- Cosmopoiesis: Dante, Columbus and Spiritual Imperialism in Stigliani’s Mondo nuovo
By the time Tommaso Stigliani published his 1628 epic, the Mondo nuovo, the new world project was well underway. While explorers continued to probe the interiors and examine the most distant peripheries of the Americas, the focus had shifted somewhat to the establishment of permanent colonies and the struggle for dominion in the newly discovered territories. Not surprisingly, this struggle often reflected parallel tensions in Europe.1 As France, England, Spain and the Netherlands vied for sovereignty on both sides of the Atlantic, so too did the papacy, in the wake of the Protestant revolution, seek to restore its former position of power. Its efforts in service of the Counter Reformation, however, were not restricted to the Catholic (re)conquest of Europe but rather, were also concomitantly aimed at exploiting the possibilities for the conquest of new spiritual territory even as the crowned heads of Europe staked their earthly claims.
In this respect, the most obvious manifestations of papal colonial aspirations are the creation of the Jesuit order and the Franciscan missions to the New World.2 This project was underwritten by a [End Page S245] subtle and sometimes not too subtle program of propaganda aimed at reestablishing spiritual hegemony in the Old World and expanding it into the newly found lands. The Papacy and the Italian consciousness, however, could not have been oblivious to the irony that while Italy had no national presence in the New World, it was Italians such as Columbus, Vespucci, Caboto and Verazzano who had guided the ships, assuming the roles of captains and strategists in the conquest of Paradise.3 Threatened in the sixteenth century by the rise of nationalism, the Papacy responded with the creation of its own supranationalist project, presenting itself as super-European, transcending mere nationhood.4 In service of this project the Papacy and the writers of the Italian Renaissance and Counter-Reformation looked to the figure of Christopher Columbus and in particular his Italianicity as proof of the legitimacy of papal but more specifically Italian dominion over all of the souls of this new wilderness.5
Often embellishing the story of Columbus’s 1492 ‘discovery’ with countless details that were not part of the actual voyage, Italian writers created paradigmatic affinities between Columbus’s journey and that of earlier Italian heroes from Vergil’s Aeneas to Dante Alighieri’s pilgrim poet in an attempt to assert papal hegemony even as the Protestant and scientific challenges continued to erode its political might. Torquato Tasso’s 1581 epic Gerusalemme liberata, for example, though set in the time of the first crusade, evokes the figure of Columbus in retro-prophecy, specifically referring to his Italian heritage and thus links the conquest of the New World with the earlier Reconquest of Jerusalem under the auspices of Roman Catholicism. While Tasso predicts [End Page S246] the eventual discovery of a hidden land by Columbus, “Un uom de la Liguria”, Tasso’s Columbus is linked to Italian ascendency in an even more subtle way as Tasso explicitly contrasts Columbus’s success in reaching the New World with Ulysses’s failure to do so.6 Significantly, it is not Homer’s Ulysses to which Tasso makes reference. Rather, his paraphrasing of Ulysses’s journey and eventual destruction are a clear reiteration of Dante’s retelling of the Ulysses story in Inferno 26. In Dante’s version, Ulysses sails through the straits of Gibraltar past the Pillars of Hercules, according to legend inscribed with the prohibition ‘Non plus ultra.’ From there he continues travelling westward until he is shipwrecked by a great storm at what is later revealed to be the shores of Mount Purgatory. Tasso thus suggests a Dantesque reading of Columbus’s voyage by likening the Genoese sailor to the pilgrim who was able to complete a journey that Ulysses could not.
Thus Tasso’s prophecy locates Columbus within a literary tradition that has as one of its central motifs the link between Dante and, before him, Saint Paul and Aeneas. As such, Tasso creates a similar link between Columbus’s voyage and the establishment of a Roman Empire that...