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Anecdotes from the Archive

Will the Real Christopher Columbus Please Stand Up?

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What did Christopher Columbus look like? That’s actually a tough question even today, as we celebrate his 1492 discovery of the Americas. No portraits definitively made in his lifetime survive, and perhaps none were made.

In 1893, however, Scientific American and other publications reported evidence that a true likeness, produced by none other than the Italian artist Titian, had been found two or three years earlier and had since been authenticated.

A portrait of Columbus attributed to Titian in 1893

The article, in our July 15, 1893 issue, notes that only a few portraits of Columbus fitted descriptions given by the explorer’s contemporaries and by his son Fernando. Those accounts indicated that he was “was a vigorous man, of tall stature, with blond beard and hair, clear complexion and blue eyes,” just as the man in the painting was depicted (although you can't that from the black and white image shown here).

The painting, the story explains, was discovered by a Neopolitan antiquarian identified as a Mr. Cannavina, who uncovered the image of Columbus under glue that had been applied in the 1790s by a family in Bologna to mask the art from feared French invaders. Various signs—among them, a blond beard, a table covered with copper nautical instruments, a fragment of an inscription that could have included Columbus’s name, and a small Havana spaniel at the subject’s feet—induced Cannavina to seek the opinion of “a certain number of erudite Neapolitans” as well as of an art critic named Alexander d’Agiout. These authorities concluded that the painting was indeed of the great explorer. They were convinced in part by evidence that the instruments on the table were ones that Ferdinand of Castille had given to Columbus and by the presence of a dog from the Americas, which seemed “to have been put there as a true certificate of origin.”

As for the artist being Titian, the piece says, “It is only necessary to inspect it to think of attributing it to Titian. None of those who have seen it has hesitated upon this point.” The experts determined that the portrait was made “in the first years of the sixteenth century, either from nature or from a sketch of the time,” although the painter made the explorer look younger than he would have been at the time. “It seems to us,” the story concludes, “that this portrait really represents Columbus.”

But does it, and was it painted by Titian? I suspect the answer to both questions is no, because I can’t find any mention or copies of the image anywhere. Perhaps someone out there can enlighten us?

Image credits: Scientific American

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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