His Life and His Work




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Excerpt :

At the northwest corner of the Italian peninsula the coast-line, as it approaches the French border, bends around to the west in such a way as to form a kind of rounded angle, which, according to the fertile fancy of the Greeks, resembles the human knee. It was probably in recognition of this geographical peculiarity that the hamlet established at this point received some centuries before the Christian era the name which has since been evolved into Genoa. The situation is not only one of the most picturesque in Europe, but it is peculiarly adapted to the development of a small maritime city. For many miles it is the only point at which Nature has afforded a good opportunity for a harbor. Its geographical relations with the region of the Alps and the plains of northern Italy seem to have designated it as the natural point where a common desire for gain should bring into profitable relations the trading propensities of the people along the shores of the Mediterranean. During nearly two thousand years the situation was made all the more favourable by the ease with which it might be defended; for the range of mountains, which encircles it at a distance of only a few miles, made it easy for the inhabitants to protect themselves against the assaults of their enemies.

The favouring conditions thus afforded gave to Genoa early in the Christian era a commercial prestige of some importance. The turbulence of the Middle Ages made rapidity of growth quite impossible; but in the time of the Crusades this picturesque city received a large share of that impulse which gave so much life to Venice and the other maritime towns of Italy. Like other cities of its kind, it was filled with seafaring men. It is easy to believe that the boys who grew up in Genoa during the centuries of the Crusades and immediately after, had their imaginations and memories filled to overflowing with accounts of such wonderful adventures as those which, about that time, found expression in the writings of Marco Polo and John de Mandeville. The tales of seafaring adventurers always have a wonderful attraction for boys; and we can well imagine that the yarns spun by the returning sailors of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries had an altogether peculiar and exceptional fascination.

It was probably in this city of Genoa that Christopher Columbus was born. It is certain that his parents lived there at the middle of the fifteenth century. Whether his father had been in Genoa very many years is doubtful; for there is one bit of record that seems to indicate his moving into the city at  some time between 1448 and 1451. That the ancestors of the family had lived in that vicinity ever since the twelfth or thirteenth century may be regarded as certain. But beyond this fact very little rests upon strict historical evidence. This uncertainty, springing as it does from the fact that the name Columbus appears very often in the records of northern Italy during the century before the birth of Christopher, has brought into controversy a multitude of importunate claimants. If a kind of selfish pride was indicated by the fact that—

“Seven cities claimed the Homer dead,

In which the living Homer begged his bread,”—

the same characteristic of human nature was shown in northern Italy in more than twofold measure; for no less than sixteen Italian towns have tried to lift themselves into greater importance by setting up a claim to the distinction of having been the birthplace of the Great Discoverer. But these several claims have not succeeded in producing any conclusive evidence. The question is still in some doubt. At least twice in his writings Columbus speaks of himself as having been born at Genoa; and he was generally recognized as a Genoese by his contemporaries. But his parents seem to have been somewhat migratory in their habits. The records show that the father of Christopher was the owner of some property in several of the towns along the foot of the Alps. Besides his other estates, which for the most part came from his wife, he had a house in one of the suburbs of the city of Genoa, and also one in the city itself. Within a few years the Marquis Marcello Staglieno, a learned Genoese antiquary, has established the fact that No. 37 Vico Dritto Ponticello in Genoa was owned by Dominico Columbus, the father of Christopher, during the early years of Christopher’s life. But it has not yet been shown by any documentary evidence that he ever lived there. The ownership of this house, and of one in the suburbs, establishes a very strong probability that in one of them Christopher Columbus was born. It cannot be said, however, that the exact spot has been determined with certainty; and in view of the conflicting evidence, Genoa is to be regarded as the place of his birth only in that broad sense which would include a considerable number of the surrounding dependencies. Bernaldez, Peter Martyr, Oviedo, and Las Casas speak of his birthplace as being, not the city, but the province of Genoa.


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