01 July 2010

The Elusive Columbus

Perhaps the most famous depiction of Chris:
"Christophorus Columbus" - by Sebastiano del Piombo, c. 1520.

At the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, the organizers exhibited seventy-one portraits of the explorer Christopher Columbus (or Cristobal Colon, Cristoval Colombo, etc.). Few of them, however, matched contemporary descriptions of Columbus, and none could be authenticated as painted during his lifetime (1451-1506).

So, no one is really sure what one of the most famous people of the last millennium actually looked like. Evidently, during the fourteen years after his "discovery" of America, no one thought to set the Genoese Admiral of the Ocean Sea down and paint him -- call it the William Shakespeare syndrome.

When compared, few of the portraits have much in common. On a few details, though, most of the artists agreed: Columbus was clean-shaven, a little bald, liked to wear some type of weird nun hat. And they don't even really agree on those.

I present below, for your Cabinet-viewing pleasure, a selection of these portraits (with a running commentary, naturally). Enjoy!

The following are portraits from the sixteenth century:

Unknown artist, 16th century. Nicknamed "The Silver Fox" (El Zorro Plateado).

Unknown artist, 16th century. Close-up!

By Ridolfo Ghirlandaio, c. 1520. One of the more well-known portraits of Double C.

From the altarpiece Virgen de los Navegantes, by Alejo Fernandez, early 16th century. The only officially-licensed portrait by the Spanish Crown.

A 19th-century engraving of Sir Anthony Moore's (alias Sr. Antonio Moro) 1570 portrait.  (Library of Congress) A goatee AND a ruffled collar! How good of Columbus to keep up with late sixteenth-century fashion! Also, notice the tiny Moore in on the lower left.

By famous seventeenth-century Dutch engraver Theodore de Bry, c. 1590. De Bry knew Chris to be a great lover of snails and monkeys.

Columbus, center, speaking Spantalian to some Asians, from an early modern engraving.

The nineteenth century brought numerous fresh attempts to capture the likeness of a centuries-dead man based on little or no evidence. Makes sense, I think.

A bearded Columbus! By John Stevens Cabot Abbot, 1875. Jesus with a Columbus hat?

Chris putting the moves on some poor Native American woman, from the 1875 fresco Columbus and the Indian Maiden by Constantino Brumidi at the U.S. Capitol.

From a late 19th-century banknote, Columbus the Elizabethan troubadour. (Library of Congress)

By John Sartain, 19th century

A portrait commissioned by Columbus to commemorate his 400th birthday, 1892. (Library of Congress)

Late nineteenth century advertisement showing Columbus' love of monkeys (again) tobacco, and Ohio.

The caption from Italian reads: "Columbus and son at the convent of La Rábída, approaching prior Juan Pérez, who is surrounded by poor people." A roguish Chris with penetrating gaze! 
Alfred Dehodencq, 19th century.

Take your choice: Columbus with hat (L) and without (R). Currier and Ives, 1892.

Sans hat, bearded, and with a wonderfully sculpted shock of hair. 
From Charles Morris' Pictorial History of the United States, 1907.

Some monks, a kneeling bearded dude, and a guy in a skirt wait for the Navigator to give up the ghost.
"The Death of Columbus," lithograph by L. Prang & Co., 1893.

And, finally, some more modern depictions:

For when you need to disguise yourself as an early modern explorer. Only $11USD!

Ah! What Columbus was after all along. How poignant! Not sure these are very valuable, though.

Well, gang, it's been a good time for all. See you in the next edition of the Cabinet!

- Your Humble Scribbler


  1. you know columbus killed native americans("Indians" was what he called them) just for sport right. He did not discover but rediscovered the continents

  2. You don't say! Every day the Prof learns something new! Thank you, Dear Reader.

  3. May I suggest a new astounding look at the old Columbus puzzle:
    Historian Manuel Rosa’s Lecture:
    "The Secret Identity of Columbus: Peasant to Viceroy in 33 days"
    Rosa will be accompanied by Eric Steele, co-author of The Columbus Mystery Revealed

    When: Saturday, September 7, 2012, 7 pm
    Location: Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture
    6500 S. Pulaski Rd., Chicago IL 60629


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