The Man behind the Painting
For most people that would seem like a straightforward question with an easy answer. He looks like the image below. After all, that is the most widespread and well-known portrait of the Italian explorer. However, the truth is that we’re not really sure what Columbus looked like and the chances of ever finding out are slim to none.
Simply put, there are no known portraits of Columbus done while he was alive. In other words, no artist ever sat down to paint Columbus with the man actually standing in front of them as a live model. The well-known portrait you see above was painted by Sebastiano del Piombo in 1519. Columbus died in 1506. Not only that, there is nothing to suggest that Piombo ever met Columbus. All that he had to go on were second-hand descriptions of what Columbus looked like. Some of these descriptions were quite reputable. They came from captains who had met Columbus and even from his son, Ferdinand. They tend to describe a tall man with an aquiline nose, blue eyes, light complexion, red hair etc. This might be enough to pick Columbus out of a lineup, but unlikely that anybody would be able to paint an accurate portrait using only this information.
By the end of the 19th century, we had collected dozens of paintings allegedly depicting Columbus. However, most of them were quickly dismissed as fakes, either because they weren’t from the right time period of because they didn’t match the styles of their alleged creators.
There were several other portraits of Columbus that seemed more reputable than the others. The Jovian, Lotto and Ghirlandaio paintings have all been reproduced countless times but, again, there is no evidence to authenticate them as the genuine article. Moreover, none of the men in those paintings look alike or like the one in the Piombo painting.
The Lotto painting is the earliest example we have of Columbus. It was painted in 1512, six years after the Admiral’s death by fellow Italian Lorenzo Lotto. However, once Columbus set off on his faithful journey, he never returned to Italy again which means that the chances of the two men meeting face-to-face are quite slim.
There are tales of a lost portrait of Columbus during his time at the Spanish court of Queen Isabella, but there are just legends. If such a painting even existed in the first place, it could have been destroyed or painted over as Columbus wasn’t exactly the talk of the town back then due to his failure to deliver on the promised riches from the New World. It is likely that we will never know what Columbus looked like and will have to settle for the image that Sebastiano del Piombo provided for us.