Now let’s get this straight! See my name up there? It’s my real name. It’s not the Americanized “Mark” Nuccio. Here’s some background. I went to overwhelmingly Irish Catholic schools. Classmates, nuns, priests, and brothers all ate baloney and white bread sandwiches everyday while I unwrapped my olive oil dripping fried eggplant sandwich or sausage and peppers on crusty seeded Italian bread. It was a little embarrassing then. I shortened my first name and softened the “Nu – chee –o’’ from to a sliding ‘New - see - o”. When people would ask me, what are you? My answer then was “I dunno!” And now? It’s back to “Nu- chee-o”-Why, you ask? “You got a problem with it?” I answer.
As I sit here writing before Columbus Day, I have decided to take up a subject that can be touchy to some but with my DNA overwhelmingly Sicilian and Northern Italian, with just a dusting of Greek and Danish (From Norman Vikings who conquered Sicily) I guess I am up to the task. Besides my “Family” has deep roots with other Italian “Families” in lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, South Ozone Park, Howard Beach and now Chicago, Miami, San Francisco, New Orleans and of course, Las Vegas. My challenge is to question all the glory we attend to Columbus both as an explorer and an Italian hero.
There is no doubt that Columbus accomplished some great and not so great things! (Both Nanas’ are now turning in their graves!) He was a visionary who was able to convince King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain - NOT ITALIA! - To support and invest in a venture to sail across the Atlantic Ocean and find a new route to the Far East. This would circumvent problems the fall of the Byzantium created when it fell to the Turks in 1453, which cut the silk and spice trade routes to the Western European. Columbus knew, as many educated people did for 1700 years, that the earth was a sphere - not flat as poor serfs did. However, Columbus estimated that earth had a circumference of only 2,500 miles and the voyage to be relatively short. It ended up so long that his crew was in the throes of mutiny when he luckily spotted land. Without luck, Mr. Columbus would have ended up as another body thrown overboard by an irate crew. Had done a little more homework he would have known the Greeks had estimated the true distance at 25,000 miles as early as the 2nd century BC. So he was clearly wrong.
Westerners had been visiting the America’s centuries before Columbus gathered his ships. The Vikings made it here often and even settled in New Brunswick. New evidence shows they may have sailed as far south as New Jersey to catch Bruce Springsteen at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park. (Bruce is half Italian). St. Brendan of Ireland probably made it to these shores. Roman and Phoenician coins, swords, and spear points have been found in drips and drabs all over the America’s. Ancient Chinese stone anchors found in waters off the west coast and a sunken Ancient Roman ship, stacked with pottery, has been discovered at the bottom of a bay in Brazil. The difference is, these earliest of explorers never thought it was India or China but Columbus continued believing he had found the undiscovered backsides of those countries until the day he died! And then there is a bigger underlying issue getting its due attention now. How do you “discover” a land that was discovered by its own native peoples some 15,000 years before your arrival? Sounds like he was more of an interloper to me.
So we gotta few problemo’s here! How can you have a holiday for an Italian who discovered the “New World” when he didn’t believe it himself? Besides, why celebrate as Italians when all credit and riches went to SPAIN! Not Italy! Well, Ok! The Vatican got its cut. Besides, Italy’s southern provinces and Sicily endured centuries of debilitating occupation by Spain made possible by riches by the discovery of the New World by Columbus. Further down the line, every western power started fighting wars to get a share, but for a long time, “Espania” had it all to itself.
Now let’s tackle other issues with the “Great Admiral of the Fleet”, an honorary title given him by the King and Queen of Spain when the riches started pouring in as the America’s began to be exploited. Yet Columbus neither lived nor visited his native Genoa in Italy from the age of 20 until his death at 36 years later. He lived, worked for, and was a citizen of Spain as was his wife, son, mistress and bastard son. He touched down on mainland America only once during all his voyages staying mainly to the surrounding islands. He believed initially that Cuba was Japan and the smaller islands of the Caribbean and Atlantic near the New World were outer islands of the legendary Spice Islands. Let’s face it! Columbus was lost! But I give him credit making the best of a potentially embarrassing situation.
Over the 14 years from his first landing in the New World until his death, Columbus enriched himself with titles, money and land. He even recovered from royal arrest and disgrace. He further honored himself by deciding enslaving native peoples was a good, profitable idea thereby cursing our historical narrative to this day.
Do we need Columbus for our national and ethnic identity? Hardly. As Americans, we have plenty of real heroes from Lincoln, Chief Joseph, to Sojourner Truth. As Italians do we need Columbus, or even claim cannoli’s and tiramisu are Italian specialties (They’re Arab). No, we do not. As Italians, we have Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Vince Lombardi and so much more.
Now let me get back to making my traditional Columbus Day spaghetti dinner with marinara sauce symbolizing the Atlantic Ocean and three meatballs formed in the shapes of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Marie. The Parmigianino cheese is the wave foam. The kids go crazy after it! Sorry. I can’t help myself. Ciao Baby!