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Christopher Columbus and the New World

The Home In Genoa
It is often hard to know how far back we should go in the ancestry of a man whose life
and character we are trying to reconstruct. The life that is in him is not his own, but is
mysteriously transmitted through the life of his parents; to the common stock of his
family, flesh of their flesh, bone of their bone, character of their character, he has but
added his own personality. However far back we go in his ancestry, there is something of
him to be traced, could we but trace it; and although it soon becomes so widely scattered
that no separate fraction of it seems to be recognisable, we know that, generations back,
we may come upon some sympathetic fact, some reservoir of the essence that was him, in
which we can find the source of many of his actions, and the clue, perhaps, to his
In the case of Columbus we are spared this dilemma. The past is reticent enough about
the man himself; and about his ancestors it is almost silent. We know that he had a father
and grandfather, as all grandsons of Adam have had; but we can be certain of very little
more than that. He came of a race of Italian yeomen inhabiting the Apennine valleys; and
in the vale of Fontanabuona, that runs up into the hills behind Genoa, the two streams of
family from which he sprang were united. His father from one hamlet, his mother from
another; the towering hills behind, the Mediterranean shining in front; love and marriage
in the valley; and a little boy to come of it whose doings were to shake the world.
His family tree begins for us with his grandfather, Giovanni Colombo of Terra-Rossa,
one of the hamlets in the valley—concerning whom many human facts may be inferred,
but only three are certainly known; that he lived, begot children, and died. Lived, first at
Terra Rossa, and afterwards upon the sea-shore at Quinto; begot children in number
three—Antonio, Battestina, and Domenico, the father of our Christopher; and died,
because one of the two facts in his history is that in the year 1444 he was not alive, being
referred to in a legal document as quondam, or, as we should say, "the late." Of his wife,
Christopher's grandmother, since she never bought or sold or witnessed anything
requiring the record of legal document, history speaks no word; although doubtless some
pleasant and picturesque old lady, or lady other than pleasant and picturesque, had place
in the experience or imagination of young Christopher. Of the pair, old Quondam
Giovanni alone survives the obliterating drift of generations, which the shores and brown
slopes of Quinto al Mare, where he sat in the sun and looked about him, have also
survived. Doubtless old Quondam could have told us many things about Domenico, and
his over-sanguine buyings and sellings; have perhaps told us something about
Christopher's environment, and cleared up our doubts concerning his first home; but he
does not. He will sit in the sun there at Quinto, and sip his wine, and say his Hail Marys,
and watch the sails of the feluccas leaning over the blue floor of the Mediterranean as
long as you please; but of information about son or family, not a word. He is content to
have survived, and triumphantly twinkles his two dates at us across the night of time.
1440, alive; 1444, not alive any longer: and so hail and farewell, Grandfather John.