Voyages to the New World by Columbus, Vespucci and Others: A Contemporary Manuscript from the Age of Discovery with contributions by Columbus’s shipmate Michele de Cuneo
[COLUMBUS, CHRISTOPHER, AMERIGO VESPUCCI, & OTHERS.] BERNARDUS ALBINGAUNENSIS.. “Dialogo nuperrime edito Genue in 1512. Contiene sotto Compendio: De tutti li circuli: et sphere celeste …. Nota: quo Modo: et Personis: versus Mare indicum: repetra fuerit Navigatio. Et que Insule alias Incognite inuente fuerint a Genuensi Columbo. Necnon et Terra firma nostcrorum Antecessorum Nemini Cognita.”
Autograph manuscript. Monastery of St. Mary Magdalene at Monterossa al Mare, dated February 10 to April 15, 1512
A detailed report is available on request.
This IMPORTANT CODEX OF THE AGE OF DISCOVERY is an unpublished source for the history of exploration in the New World. The author, the Benedictine monk Bernardus of Albenga, consulted Columbus’s friend and shipmate Michele de Cuneo in the preparation of this manuscript. Bernardus’s manuscript presents, often in considerable detail, accounts of voyages of discovery to the New World, Africa, and Asia. The other scientific texts, concerning distances, stars, and geography, are illustrated with diagrams showing the pre-Copernican celestial spheres and other matters of interest to navigators and explorers.
Columbus’s shipmate Michele de Cuneo, “one of Columbus’s most observant Genoese companions in 1493” (Hugh Thomas), is a key firsthand source for this manuscript’s discussion of the first two voyages (1492 and 1493). Portions of the account of the second voyage derive from an otherwise unknown personal relation by Cuneo to Bernardus as he prepared this manuscript.
Cuneo’s close connection with Columbus and his role in the second voyage are well known. Samuel Eliot Morison notes that Cuneo was from “a noble family of Savona … a few miles west of Genoa. His father, Corrado de Cuneo, in 1474 had sold to Domenico Colombo, father of the Admiral, a country house near Savona; and it is probable they were boyhood friends. … Cuneo accompanied the Second Voyage as a gentleman volunteer … he took part in the first exploring expedition … to the interior of Hispaniola, and with Columbus made the voyage of discovery to Cuba and Jamaica of April to September of 1494” (Morison, Journals and other Documents on … Columbus, pp. 209-228).
The only other known document from Cuneo about his journeys with Columbus is a letter by Cuneo at the University of Bologna (Bologna cod. 4075). However, the present manuscript contains additional information not in that text. Of the utmost importance is Bernardus’s observation beginning, “Taken from Michele de Cuneo of Savona: who was in one of the caravels. And he said that the basis for finding these Islands was a book of Ptolemy which came into Columbus’s hands.” This statement, not present in the other Cuneo text, is an otherwise unknown source concerning the origins of Columbus’s expectation that he would encounter land by sailing west from Europe.
Felipe Fernández-Armesto, the leading authority on Columbus, observes that “this reference, coming from an individual as close to Columbus, until 1496 at least, as Cuneo was, is of great value.” He adds that variations between this text and other contemporary sources on Columbus suggest that Bernardus personally interviewed Cuneo.
Bernardus’s manuscript conveys with great immediacy the wonder of the Age of Discovery. He celebrates “the means by which a way was found for sailing to the most distant lands near India, the unknown islands, and lands not known to our ancestors.” This final text in the manuscript presents a wealth of information on Columbus’s expeditions, giving precise accounts of the voyages, distances between places, and other telling details. In addition to the extensive material on Columbus’s first, second, and fourth voyages, the manuscript discusses the great voyages of discovery under the auspices of Portugal beginning with those ordered by Henry the Navigator. These range from the 15th-century expeditions down the coast of Africa to the voyages to India and South America by da Gama and Vespucci:
1. Genoese navigator Antoniotto Usodimare and Alvise Cadamosto to the Senegal River 1455 and to the Gambia River, 1456
2. Vasco da Gama’s voyage around the Cape of Good Hope to India 1497-98 including an account from a letter dated Lisbon, July 20, 1499
3. Pedro Cabral’s voyage discovering Brazil and then India, 1500- 1501
4. Amerigo Vespucci’s voyage to South America, 1501-02
Bernardus presents a long and dramatic account of Amerigo Vespucci’s perilous third voyage to the New World. From Cape Verde “he took his way through the ocean towards the Antarctic pole and he sailed forward continuously for 65 days, in which he saw no land. And from the said 65 days there were 4 with a great deal of thunder and lightning so that you could see neither the sun by day nor the sky at night. Finally he arrived at land. So from this continent he sailed along the coast to the east until he found an angle where the coast turns towards the south … from Cape Verde as far as the beginning of this continent was approximately 700 leagues; although he estimated to me that he had sailed more than 1800: and this happened partly through the ignorance of the helmsman and through various storms which drove him hither and thither.” Vespucci continued down the South American coast, “and he sailed so much of this coast that he passed the Tropic of Capricorn, and found the Antarctic Pole …”
Relatively little is known about Bernardus. Only three other manuscripts have survived: one at the Biblioteca Durazzo in Genoa, another at the Biblioteca Casanatense in Rome, and a third at the Newberry Library in Chicago. The Newberry manuscript is a compilation of various works and various jottings between 1498 and 1506. We are grateful to Felipe Fernández-Armesto, the leading scholar on Columbus and the Age of Discovery, for his reports on the two Bernardus manuscripts, the present manuscript and the Newberry manuscript. The Newberry manuscript provides further evidence that Bernardus knew at least one other person (apart from Cuneo) who knew Columbus and that Bernardus had access to orally transmitted news about a number of voyages of exploration.
In addition to the otherwise unknown Cuneo material on Christopher Columbus, the manuscript contains a number of significant connections to Columbus and his thought, as Fernández-Armesto notes. “Bernardus was particularly interested, as was Columbus, in the questions of distinguishing habitable from uninhabitable zones; calculating the size of the globe; establishing the existence of the Antipodes; disclosing divine order in the world; and identifying the location of the Earthly Paradise. Like Columbus, he wanted to scrutinise old authorities in the light of new data.” This interest in navigation and allied fields is unsurprising as Genoa, home of Columbus, was a center of navigation and trade at this time.
Further, “it is worth observing that Columbus normally calculated his latitude according to the length of the period of daylight at any given spot, which is the type of data Bernardus proposes, and that, although not specified in the title or prefatory matter, the manuscript shows the author’s interest in the calculation of latitude by lunar distance – the method Columbus and Vespucci both claimed (albeit probably falsely) to try to apply” (Fernández- Armesto).
This is an extremely rare opportunity to obtain a unique document from the Age of Discovery derived from the living memory of participants in the great voyages of exploration. Most remarkably, this manuscript presents firsthand information concerning the voyages of Christopher Columbus. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire a document containing otherwise unknown information about Columbus’s voyages derived from a friend and shipmate on his expeditions.