I wish I had had time for all the posts I had planned for Columbus Week at Powell History, but these past months of teaching–I’m finally off for Christmas break!–have been wonderfully draining. Only now have I found the time to write about a wonderful new find I made.
Recently, I discovered a fascinating painting by Peter Rothermel, the artist who is probably most well known for his depiction of Patrick Henry before the House of Burgesses. It turns out that Rothermel was quite prolific, and he created a number of paintings depicting parts of American history, and especially the American Revolution, which I’ve been thrilled to learn about. Today however, I want to present a painting connected to Columbus that highlights one of the more fascinating relationships that are a part of the story of the great explorer.
As is somewhat common knowledge, it was Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain who upon defeating the last of the Muslims in Spain in 1492 agreed to send Columbus on his voyage. To be precise, however, it should be said that it was Isabella of Castile whose final consent made the epoch-making journey of 1492 possible, and it was Castile that paid the lion’s share. Thus, the relationship between Columbus and Isabella has been of considerable interest, and in paintings that depict Columbus arguing for his westward voyage or, later, pleading his case before the monarchs, it is generally towards Isabella that Columbus is oriented, not Ferdinand.
Rothermel, for his part, has chosen the point in the story where Columbus is still making his case. His argument has captured the attention of a scribe, who pauses as if to ponder the notion rather than merely record the proceedings. Ferdinand, seated, motions to quiet his adviser. A young lady sits in rapt attention. Finally, Isabella–the most prominent figure in the main group–raises her hands to her bosom, transfixed.
Although Isabella is standing on a raised platform, symbolizing her authority, she and Columbus are at the same height. Because of the dark, cavernous, featureless space between them, a strong psychological line exists between them. In viewing the image, the natural axis upon which one’s gaze moves back and forth from is from one face to the other.
To help us understand what moment this is and what is passing between them, Rothermel provides a set of contextual clues–especially in the bottom right corner.
It is perhaps when viewing this part of the painting that one becomes aware of deliberate distortions in the historicity of the image that Rothermel has employed to relay his theme. In Columbus’s time, the main thing to grasp is not that the idea of a flat earth held sway (although it did); the more important thing to understand is that there simply wasn’t a point to worrying about it and nobody did. Only a select group of intellectuals in all of Europe were sufficiently literate and aware of ancient and scientific geography to develop the specialized theoretical knowledge necessary to even debate the question in anything approaching a rational way.
In this setting, globes were certainly not commonplace. In fact, there probably wasn’t a single globe to be found in Europe! (Apparently, Martin Behaim, may have constructed the first modern globe in 1492, while Columbus was on his fateful voyage.)
The charts and books make more sense from a strict historical perspective. One is labeled “Marco Polo,” because Columbus was known to have been inspired by the Italian merchant’s travels to the Far East. But it is their symbolic presence that matters more. In much the same way, the portrayal of Columbus in aristocratic garb from a later period is intended to convey nobility, a dimension of the man’s character that Rothermel wished to make plain despite the fact that Columbus would never have been clothed in this way during his life.
The painting was for a certain audience: the audience of Nineteenth century Americans who still believed in the essential heroism of Columbus and who also felt that Columbus’s relationship to Isabella was pivotal in leading to the discovery of America. For those untroubled by modern revisionism, the image can still conjure this exciting theme.
(To further explore this image, and to enjoy the other great works of Peter Rothermel, I highly recommend Rothermel, by Mark Thistlethwaite. I’d grab one quickly. It would make a great Christmas gift, and there are only a handful of copies out there!)