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This Week In History

The Egg of Columbus. October 12, 1492.

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An egg of Columbus refers to a brilliant idea or discovery that seems simple or easy after the fact. The expression refers to an apocryphal story in which Christopher Columbus, having been told that discovering the Americas was inevitable and no great accomplishment, challenges his critics to make an egg stand on its tip. After his challengers give up, Columbus does it himself by tapping the egg on the table to flatten its tip.

The Columbus story may have originated with Italian historian and traveler Girolamo Benzoni. In his book History of the New World, published in 1565, he wrote:

Columbus being at a party with many noble Spaniards, where, as was customary, the subject of conversation was the Indies: one of them undertook to say: —”Mr. Christopher, even if you had not found the Indies, we should not have been devoid of a man who would have attempted the same that you did, here in our own country of Spain, as it is full of great men clever in cosmography and literature.” Columbus said nothing in answer to these words, but having desired an egg to be brought to him, he placed it on the table saying: “Gentlemen, I will lay a wager with any of you, that you will not make this egg stand up as I will, naked and without anything at all.” They all tried, and no one succeeded in making it stand up. When the egg came round to the hands of Columbus, by beating it down on the table he fixed it, having thus crushed a little of one end; wherefore all remained confused, understanding what he would have said: that after the deed is done, everybody knows how to do it; that they ought first to have sought for the Indies, and not laugh at him who had sought for it first, while they for some time had been laughing, and wondered at it as an impossibility.

The factual accuracy of this story is called into question by its similarity to another tale published fifteen years earlier (while Benzoni was still traveling in the Americas) by painter and architect Giorgio Vasari. According to Vasari, the young Italian architect Filippo Brunelleschi had designed an unusually large and heavy dome for Santa Maria del Fiore, the cathedral in Florence, Italy. City officials had asked to see his model, but he refused, proposing instead:

That whosoever could make an egg stand upright on a flat piece of marble should build the cupola, since thus each man’s intellect would be discerned. Taking an egg, therefore, all those Masters sought to make it stand upright, but not one could find a way. Whereupon Filippo, being told to make it stand, took it graciously, and, giving one end of it a blow on the flat piece of marble, made it stand upright. The craftsmen protested that they could have done the same; but Filippo answered, laughing, that they could also have raised the cupola, if they had seen the model or the design. And so it was resolved that he should be commissioned to carry out this work.

When the church was finally built it had the shape of half an egg slightly flattened at the top.

What is true is that between 1492 and 1503, Columbus completed four round-trip voyages between Spain and the Americas, each voyage being sponsored by the Crown of Castile. These voyages marked the beginning of the European exploration and colonization of the American continents, and are thus of enormous significance in Western history.

After years of lobbying, the Catholic Monarchs of Spain agreed to sponsor a journey west, in the name of the Crown of Castile. Columbus left Spain in August 1492 with three ships, and after a stopover in the Canary Islands made landfall in the Americas on 12 October (now celebrated as Columbus Day). His landing place was an island in the Bahamas, known by its native inhabitants as Guanahani; its exact location is uncertain. Columbus subsequently visited Cuba and Hispaniola, establishing a colony in what is now Haiti – the first European settlement in the Americas since the Norse colonies almost 500 years earlier. He arrived back in Spain in early 1493, bringing a number of captive natives with him. Word of his discoveries soon spread throughout Europe.

Columbus always insisted, in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, that the lands that he visited during those voyages were part of the Asian continent, as previously described by Marco Polo and other European travelers. Columbus’s refusal to accept that the lands he had visited and claimed for Spain were not part of Asia might explain, in part, why the American continent was named after the Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci and not after Columbus.

 

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