Word Of Viking Settlements In North America Reached Italy 150 Years Before Columbus

Leif Erikson is thought to have been the first European to set foot in North America. New evidence indicates word of his explorations may have made it to Genoa, 150 years before Columbus. Image Credit: Painting by Hans Dahl CC0

Word of the Viking exploration of North America appears to have reached Genoa, Christopher Columbus's hometown in Italy, centuries before Columbus sailed. This conclusion, based on a translation of a 14th-century history raises the possibility the Viking settlements in Vinland had previously unrecognized influence on subsequent events.

Around 1345, Galvaneus Flamma, a Milanese Dominican friar, wrote a document called Cronica universalis. The original was lost, but a copy made 50 years later was rediscovered in 2013. Professor Paolo Chiesa, an expert in Medieval Latin at the University of Milan, has made a translation. In the journal Terrae Incognitae, Chiesa reports that a portion of the text refers to Markalada, west of Greenland.

Four Icelandic sagas include accounts of Markland, thought to be modern Newfoundland or Labrador.

Flamma attributes this information to Genoese sailors, and Chiesa sees this as evidence that knowledge of the Viking voyages had reached Italy 150 years before Columbus arrived in the Americas.

"It has long been noticed that the 14th-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,” Chiesa writes. “These notions about the north-west 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 are in the presence of the first reference to the American continent, albeit in an embryonic form, in the Mediterranean area," Chiesa said.

Flamma was a historian, and in Cronica universalis he tackled the ambitious goal of writing a history of the entire world (“all of creation”). Unsurprisingly, he never finished it. Flamma did, however, show an impressive familiarity with the knowledge the Vikings had acquired. He refers to Greenland as being barren and inhabited by white bears, seeing through Erik the Red's PR spin. Although Flamma claimed Markalada was inhabited by giants, he called it “rich in trees” which Chiesa argues is “Not unlike the wooded Markland of the Grœnlendinga Saga.” 

Chiesa considers Flamma a trustworthy writer because he cited his sources, acknowledging he often relied on oral accounts, but used written verification where he could. Flamma attributed tales of Markland and other northern places to seafarers, without being specific, but Genoa was his closest port.

Claims have been made that Basque fishermen or Malian sailors reached the Americas before Columbus, but these are generally considered refuted. Nor does Chiesa think Flamma's work is evidence sailors from Genoa or other Italian cities had been there themselves by Flamma's time. Instead, he thinks word had spread from the Vikings. “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,” he argues.

Chiesa doesn't speculate on whether Columbus had heard the same accounts as Flamma. If he had, it might explain his extraordinary confidence his small ships could reach land, something he convinced the Spanish court of despite massively underestimating Earth's size and Asia's eastward extent.

It's generally considered that Columbus did not "discover" America, due to the existence of people who had been there for at least 21,000 years. However, if Chiesa is right, the news Columbus brought back may not have even been entirely unknown to southern Europe.

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