Christopher Columbus - what did he look like?


Nobody has found an authentic contemporary portrait of Christopher Columbus. Over the years there have been many portraits that reconstruct his appearance from written descriptions. They depict him variously with long or short hair, heavy or thin, bearded or clean shaven, stern or at ease.

The Admiral was "of good stature and appearance, taller than the average and strongly limbed: the eyes lively and other parts of the face of good proportion, the hair very red, and the face somewhat ruddy and freckled ...." long visaged with cheeks somewhat high, but neither fat nor thin. He had an aquiline nose and his eyes were light in color; his complexion too was light, but kindling to a vivid red. In youth his hair was blond, but when he came to his thirtieth year it all turned white.- Description by his son, Ferdinand. Columbus's second son Ferdinand should certainly be regarded as a reliable source as he traveled constantly with his father between the ages of 12 and 18.

Another historian of the day, Bartolome de las Casas, the "Historian of the Indies," knew Columbus quite well after his return from the New World. His description agrees with the other accounts except for the inclusion of a beard. He writes that "His form was tall, above the medium: his face long and his countenance imposing: his nose aquiline: his eyes clear blue: his complexion light, tending toward a decided red, his beard and hair were red when he was young, but which cares then had early turned white."

By contemporary accounts, Columbus had a custom of dressing simply, in the manner of a Franciscan monk. Andres Bernaldez, one of the earliest biographers of the Admiral, wrote in his Reyes Catolicos that "... He came to Castile in the month of June, 1496, and because of his devotion he was dressed in robes of the colour of the ancient habits of the brothers of St. Francis, made almost like a habit, and wearing a cord of St. Francis."

71 alleged original portraits of Columbus or copies were exhibited at the Chicago Exposition of 1893. Most of them tallied in no way with the contemporary descriptions, and the jury who examined them could find no satisfactory evidence that any one was authentic.

It is indeed curious that if Columbus were a man so concerned about his own reputation, then he would not have sat for an artist to have his image captured forever. After the Admiral's first voyage, he spent some time at the royal palace in Barcelona. It is reasonable to assume that at the height of his fame someone would have asked him to sit for a portrait. But there has never been any account published of such an event taking place.

Upon Isabella's death in 1504, her collection of 460 paintings was sold to finance the construction of the royal chapel in Grenada. At that time, Columbus's reputation was quite low as he had never made good on all the promises of wealth to be found in the New World. It is possible that some artists might have simply painted over the surface of a Columbus portrait in the belief that no one would mind

Three early portraits are worthy of attention: the Jovian, the Piombo and the Lotto paintings show three different views of the Admiral that have shaped the world's subsequent picture of the seaman. However none appear to have been painted from real life.

The Jovian Portrait

Paulus Jovius (or Paolo Giovio in Italian) was a wealthy physician living in his villa on Lake Como. By 1521 he had a large collection of portraits of famous people. Curiously, a portrait of Columbus was not included in the first edition of his catalogue. Nevertheless, the second edition published by Petrus Perna in Basel in 1557 contained a Stimmer engraving of the Admiral.

Jovius probably hired an unknown artist to paint a likeness out of sheer imagination for his collection. The painting does not match the written descriptions of Columbus. It shows an older man with gray hair, a round face, downcast brown eyes, a protruding lower lip, and a dimple in his chin-a feature never discussed in any account of Columbus's appearance. He wears ecclesiastical dress.

When Thomas Jefferson was Minister Plenipotentiary at the Court of France in 1784 he saw a copy and ordered a copy made for himself. It was sent back to his home in Monticello and now hangs in a room of the Massachusetts Historical Society of Boston. The Jovian portrait is probably the most widespread version of the Admiral. A copy of this portrait is in the Naval Museum in Spain

The Piombo Portrait

Sebastiano Luciano Born around 1485, he would have been 21 years old when Columbus died, but there was no indication he knew the Admiral. Moreover, Piombo took up painting later in his life having devoted his early years to music.

Piombo's biographer, Michael Hirst, asserts that the portrait matches his style and the technique he used in other 1520s era paintings. Hirst includes the painting (which is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York) in his biography, but with the simple caption, "Portrait of a Man." Hirst theorizes that it is probably a portrait of one of the clerics present at Bologna in the winter of 1529-30

The inscription along the top of the portrait identifies the sitter as Columbus was certainly included much later. There is also doubt about the signature. In those days it was an exceptional occurrence for an artist to sign a work (or to add a legend). It was probably added by the writer of the inscription to increase the value of the work.

The Lotto Portrait

The Duke of Palma and later the Cavaliere Rossi owned a painting of Columbus said to be by the artist Lorenzo Lotto and dated 1512. It was painted for Domenico Malipiero, a Venetian senator and historian.

Lorenzo Lotto, born around 1480, was an Italian painter. Once Columbus left Italy, he never returned, and there is no record that Lotto ever traveled to Spain. Bernard Berenson, Lotto's biographer, asserts that the artist was probably working from a description given to him by an artist for the Vatican who had seen the Admiral. In many ways, the portrait more closely matches the written descriptions of Columbus.

Bare-headed, his face is smooth, with his long gray hair parted in the middle. His face is thin, his nose long, and his eyes are lightly colored. His chin contains a slight dimple. He appears to be between the ages of 38 and 45. His fingernails are well manicured and he wears a plain, silver ring on the little finger of his right hand.

On the parapet of the window is the artist's signature and date: LAUREN. LOTUS 1512. The signature does not quite match others made by Lotto so (as with the Piombo) it was probably added by an unknown hand.

Christopher Columbus