Portraits of Columbus by Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio (left) and Sebastiano del Piombo (right). Which one is the real one ?

Curiously, Christopher Columbus, maybe the most famous navigator in history, always remained silent about his origins. The little information which could be gathered was provided by his son Fernando, and it cannot be ascertained. This mystery about such a famous man let room to fantasies and legends about his descent and his homeland. Though officially declared “Genoese”, i.e. from Liguria, some people made him a Portuguese, a Spanish, or even an Englishman or a Greek, trying to link such or such nation to the glory of the discovery of the New World which, with the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, marked the end of the Middle-Ages and the beginning of the Modern era.

Even if the literature currently available cannot solve the “Columbus mystery” indefinitely, researches of the last decades set light upon the navigator's personal history and questioned some facts considered as granted regarding the historical background of the discovery of America. These studies also confirmed more or less close relations with the Malaspinas and Cybo-Malaspinas, ancestors of another prestigious adventurer, Alessandro Malaspinas, a famous figure of more recent times.

Terrarossa de Moconesi, Columbus's place of birth ?

Though the navigator's place of birth was much debated, the navigator's tombstone, located in Seville Cathedral, provides with great help. It reads indeed “Christophorus Columbus de Terra Rubra”, “Christopher Columbus from Red Land (Terrarossa in Italian)”. This origin was confirmed by his brother, Bartolommeo, who, on the side of a map of the world presented to the king of England, introduced himself as “Batholomeus Columbus de Terra Rubra”. Fernando, one of the navigator's sons, equally claimed that his father was “from Terrarossa” and that, before he signed his documents with the title of “Almirante” (Admiral), he used to sign “Cristoforo Colombo di Terrarossa”.


Grave of Christopher Columbus (Seville Cathedral)


There are no less than three towns named Terrarossa in the region of Genoa, quite close from each other. Two of them, Terrarossa de Moconesi, in Fontanabuona Valley, and another Terrarossa near Quinto on the Ligurian coast (where the Columbus family settled before moving out to Genoa in the 1480's) are 19 kms away. Various archives suggest the navigator be born in the former. Indeed, on  April 1st, 1439, an inhabitant of Fontanabuona Valley promised Domenico Colombus, Christopher's father, who was a weaver, to send him his son as an apprentice. Later, on March 26th, 1451, Domenico bought some land from an inhabitant of Moconesi, the city including the village of Terrarossa.

It happens that the village of Terrarossa was an ancient Malaspinian fief, close to Cicagna, Lorsica, Torriglia and Coreglia Ligure, also situated in Fontanabuona Valley. All of them were ancient possessions of the Malaspinas', inherited from the Basilica of San Colombano in Bobbio, where the marquesses traditionally bore the title of “Princes”, after their ancestors' position as defenders of the estates of the prestigious abbey.  The Count Oberto, beneficiary of the possessions of the abbey, would have finally taken over its lands, then bequeathed them to his descendants, principally the Malaspinas. This possession was partially confirmed by the imperial diploma issued by Barbarossa  for Obizzo Malaspina in 1164.

If we have proof of the Columbus family's presence at Terrarossa in the XVth century, yet the navigator's ancestors were not natives of the place. Nevertheless, literature recently discovered in Genoa archives suggest that they had lived in the area for a long time, once more on Malaspinian estates. A document dating back to 1262 proves the existence of a land belonging to a Guglielmo Columbus on the territory of Cicagna, other fief of the Malaspinas that we have already mentioned. Another document from 1250 also mentioned an estate belonging to a Columbus on the banks of the Lavagna River, near Coreglia, a city close to Cicagna and also a Malaspinian possession.

For the moment, the oldest document mentioning the Columbuses is a notarial deed dated 1173, in which appears another Guglielmo Columbus swearing his oath in an alliance treaty with the marquess Guglielmo de Massa, cousin of the Malaspinas.

Christopher Columbus and Pope Innocent VIII, Gianbattista Cybo

In his “Life of Innocent VIII”, Francesco Serdonati saw as a sign of Divine Providence the fact that “while a Genoese governed the Christian world, another Genoese was discovering another world, in which Christian faith would be settled”. If Innocent VIII's brutal death actually preceded Columbus's departure from the port of Palos by a few days, this coincidence between the pontificate of the Genoese pope Innocent VIII (Gianbattista Cybo) and Columbus's plan raised a lot of fantasies and legends. The most recent of them pretends that Christopher Columbus was actually one of Gianbattista Cybo's numerous bastards he begot before ascending the throne of St. Peter. According to this theory,  Columbus would have been conceived in Naples in the 1440's from a love affair between a future Innocent VIII, aged hardly fourteen, whose father Arano Cybo was viceroy of Naples, and a noble lady of the Colonna family. To avoid scandal, the child would have been entrusted to a common Ligurian family's care. A painful secret which could explain Columbus's silence about his origins.

Innocent VIII (Gianbattista Cybo) – medal

Though unlikely, this theory (which was widely advertised in Italian and foreign newspapers, among which The Times) led some Italian university geneticists to propose a comparative test of the DNAs of Columbus and the pope. And in fact, such a theory rests on a set of strange clues, some of them interesting, even if they can be understood in different ways. These data, nearly unknown until recently, can also soften the image of a pope essentially considered as an obscurantist pontiff up to now.

Last pope of the Middle-Ages, Innocent VIII was long remembered as the pontiff who enlarged the powers of the Inquisition, until then limited to the fight against heresy and to witchcraft matters, lighting up fires in all of Europe. He also condemned the religious theses of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, a major figure of the Italian intellectual Renaissance. But some facts can also enlighten this dark portrait. In particular, he studied at Padova university when he was young, the most “liberal” university of the time, where cosmology and Arabic philosophy were taught and where some theories close to heresy were developed. There, he made friends with Nicholas of Cusa, one of the first advocates of heliocentrism, and with Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, a cosmographer whose theories later inspired Columbus in his will to join the Indies by the West. But, most of all, it appears that, contrarily to what was previously admitted, Innocent VIII played a key role in the preparation and the financing of Columbus's plans.

Unlike what history has remembered, the major part of the financing of the expedition did not come from Spanish royal funds. They were on the contrary mainly provided by three persons directly linked to the pope. At first, Giannotto Berardi, from Florence, who administered the Medicis' belongings in Spain. Innocent VIII was related to them through the marriage of his son Franceschetto with Maddalena de' Medici, Lorenzo the Magnificient's daughter. Secondly, Luis de Santangel, administrator of the non-religious militia of the Holy Fraternity and collector of the ecclesiastical rents of Aragon, thus under the pope's authority. He lent one million maravedis to Isabella the Catholic, in the name of the Holy Fraternity, in order to finance Columbus. Luis de Santangel was the associate of Columbus's third benefactor, Francesco Pinelli, a rich Genoese merchant, administrator of the Holy Fraternity and pontifical collector as well as the pope's nephew. In his will, the navigator, without mention of his sponsors, repeated that “the Royal Highnesses only adopted my proposition, but they did not spend and did not want to spend more than one million maravedis [amount lent by Luis de Santangel], and I had to find the balance”.

It is also common knowledge that the kings of Spain, at first reluctant to support Columbus's plan, were talked into that by Alessandro Geraldini, a navigator's friend's brother, who also happened to be a nuncio of Innocent VIII's. It was not before the XIXth century and Pie IX's pontificate that Innocent VIII's unassuming but decisive role was mentioned concerning the support provided to Columbus. In 1851, the pontiff declared unequivocally : “when one discovers these documents concerning a part of the New World discovered by Christopher Columbus, they will know for sure that the latter undertook his excellent plan under the Holy See's impulse and support.” In a document dated from the same period, Cardinal Donnet insisted that Columbus had submitted his plan to Innocent VIII before presenting it to the Spanish monarchs.

Rome's major role in the financial support provided to Christopher Columbus cannot be denied, though it also appears that Innocent VIII's role was more than a financial one. Converging sources from Columbus's descendants and from the Court of Spain suggest that, during the elaboration of his plan, Columbus could gain access to “antique” literature kept in the personal library of Innocent VIII, known as “versed in geography”, about lands to discover in the “Dark Ocean”. It is also common knowledge that, during a stay in Rome, Martin Alonzo Pinzòn, the pilot of Columbus's expedition, would have been handed a copy of a map mentioning a land without name in the western Ocean. The comment made by the Dominican chronicler Bartolome de Las Casas, a friend of the navigator's, saying that “he [Christopher Columbus] talked about the lands he was going to discover as if he had already visited them (…), which I do not doubt personally” would thus be explained. 


Martin Alonzo Pinzón

Nobody knows where this map is today. Yet one knows that a controversial map from the XVIth century drawn by a Turkish admiral from Greek descent, Piri Reis, is exhibited at the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul and is still a scientific mystery. Indeed, one can see there a statement of the American and maybe the Antarctic coasts which is far more detailed that it could have been with the knowledges of the time. Though, on the fringe of the document, Piri Reis mentioned Columbus and wrote that “Columbus had in his hands a document in which he learnt that coasts and islands existed at the far end of the Western Sea”. He eventually added that “the littorals and coasts mentioned on this map come from Columbus's map”. Could Piri Reis's surprising map have been drawn after the document coming from Innocent VIII's library, probably used by Columbus to draw one of his maps, which later inspired the Turkish admiral ?

Piri Reis's map on the left (1513), redrawn on the right

Innocent VIII's role in Columbus's adventure was forgotten with the pope's brutal and mysterious death, a few days before Columbus's departure to the New World. His successor was Rodrigo Borgia, elected under the name of Alexander VI. A Spanish pope, very close to Ferdinand of Aragon's court, and famous for his immoderate use of poisonous substances. After more than a century of oblivion, Innocent VIII's memory and his role in the discovery of America were reminded by his great-nephew Alderano Cybo-Malaspina on the commemorative plaque he had erected in St. Peter's Basilica in 1621: (…) Novi Orbis Suo Aevo Inventi. Gloria. (...)”: “(...) The glory of the discovery of the New World during his reign (…).” A glory which was due to Innocent VIII de jure if not de facto.

commemorative plaque of Innocent VIII, ordered by Alderano Cybo Malaspinas


Pending questions and mysteries

Though the filiation between Christopher Columbus and Gianbattista Cybo seems hardly probable, there were nevertheless links between the two Ligurian compatriots. This relationship is not clear even now and it still does not explain the mysteries remaining about the navigator's and the pope's lives.

Among these mysteries, the question of the means and circumstances which allowed Columbus, apparently the son of a modest weaver, to study at the University of Pavia. Another point is the reality of Columbus's wish to reach the Indies by the West: indeed, a reliable researcher recently proved that the mathematical, geographical and astronomical knowledges gathered by Columbus would have allowed him to deduce quite easily that there was another land between Europe and Asia. From this point of view, it is worth mentioning that Columbus was apparently in close relation in Spain and Portugal with Jewish and Heterodox Christian circles, where some politico-religious utopia were elaborated, which considered a New Land as a first choice place to develop.

About Gianbattista Cybo, one is bound to be surprised by the unassuming, almost clandestine feature of his support to Columbus's plan. A pope who had a dual personality, combining an outward appearance of strict conservatism with an acute interest in science and in theories sometimes close to heterodoxy. This interest may have come from his studies at the University of Padua, nest of numerous small groups and confraternities enhancing ideas which were quite close to those developed in the circles in which Columbus moved. Finally, the exact nature and origin of the “antique” documents transmitted to Columbus by Cybo can also be questioned. From this point of view, one must acknowledge that the second half of the XVth century witnessed the Fall of Constantinople (1453) and the transfer towards Europe (Greece and Italy) of the knowledges gathered by Byzantium since the Antiquity,  still unknown in Western Europe. If this translation allowed to discover the texts of antique philosophers which will lead to the Italian Renaissance, one must admit the possible existence, among this large literature, of ancient works by Greek geographers or cosmographers, potentially mentioning surprising information, which landed in the hands of careful and wise persons who did not publish them. It is worth mentioning here that the Cybos themselves were of Greek descent and that Gianbattista's father, Arano, was born on Rhodes island.

There are undoubtedly other surprises in store regarding the history of the discovery of America ...