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What you didn’t know about Columbus, Magellan and Marco Polo: Biographer Bergreen Casts a Light on the ‘Age of Discovery’

April 5, 2017

Leading a Summer Seminar course this June on “The Age of Discovery: A Never-Ending Quest” will be one of the world’s leading chroniclers of exploration—Laurence Bergreen. Among the 10 books he has written are acclaimed biographies of Magellan (“Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe”), Marco Polo (“Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu”) and Christopher Columbus (“Columbus: The Four Voyages, 1492-1504”). His 2011 book on Columbus was a New York Times Editor’s Choice and bestseller, and his 2007 account of Marco Polo’s voyage has been included in a list of the “greatest adventure bios ever written.” In his June 18-24 course, Bergreen will cast these legendary explorers in a new light, delving into the interconnections of their journeys, their influence on global politics and trade, and the enduring successes—and failures—of their voyages. The Kenyon Institute recently spoke with Bergreen to preview what he will be covering in class.

You wrote three biographies on famous explorers over a span of eight years. How did you get started on that path and does one book build on the other?

Some scientists from NASA invited me to visit them at various NASA centers, and I wrote a book called “Voyage to Mars,” about these scientists and how they were exploring the solar system and the universe. I noticed in talking with them that some of the missions at NASA were named after famous explorers from the Age of Discovery in the 15th century. The name Magellan stuck in my mind because that was an important robotic mission to Mars for NASA. Then I thought, what about the real Magellan? I thought what would be interesting would be to write a book about the first ever circumnavigation and all the incredible things that happened. It was a fabulous adventure story, among other things, and it wasn’t really that well known. Magellan had been inspired by Marco Polo. His immediate successor was Christopher Columbus, so I knew that there were three books that were all cooking at the same time. That’s exactly what happened.

How did these explorers influence one another in their own time?

In the Age of Discovery, Marco Polo directly influenced Magellan who went with a copy of Marco Polo’s travels with him and also influenced Columbus. This is why Columbus when he got to the Caribbean thought he was on the outskirts of China because he thought he had reached Marco Polo’s China. They didn’t realize the extent of the Pacific. That was up to Magellan, who finally at great cost realized the full extent of what we now know is the largest body of water on the planet. By trial and error, they all had a direct inspirational effect on one another. There really wasn’t exploration and discovery until Marco Polo came along because you needed some sort of national will to do this and you also needed a printing press to disseminate accounts His was one of the first books to be printed in a Gutenberg version and that made a huge difference; otherwise the account would have languished in a monastery somewhere and would not have been widely disseminated.

How do you get a sense of the personality of these key historical figures you are writing about?

With Magellan, one doesn’t really have a sense of his personality because all of his letters were lost at sea and he was killed at the middle of the voyage. We certainly know he was tough, was determined, that he was a brilliant navigator, and that he was very headstrong. We know what he looked like; he was a battle-scarred veteran who walked with a limp from an earlier battle he had fought in before he started his sea voyages. With Columbus, because he wrote a lot, you do get much more of an insight into his psyche, especially his very rich, compelling religious and spiritual life, which was his main inspiration and got stronger as he got older to the point that by the time of his third voyage, he thought he heard the voice of God talking to him.

Separating myth from reality is a common theme in a few of our sessions this year, including Mozart, why is there so much misinformation about these explorers?

A lot of it has to do with cultural traditions and alternative approaches. For example, with Columbus, it’s heavily documented there are plenty of primary sources that tie him and his family to Genoa. That hasn’t prevented other countries from appropriating him. When I was working on the book, I was startled to read there was a team of researchers that was going to prove that Columbus was actually the illegitimate son of King Władysław III of Poland; that came to nothing. Then when I was doing research on Columbus in the National Library of Brazil, the librarian brought out a stack of 12 books about Columbus, all of which talked about his Portuguese origins, which are fictitious and just not accurate. But it’s an article of faith if you find yourself in a Portuguese-speaking country; people are going to assume he was from Portugal. These cultural perceptions are very persistent and apply to any number of figures. It’s really fascinating when you take a character and you look at him or her from one international perspective or another how perceptions of that character shift depending on where you’re standing on the globe.

What was it about the opportunity to teach a course at the Kenyon Institute that appealed to you?

They say teaching is learning, and that goes double for me because the comments that people make, the questions that students raise that you hadn’t thought of, the perspectives they bring, the challenges are all very interesting. The problem with writing on one’s own all the time is you tend to get inside a bubble and lose some perspective, so it’s really good to connect with other perspectives. For example, I saw this at NASA particularly. I was very struck by their collaborative approach to exploration. Collaboration makes it sound much more harmonious than it was in reality. In reality, they were strenuously challenging each other’s findings. One tries to do the same in the classroom.

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