Christopher Columbus is again under siege. New York police currently surround the 75-foot-high bronze Jeronimo Sunol monument to the explorer, which has stood in Central Park since 1894, describing it as “a known target” to those who put Columbus in the same class as Confederate generals and slave traders. Indeed, vandals in Boston decapitated the Columbus statue in the city’s North End waterfront park, following which those described as “local indigenous rights” groups called for its permanent removal. The city’s mayor has expressed sympathy with their cause.
It may be that the only thing that, in our current obsession with identity politics, saves the man who “in 1492, sailed the ocean blue” is his defense by Italian-Americans, who see the Genoa-born seafarer as an ethnic hero. No surprise, then, that the defenders of the Central Park statue — commissioned in 1892, on the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage across the Atlantic — include Gov. Cuomo, whose loyalty to his Italian heritage flared in a previous statue-related skirmish, over Italian-born Mother Cabrini.
But those who castigate Columbus profoundly misunderstand the roots of his voyage — and those who celebrate the dynamism of cities should be his defenders. Indeed, Genoa, much like New York, was a city renowned for its commercial prowess rather than its conquistador tradition. Columbus, as Genoa’s most famous son, is a completely appropriate figure to stand in the Big Apple — the contemporary world’s greatest trading city.
The Genoa into which Columbus was born, to a family of small merchants (his father was a weaver who also ran a cheese store), was an independent city-state — one of a group of northern Italian “maritime republics” including Venice and Pisa. These were trading states, reaching east and south. Genoa had ties south to the Levant and the Mediterranean, and east to the Crimea, from which, in the 1300s, it tragically imported the Black Death, not unlike New York City in the COVID-19 era.
The city’s commercial fleet was assisted by the world’s best cartographers, and its economy, like New York’s, was enabled by the founding of what are considered two of the world’s earliest formal banks — the Bank of Saint George, founded in 1407, which was the oldest chartered bank in the world at its closure in 1805, and the Banca Carige, founded in 1483 and still in business today. The Bank of Saint George further ties Genoa to the Big Apple as it was founded to consolidate the city’s private debt into public bonds — a feat reminiscent of the ultimate New Yorker, Alexander Hamilton, who crucially convinced the Congress to assume the Revolutionary War debts of the states.
Genoa periodically fell under the control of other powers, including Milan, but at its height was its own republic, with citizenship rights and elected officials. In Columbus’ day, it was a self-governing satellite of the Spanish empire — which helps to explain why Columbus sought and received financing from the Spanish crown.
As it competed with Venice and other city-states, Genoa hatched not just Columbus but a cadre of explorers, including John Cabot, who would sail for England, along with others whose names are no longer well-known (Vandino, Malocello, Tarigo, Malantes, to name a few). The seafarers are unjustly maligned. They should really be thought of as industrious commercial entrepreneurs seeking trade through new routes in order to build the wealth of their city. Their impulse was to trade — not to dominate nor subjugate. That intent is important. One cannot ignore that they unleashed forces that led to horrors like genocide and disease. But Columbus did not sail with such goals.
With the city-state prosperity they helped to create came the flowering of urban life, which New Yorkers savor today. The artists Caravaggio, Rubens and Van Dyck, for instance, were drawn to the city, Genoa, that Columbus helped enrich. The architect Alessi designed palaces which still stand — much like the original mansions along Fifth Ave. It is thanks to men like Columbus that we now understand major cities as rich sources of inspiration, creativity and collaboration where art and invention can be born.
Although we have come to associate Columbus with the brutal Spanish Empire, there is little doubt that he did not forget his urban roots, nor the people who helped make Genoa the bustling port town that it was. He would donate a tenth of his income from his transatlantic voyages as charitable contributions made through the Bank of St. George, which the Financial Times describes as the “world’s first modern, public bank,” to help reduce the burden of a local tax on food. Before leaving for his fourth voyage, Columbus wrote a letter from Seville to the bank: “Although my body is here my heart is always near you.”
Rather than seeing him as a villain, New Yorkers should understand Columbus as a kindred spirit — a champion of the vibrant urban experience.
This piece originally appeared at the New York Daily News
Photo by Zoltan Tarlacz/iStock