involved Italians, precisely Venetians. It concerns a set of reported travels that have attracted a great deal of attention from a host of specialists but have not been studied in an integrated way because of the linguistic barriers and dispersed nature of the existing specialized studies. I am referring to Nicolo Zen's pamphlet published in Venice in 1558 by Francesco Marcolini, on which see, now, the comprehensive report by Giorgio Padoan (1990), and which, in its second part, presumably reported a long journey to Greenland and North America by Nicolo and Antonio Zen (Zeno) in the years between 1 383-1403 (see W. H. Hobbs, F. W. Lucas, G. Padoan, and F. J. Pohl).

The ancient myth of the Pillars of Hercules supposedly implied a warning that any foolhardy sailor crossing them did so at his peril. Dante assumed that Ulysses ended up engulfed in the waves of the Atlantic because man was not allowed to sail so far out toward the West. If America had not been there Columbus would have ended the same way, and for good reason, since, trusting Ptolemy, he thought China was 3,000/4,000 miles west of Europe, whereas even Eratosthenes appears to have calculated it at 6,000 (it is more like 12,000). (2)

One way or another, Columbus did sail into the unknown, and got somewhere. But if we ask ourselves, as many historians have recently done, whether he was hero or villain, we could answer that he fits Joseph Campbell's definition of the mythical hero: he satisfied the universal criteria of "the call to adventure, unsuspected assistance (in finding land where he mistakenly expected it), a road of trials, the apotheosis of glorification followed by the belly of the whale or the passage into the realm of night (e.g., when he was brought back in chains from his third voyage), and finally the ultimate boon (the effect of the successful adventure as the unlocking of the flow of life into the body of the world)."(3) Such issues are in line with the early attempts to assess the moral meaning of the American conquests.

Italy had been a breeding ground for the most daring and enterprising travelers and explorers up to the day of Columbus. Giovanni da Pian del Carpine and Marco Polo should suffice as eloquent examples, but because of the geographical direction they took I should add the Vivaldi brothers, who in 1291 left their native Genoa for the Atlantic, in search for a new way to the Indies: they were never to be seen again. Such daring explorations had to be in Dante's mind when he excogitated the epic figure of his Ulysses, new seeker of "terre incognite," 'unknown lands.' In his Morgante (1488) Luigi Pulci had the devil Astaroth recount to the magician Malagigi the enterprises of Rinaldo, who ventured so far as to see "the signs which Hercules placed so as to warn the sailors not to cross over," and praised Ulysses "who ventured into the altro mondo in order to see for himself" But after Columbus such Italians as Caboto, Verrazzano, Pigafetta, and Amerigo Vespucci did most of their traveling for powers other than the Italian ones. The good reason was that Italians no longer had enough to gain from such discoveries, since the Mediterranean-bound territories could not profit as much as the Atlantic ones from such discoveries.

Thanks, perhaps, to their long and far-reaching navigational experiences from West to the most distant East, Italians were keenly interested in the discoveries in the early years of the Cinquecento, and remained a main source of information about them. After the first generation of explorers, however, Italians ceased to participate directly. …

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