MILAN, Italy — Christopher Columbus supposedly stumbled upon North America while trying to find a new route to India. Now, however, a new fascinating piece of research suggests he may have heard whispers about the far-off land that would one day become America long before setting sail.
Scientists from the University of Milan report that sailors from Columbus’ hometown of Genoa, Italy may have been aware of North America 150 years before its official “discovery.”
These findings are based on a recent analysis of a document written by Milanese friar Galvaneus Flamma around the year 1345. This centuries-old essay indicates that sailors from Genoa were already aware of a land called Markland / Marckalada. Importantly, “Markland” is also mentioned in various Icelandic sources from that time period and even earlier. According to scientists’ calculations, Markland was likely the Atlantic coast of North America, which would be modern day Labrador or Newfoundland.
“We are in the presence of the first reference to the American continent, albeit in an embryonic form, in the Mediterranean area,” says study leader Professor Paolo Chiesa, from the Department of Literary Studies, Philology and Linguistics at the University of Milan, in a media release.
How Galvaneus’ findings add to mystique of Christopher Columbus
Galvaneus, a Dominican friar who was well-connected and respected in that region of Northern Italy at the time, is as reliable a source as one can hope for when dealing with centuries-old subject matter. Galvaneus wrote several historical literary pieces in Latin, and is considered a valuable firsthand source on Milan and Genoa at that time.
The document in question, Cronica universalis, may be his last literary project, as it appears somewhat unfinished. Regardless, this ambitious piece of work set out to document the history of the entire world up until that point.
Prof. Chiesa explains that at that point in European and world history, Genoa would have been a gateway for news entering Europe from far-off lands. Galvaneus writes of hearing about rumors from sailors of lands to the extreme northwest that will one day produce great profits. The friar also mentioned accurate details pertaining to Greenland at the time, adding further credence to the legitimacy of his recordings.
As far as why Mackland wasn’t formally classified as a new country or land back then? “These rumors were too vague to find consistency in cartographic or scholarly representations,” explains Chiesa. “The Cronica universalis brings unprecedented evidence to the speculation that news about the American continent, derived from Nordic sources, circulated in Italy one and half centuries before Columbus. What makes the passage (about Marckalada) exceptional is its geographical provenance: not the Nordic area, as in the case of the other mentions, but northern Italy.”
“The Marckalada described by Galvaneus is ‘rich in trees’, not unlike the wooded Markland of the Grœnlendinga Saga, and animals live there,” he adds. “These details could be standard, as distinctive of any good land; but they are not trivial, because the common feature of northern regions is to be bleak and barren, as actually Greenland is in Galvaneus’s account, or as Iceland is described by Adam of Bremen.”
‘No reason to disbelieve him’
All in all, Prof. Chiesa and his team believe the Cronica universalis should be “trusted” because Galvaneus’ work suggests a high level of detail and research. He always references where he heard certain oral stories or rumors, and routinely backs up statements with various sources.
“I do not see any reason to disbelieve him,” he says. “It has long been noticed that the fourteenth-century portolan (nautical) charts drawn in Genoa and in Catalonia offer a more advanced geographical representation of the north, which could be achieved through direct contacts with those regions. These notions about the northwest are likely to have come to Genoa through the shipping routes to the British Isles and to the continental coasts of the North Sea.”
“We have no evidence that Italian or Catalan seafarers ever reached Iceland or Greenland at that time, but they were certainly able to acquire from northern European merchant goods of that origin to be transported to the Mediterranean area,” Prof. Chiesa concludes. “The marinarii mentioned by Galvaneus can fit into this dynamic: the Genoese might have brought back to their city scattered news about these lands, some real and some fanciful, that they heard in the northern harbors from Scottish, British, Danish, Norwegian sailors with whom they were trading.”
The study is published in Terrae Incognitae.