With the support of a Rothman Faculty Summer Fellowship, Professor Mary Watt, a specialist in Italian literature and chair of the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, was able to pursue her interest in exposing a less familiar side of the enigmatic explorer Christopher Columbus. While Columbus is often seen as one of the first modern men, a secular thinker who understood that the world was round and that he could get to the East by sailing west, Prof. Watt has focused upon the messianic and apocalyptic ideas that influenced Columbus. In the summer of 2011, she traveled to Seville to conduct archival research on Columbus and spend her summer working on a book about the famous navigator.
Prof. Watt is convinced that Christopher Columbus saw himself as a spiritual figure, an agent of the apocalypse chosen by God. She believes that Columbus saw himself in this role as a successor to Dante, whose poetic descriptions of journeying through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven were being read throughout Europe at the time of Columbus’ expeditions. While Columbus’ writings are widely available, Dr. Watt traveled to the Columbus Archives in Seville, Spain, in order to see the original manuscripts of his work, as well as copies of his own personal books. Dr. Watt looked through the very books Columbus read prior to his voyages, including Pliny the Elder’s Natural History and Marco Polo’s account of his own travels. She wanted to see the margin notes, namely to see the sort of things he marked as important on copies of the texts. Although she did not find any overt references to Dante by Columbus, , she noted that, “I found an image of Columbus deeply interested in the Roman Empire, the figures of Virgil and Aeneas and fascinated by the Italian explorer Marco Polo, St. Thomas (the Apostle to India) and the supernatural aspects of the East.” Prof. Watt’s research will thus contribute to a reassessment of Columbus as a figure with a religious and apocalyptic agenda, who journeyed westward on a divine mission as much as on a mission of discovery.
Prof. Watt’s research will contribute to her forthcoming book Prophecies of Paradise. She thus profited from the Rothman Summer Fellowship to bring the project near to completion. In the monograph, she shows the influence of Dantean ideas, apocalyptic spirituality, and classical conceptions of geography on Columbus and his voyages. Moreover, she argues that the Catholic Church seized the parallels between Columbus and Dante and integrated it into their Counter -Reformation rhetoric. Finally, she examines how promotion of Columbus as a religious figure helped legitimize Christian colonial policy in the New World. Prophecies of Paradise is currently under consideration for publication with Catholic University of America Press.
Center for the Humanities
and the Public Sphere
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
200 Walker Hall
P.O. Box 118030
University of Florida
Gainesville, FL 32611