Originally published in Visual Anthropology, Vol. 5, pp. 211-227 C1993 Harwood Academic Publishers GmbH

Looks Are Deceiving:

the Portraits of Christopher Columbus

Paul Martin Lester E-mail or Home Page

See the Discovery Channel's program, "Columbus: Secrets from the Grave." For more information click here.


Since no portraits of the famed discoverer, Christopher Columbus, were made during his lifetime, an analysis of the images used to describe the physical attributes of the man and his place in history is an exercise in cultural relativism. Three time periods veers studied: soon after his death when the public simply needed to know what the explorer looked like, hundreds of years after his explorations when commercial interests used Columbus as a symbol for their own further expansion into unknown territories, and during the present day when a majority of opinion about Columbus and his exploits is severely critical.

See a composite picture of Columbus from all the portraits mentioned below.

In Fourteen-Hundred and Ninety-Two, Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue

What a difference a few centuries make. On the 200th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the New World, few in America had even heard of the Admiral, or if they had, could hardly care less about his achievement. By 1792, however, there was a serious movement afoot to rename the United States of America Columbia. Partly to satisfy those asking for the name change and partly to honor the discoverer of the continent, the nation's capital was given the name District of Columbia, King's College in New York City was renamed Columbia University, and several cities across the United States were named Columbus or Columbia.

By the 400th anniversary, all of North America joined in a celebration that lasted an entire year. To coincide with a movement begun in France to make Columbus a Saint, Irish Catholics joined a newly formed fraternal organization, the Knights of Columbus, to be "better Catholics and citizens," while Italian Americans raised the money necessary to erect a giant monument to Columbus in New York City's Central Park. Exhibits, parades, and festivities throughout the country culminated in Chicago at the World's Columbian Exposition. Included in this Exposition was a collection of over 70 portraits of the Discoverer painted by artists around the world spanning 300 years. Millions of silver souvenirs that included a popular portrait of Columbus were minted by the government and sold to eager collectors.

But by the 500th anniversary, revisionist authors were charging that Columbus was simply a fortune hunter who left a legacy of exploitation and genocide. The National Council of Churches resolved that the anniversary should be a "time of penitence rather than jubilation." After much heated debate within the chambers of the United Nations, it was decided that the organization would not sponsor any celebrations to mark the event. Native American groups began planning protests of local festivities for Columbus, charging that they honor a man who "makes Hitler look like a juvenile delinquent." As John Noble Wilford, science writer for the New York Times, aptly concluded, "Another Columbus for another age" [Wilford 1991:48].

Much about Columbus and the legacy he left goes unresolved. Inconsistencies in Columbus's own account of his exploits have been debated by eminent scholars across the globe. Supposedly objective historical records have either been rewritten by unknown hands in later editions or interpreted subjectively by those willing to satisfy their own preconceived notions. What is well known is this: To celebrate the end of his apprenticeship at the weaving shop of Guglielmo di Brabante of Genoa, 21-year-old Domenico Colombo married Suzanna Fontanarossa, daughter of a farmer in a neighboring village. About 13 years later, a son was born to the hard working couple. He was baptized in the Church of San Stephano, administered by the Benedictine Monks, with the name, Cristoforo. The name turned out to be quite portentous as it comes from Saint Christopher who carried the Christ child safely through the waters and was the patron saint of travellers [Hevesy 1929: 13-15]. On May 20, 1506, the Admiral, the Conqueror, the Discoverer Christopher Columbus, died without the fanfare and respect afforded other explorers of the day. He was buried, with only a handful in attendance, in a small monastery at Valladolid, Spain, wearing the habit of the third order of Saint Francis and, according to his wishes, in the chains he wore upon his arrest after his third voyage to the New World. Only three lines of text marked his obituary in the official record [Hevesy 1929: 256].


Between his birth and death lies the mystery of this life that changed the course of history. That mystery can be partly satisfied by taking a close look at the visual record. With a man as famous as the one under discussion, portraits not only reveal the person's personality but, more importantly, how the people of the day considered him. The meaning obtained from visual images is rooted in the cultural influences of their time. As there were no portraits made of Columbus during his life, the invented views reflect the hopes, fears, and biases of the artists who were a part of that culture. By analyzing the portraits of Columbus, one analyzes the culture from which they came.

Written Accounts of Columbus's Appearance

The Admiral was a well-built man of more than medium stature, 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 illegitimate son, Ferdinand [Morison 1942: 44]

In the [1511] first edition of the biography of Columbus, the Libretto, there is no mention of the Admiral's appearance. In a later edition, however, the opening passage gives the earliest description, probably included by Angelo Trivigiano who was acquainted with the famous seaman, and who wrote, "Christopher Columbus, a Genoese, a man of tall and lofty stature, of ruddy complexion, of great intelligence and with a long face" [Thacher 1904:3] .

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. However, his description (at the start of this section) disagrees with other writers.

At the time of Columbus's triumphant entry into the city of Barcelona in 1493 after his first voyage, young Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes or Oviedo was a page for the Spanish court. In his book, Historia General y Natural de Was Indias, he wrote that Columbus 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 ...." (emphasis added). Yet Columbus was 41 years old when that event happened and according to his son had white hair. To his credit, Oviedo was considered a fine witness with "uncommon powers of observation." He sailed to America in 1513 and made remarkable illustrations of fauna and flora accompanied by a detailed description of the voyage [Morison 1942:42]. But since his account was published 40 years after the event, with the admission that what he wrote was "according to what I have learned from men of his nation," Oviedo's account is suspect [Thacher 1904:4].

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." Las Casas' journal, however, did not get published until 1875 [Thacher 1904: 4-6].

Despite the minor inconsistences in the above descriptions, it can be stated that most likely Columbus was a man who was tall, had a long face, a long nose, with clear eyes, and with either blond, red, or white hair.

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." As one historian noted, Columbus "insisted on none of the pomp and extravagance that might have been his rank's observance. He lived simply, even with austerity" [Hevesy 1929:14].

Some historians have suggested that he affected the look of a religious leader to communicate the divine purpose of his plans. "Like a monk on a pilgrimage, he seized gratefully, even greedily, on all that might augment his power and ensure his success . . ." [Hevesy 1929:14]. To further that illusion, he often signed his letters with initials ending with a line that meant Christo Ferens --Christ Bearer--indicating "the religious import" of his mission. It has also been assumed that he wished to give the impression of importance by dressing beneath his class [Hevesy 1929:187l.

Columbus overcame the lack of educational opportunities brought on by his common upbringing. The native tongue of his birth, Genoese, was a spoken dialect with no written form. Consequently, Columbus had to teach himself to speak, read and write Spanish in order to impress the educated classes in Spain. For that same purpose he also learned to read Latin. Perhaps as a way of separating himself from his low birth, he never learned to speak or write in Italian [Boorstin 1985:225-226]. Even his name was changed in order to give himself more distance between his upbringing and his present situation. He used several different spellings for his name, Colombo, Colomo, Colom, but preferred Colon as it was a family name with the most prestige. Incidentally, he never used the Anglicized and presently popular version of his name, Christopher Columbus. That spelling came long after his death [Hevesy 1929:14].

No less than 71 alleged original portraits of Columbus or copies were exhibited at the Chicago Exposition of 1893. They showed lean-faced, long-jowled Columbuses and fatfaced, pudgy Columbuses; blond Columbuses and swarthy, olive-tinted Columbuses; smooth-visaged Columbuses and Columbuses variously mustached, bearded and whiskered; Columbuses garbed in all manner of costume, lay and ecclesiastical, noble and vulgar, from the Franciscan robe to the courtier's dress, and in styles ranging over three centuries. 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. [Morison 1942: 47-48]

It is indeed curious that if Columbus were a man so attuned to his own reputation he would not have sat for an artist to have his image forever captured for all the world to view after his death. Genoa was not considered to be an artistic city. The people of Genoa had mainly commercial interests. Art was exclusively reserved for the Church. Since Columbus was a product of that city, it might not have occurred to him to sit for a portrait. Furthermore, the great age of Spanish portrait painting was yet to come to that country.

Yet Queen Isabella enjoyed art and the company of artists. She kept several painters as a part of her entourage, including Francisco Chacon of Toledo, the Court Painter, Antonio del Rincon, Melchior, Miguel Flamenco, and Zittoz who is said to have painted her portrait in 1481. Morison, however, disputes this claim. He asserts that there were no contemporary portraits of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella except on coins [Hevesy 1929:275, Morison 1942:47].

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 (and given the inflated opinion of himself) 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 [Hevesy 1929:276].

Most of the Queen's portraits went to Italy where there was a fad for collecting famous faces. The Bishop of Nocera started the trend. Wealthy gentlemen soon followed. Eventually, portraits from Attila the Hun to the dukes and princesses of the day hung in the halls of every palazzo in Italy as artists were sent to make copies from established collections. Such a demand naturally led to many artistic forgeries. 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.

The Jovian Portrait

Paulus Jovius (or Paolo Giovio in Italian) was a wealthy physician living in his villa on Lake Como. He had three loves in his life: his church, his writings, and his paintings. In 1527 he was named Bishop of Nocera de Pagoni, whereupon he gave up his career as a doctor to devote full time to his three loves. When Pope Paul III failed to award him the Bishopic of Como, he narrowed his passions to two. Included in his writings is a history comprised of 45 books that spanned the years 1494 until 1544 and a collection of biographies of famous people he called Elogia vivorum bellica virtute illustrium, published in 1551. In the latter he was able to combine his two passions. By 1521 he had a substantial collection of portraits of famous people in a museum he had built on his estate. Several engravings were copied from paintings for his Elogia by the Swiss engraver, Tobias Stimmer. Curiously, a portrait of Columbus was not included in the first edition. Nevertheless, the second edition published by Petrus Perna in Basel in 1557 contained a Stimmer engraving of the Admiral [Thacher 1904:912].

There is no record of a portrait of Columbus in the possession of Queen Isabella ever being sold to Jovius. Most likely, some unknown artist hired by Jovius produced a likeness out of sheer imagination for the collection. The painting (or a copy of the original) 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, which for many confirmed that this portrait must be the true likeness of Columbus painted from life [Figure 1].

The Jovian portrait, later owned by a descendant of Jovius, Count Alessandro Orchi, is famous because so many copies were made from the original. Stimmer's "somewhat rude woodcut" used in the Jovius biography shows a man with an arched right brow with a long, aquiline nose, but still possessing a dimple in the chin [Figure 2]. The portrait is within an appropriate frame for the discoverer of the New World: on the side is an Indian holding an arrow. However, the same frame was used for the portrait of Alexander the Great and at least 20 other portraits as well [Thacher 1904:16].

By 1552, there were 253 different portraits of famous people in the Jovius collection. For the gallery of Duke Cosimo of Tuscany, the artist Cristofano dell'Altissimo was sent during that year to begin the task of copying the entire collection. In 1556 Altissimo wrote in a letter about sending two boxes of portraits back to the Duke with one containing a likeness of the Admiral. Today the portrait hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. When Thomas Jefferson was Minister Plenipotentiary at the Court of France in 1784 he saw the Altissimo 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 [Thacher 1904:1820].

Other painters were sent to make copies for various collections. A local Italian princess, Hippolyti Gonzago, sent Bernardino Campi to the Como villa. King Ferdinand I "of Germany" likewise caused a copy to be made [Thacher 1904:15]. As with works of literature before the invention of Gutenberg's press, it was the custom of the day to make copies of famous works of art. Because of this practice, the Jovian portrait is probably the most widespread version of the Admiral. A copy of this portrait is a favorite of many historians and is the one now preserved in the Naval Museum in Spain [Figure 3].

The Piombo Portrait

The portrait attributed to the artist Sebastiano del Piombo (Sebastiano Luciani ) is highly regarded as it has been used in descriptions and articles about the Admiral in such recent publications as the Encyclopedia Britannica, New York Times Magazine, and Newsweek, magazine. Curiously, it is a portrait that is surely not that of Columbus [Encyclopedia Britannica 1971:VI, 111, Gates 1991:29].

Sebastiano Luciano was an artist of considerable fame. Michelangelo is reported to have said that he could make his student "the best painter in Rome." Sebastiano had a reputation for anatomical clarity learned from the great master. From 1519 to 1530 he had an unparalleled reputation as a portraitist. In 1531 Pope Clement VII awarded him the title of "keeper of the papal seal." It is from that title that he obtained his nickname, Piombo: Piombino is Italian for "lead seal" [Encyclopedia Britannica 1971: 590]. 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 [Thacher 1904:48] .

Two questions remain: Is the portrait by Piombo and is it a portrait meant to be Columbus? 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 now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York in his biography, but with the simple caption, "Portrait of a Man." In 1891, the Geographical Society of France concluded that it was probably painted by Piombo, but it is not Columbus. Hirst theorizes that it is probably a portrait of one of the clerics present at Bologna in the winter of 1529-30 [Hirst 1981:110].

As a portrait, it is a bit unusual. All other paintings of Columbus show him without a hat. In this one the figure wears a hat with a curled border. A deep-edged and ornate mantle hangs from his shoulders. His fingers are long and delicate. His face is round, his eyes blue, and a dimple is barely visible in his chin [Figure 4]. Most striking about this painting is the legend that runs along the top. The inscription which 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 [Thacher 1904:50].

Curiously, Theodore de Bry, the famed printer and engraver at Frankfurt, claimed that a metal engraving made by his son Jean used in his book Collectiones Peregrinationum in Indiam Occidentalem was copied from a painting of Columbus commissioned by the King and Queen of Spain after the Admiral's first voyage. If so, the work would be the inspiration for all of the Jovian portraits. The engraving, however, is a copy of the Piombo canvas [Figure 5]; [Hevesy 1929:278].

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 [Hevesy 1929:277]. It was painted for Domenico Malipiero, a Venetian senator and historian [Berenson 1956:30] . The Lotto portrait is famous because it was the likeness minted by the millions for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago as a souvenir in 1893. Thus it had the stamp of approval by the United States government [Thacher 1904:64].

Lorenzo Lotto, born around 1480, was an Italian painter who studied under Raphael in Rome. Like Piombo, he could have painted the Admiral's portrait from an actual sitting. However, there is no record of such an occurrence having taken place. Once Columbus left Italy, he never returned, and there is no record that Lotto ever traveled to Spain. Although there is no reason to doubt that the painting is meant to be a portrait of Columbus, 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.

The Admiral is seen standing against a plain wall in a study [Figure 6]. In one hand he holds a conically projected map of Brazil while the other touches an hour-glass and rests on a volume of Aristotle. He wears ceremonial furs leaving his throat bare. 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 wellmanicured and he wears a plain, silver ring on the little finger of his right hand. His expression denotes a man who is intellectual, sensitive, perhaps a bit haughty, yet shows great determination.

On the parapet of the window is the artist's signature and date: LAUREN. LOTUS f./1512. The signature does not quite match others made by Lotto so (as with the Piombo) it was probably added by an unknown hand. It was originally thought, because of the condition of the lettering, that the date on the painting was 1502, thus making it possible for Columbus to have posed for it during his life. But four years before his death Columbus was a broken, depressed, and probably insane man who in no way would have resembled the self-confident image in the portrait. In addition, the Brazilian map shown in the painting was not known to exist until 1508. Consequently the date was changed to 1512 [Thacher 1904:67].

Portraits from the 19th Century

There were few unique portraits of the Admiral made until the nineteenth century. The portraits of Columbus painted during this era reflected the attitude of the day-that progress could only be accomplished through industrial and geographical expansion. Efforts were afoot by French Catholics and others to have Columbus elevated to sainthood. The movement failed largely because of his relationship with Beatriz Enriquez de Ara, his mistress and the mother of his second son Ferdinand. Nevertheless, Washington Irving, in his history of the seaman, created "a hero in the romantic mold . . ." whose "conduct was characterized by the grandeur of his views and the magnanimity of his spirit." The Irish Catholic group, the Knights of Columbus, newly formed in 1882, described the Admiral as "a prophet and a seer, an instrument of Divine Providence" [Wilford 1991:45].

Consequently, the Admiral was portrayed as a determined seaman on a divine mission. Columbus is seen as a man containing an inner, spiritual glow, guided by light from the heavens, lost in thought despite distractions, or steadfastly straight against the rigors of ocean travel. Typical of this genre is the 1850 portrait by Karl von Piloty of a bearded Columbus standing tall on board ship while illuminated by a heavenly light [Figure 7] and Thomas John Gullick's interpretation of the Admiral charting a course below deck, his hand cupped to receive a divine message [Figure 8].

Portraits of the Present Era

With people across the globe questioning the problems associated with unlimited expansion and growth, the 500th anniversary of the voyage is not set to be a festive affair by many. City leaders in the towns across America that were named for the Admiral wrestled with the best way to honor the Discoverer while at the same time recognizing the tragic mistakes made by him and others who followed. While Native American leaders speak of Columbus as a symbol for greed, slavery, rape and genocide, historians now consider more closely their point of view. The present era of revisionism, therefore, provides a new collection of editorial illustrations meant to comment on his questionable legacy rather than to provide an accurate rendition of the Admiral's appearance. Typical of this genre is Janet Woolley's illustration which shows a squinty-eyed and brooding Columbus standing on a book with pen in hand as if to rewrite his own history. Queen Isabella is shown trying to fit a jigsaw puzzle piece into the face of the Admiral-symbolic of the inconsistencies in the Admiral's character [Figure 9]; [Woolley 1991:25].


Evelyn Payne Hatcher in her book, Visual Metaphors, explains that "Anthropologists often state that art reflects the values of a culture, or that the function of art is to perpetuate the values of the society, or that it in some way serves social needs" [Hatcher 1974:1]. The portraits of Columbus throughout the centuries certainly satisfy all three points. In order to satisfy a need to know just what the Admiral looked like, early artists painted from written or spoken accounts, made up imaginative visages, elevated unknown portrait sitters to the high honor of a Columbus look-alike, or copied previously painted copies. The justification for all of these early portraits was largely utilitarian: a waiting public hearing of Columbus's exploits wanted to fix their eyes upon the great seaman's steady gaze. Later, portraits were fabricated to suit the industrial and religious spirit of the times. Still later, the social needs of the present culture demand cynical, brooding portraits of a man once hailed as the greatest discoverer that ever lived.

In October, 1992 the world marked the 500th anniversary of the first voyage of Christopher Columbus when he found, not the gold and spices of Japan, but the kindly, gentle people he named Indians. This anniversary should not honor the man. The 400th anniversary produced more than enough accolades for any one being, living or dead. This anniversary should not honor his voyage. His voyage was largely a lucky accident aided by more competent assistants. This anniversary should not honor his legacy. His legacy is mired in charges of greed, self-importance, exploitation and genocide. But this 500th anniversary can help to remind all inhabitants of a nation the price paid in lives by the native Americans who innocently welcomed a long or fat-faced, blond or red haired, blue or brown eyed, clean-shaven or bearded, simply or elegantly dressed man from beyond the ocean blue.


Berenson, Bernard
1956 Lorenzo Lotto. New York: Phaidon Press.

Boorstin, Daniel J.
1985 The Discoverers. New York: Vintage Books.

Encyclopedia Britannica
1971 Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.

Gates, D.
1991, Fall Winter "Who Was Columbus?" Newsweek

Hatcher, Evelyn P.
1974 Visual Metaphors: A Methodological Study in Visual Communication. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Hevesy, A. D.
1929 The Discoverer, A New Narrative of the Life and Hazardous Adventures of the Genoese Christopher Columbus. London: Thornton Butterworth, Limited.

Hirst, M.
1981 Sebastiallo del Piombo. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Landstrom, Bjorn
1966 Columbus. London: Macmillan.

Morison, Samuel Eliot
1942 Admiral of the Ocean Sea, A Life of Christopher Columbus. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Thacher, John Boyd
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Wilford, J. N.
1991 "Discovering Columbus." New York Times Magazine, August 11.

Woolley, Janet
May/June 1991 Mother Jones. San Francisco, Cal.