This is an article originally published in the October 10, 2013 edition of L’Italo Americano. Click HERE to subscribe.
“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”. It was the first piece of poetry I ever memorized. I was five years old and in Mrs. Lowe’s kindergarten class in Geneva, Florida. Christopher Columbus is the first historical figure I can remember learning about in school. Even before George Washington (perhaps because Columbus Day happens first in the school year), we were taught about this Italian explorer from Genoa who conquered multiple obstacles to follow his dream of crossing the Atlantic ocean. Leaving his beloved home to find funding from the Spanish monarch, he sailed three ships – the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria – through ravaging storms and unknown waters to try to prove that the earth was round and instead discover the “New World”.
It’s a memorable history, and an inspiring one, but it wasn’t until I got older that I learned more about that brave journey and the man who led it, and realized that what they taught me in Kindergarten wasn’t exactly the full story (imagine that). For instance, traditionally Spanish ships were named after saints and then given nicknames by their crew. The three names that live in infamy and in the minds of everyone who went through the American school system – the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria – are actually those nicknames. The official names of the ships have been lost over time.
And Christopher Columbus, like most educated Europeans since the time of Aristotle, didn’t believe that the Earth was flat. His goal was, in fact, not to prove that the world was round but, based on his already-established belief that the world WAS round, to be the first to sail west to find new and easier trade routes to Asia. He wound up discovering the trade winds that carry ships to this day toward the Americas and became the first European to established meaningful relations with any inhabitants of the Americas, paving the way for European colonization. He never did step foot on North American soil, however. Viking Leif Erickson was the first European to land in North America in the 11th century, followed by Giovanni Caboto (another Italian explorer setting sail under a foreign flag) in 1497, five years after Columbus’s historic voyage piqued the interest of all of Europe.
Columbus isn’t the only historic Italian figure whose history got a little muddled over the centuries. We all have this brutal image of Emperor Nero fiddling gleefully after ordering part of Rome be burned to make room for his new palace. Historians at the time, however, place Nero thirty miles away in his villa at Antium when the fire started and report that he promptly rushed back to Rome upon hearing of the calamity to organize relief efforts. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to paint Nero as some sort of humanitarian. According to Tacitus, one of those aforementioned historians, “the population searched for a scapegoat and rumors held Nero responsible. To diffuse blame, Nero targeted a sect called the Christians. He ordered Christians to be thrown to dogs, while others were crucified and burned.” Yeah, definitely not a nice guy, just didn’t play the fiddle while Rome burned. Or at all, actually, seeing that it wouldn’t be invented for several hundreds of years after his death.
Marco Polo, the Venetian explorer who made a 24-year expedition to Asia, influenced modern history and Europe’s relations with the Far East in more ways than I can list here, however one of the things he is most popularly credited for isn’t actually true. Many people (at least in the US) think that Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy after he returned from Asia, where he encountered Asian rice noodles. However, in his account he compares the Asian noodles to pasta, meaning that he was already somewhat familiar with it. And in the will of Genoan soldier Ponzio Baestone dated 1279AD, a “bariscella peina de macarone” – a small basket of macaroni – is listed as being in his possession at time of death (it seems that pasta was a typical ration for foot soldiers at the time). Another prominent theory for the origin of pasta in Italy is that the Arabs brought pasta with them when they conquered Sicily in the 9th century. However, I’ve also read that the Etruscans may have been making pasta in Italy as early as 400 BCE, based on cave paintings of pasta-making tools from that time 30 miles north of Rome.
Italy has played such a significant role in world history that it would be surprising if some of the details hadn’t gotten “lost in the sauce”, so to speak (pun intended). This month – which just happens to be National Pasta Month! – we celebrate the achievements of Christopher Columbus and his legendary journey across the Atlantic in 1492, introducing kindergarteners across the United States to a historical figure and a poem they’ll remember the rest of their lives. Even if no one remembers more than the first line…”