12/30/1991 at 01:00 AM EST
Portraits of Columbus have two things in common. One is that they don't look much like each other. The second is that they probably don't look much like Columbus. Humbly born, the son of a Genoese weaver, the explorer enjoyed a contemporary triumph so brief that no portrait is thought to have been done during his lifetime. Such images as do exist—and they are many (see left and right)—were made either using the 16th-century Identikit method, based on descriptions by those who had seen him, or represented the imaginings of latter-day artists who supposed what a man of such distinction ought to have looked like. We know only that Columbus was ruddy of complexion ("tending to bright red," according to his son Ferdinand) and reddish of hair (though it had turned white by the time he left, at 41, for his rendezvous with the Americas), that his eyes were blue and that his height was above average—which for European men of that era was about 5'6".
As writer John Noble Wilford points out in his provocative new book, The Mysterious History of Columbus—occasioned by the impending, increasingly vituperative 500th anniversary of the voyage that transformed the Americas and the world—other aspects of Columbus's life are clouded by ambiguity as well. We cannot precisely fathom, for example, why he should have clung so insistently to the notion that he could reach the Far East by sailing west across the vast Ocean Sea. Perhaps it was simply a miscalculation. Other men of his time knew that such a voyage was theoretically possible, but they believed the distance was too great for ships to survive. They were right; Columbus was wrong. But for the unexpected intervention of America, he and his men would almost surely have perished. Yet the man possessed a heroic intransigence—deluded, perhaps, but of a kind that enables human beings sometimes to surpass themselves.
Unfortunately, neither the greatness of his obsession nor his formidable skills as a sailor ("By a simple look at the night sky," marveled a companion on the second of his four American voyages, "he would know what route to follow or what weather to expect") was of any consolation to the luckless natives he chanced to discover. Enslaved, ravaged by European diseases and treated with unself-conscious cruelty by Columbus and the adventurers who followed him, entire populations were driven to the brink of extinction within a generation or two. The discoverer's reputation is stained by the memory, which wars with our appreciation of his singular determination and courage and with our sympathy for his Lear-like decline. His most virulent critics today blame Columbus for all the vices of modern America and the wreckage of the paradise that they believe he found. Perhaps if he were here to witness this sweeping indictment, he might wish that the world had been flat. But probably not; he was never a man to be easily daunted by popular opinion, even in the event that it was right.