Italy is a land of saints, poets, and sailors. This was as true in the 15th century, when Christopher Columbus sailed off, as it is today. Creativity and curiosity have always been distinguishing features of the Italian spirit and inspired countless works of art as well as adventurous journeys of discovery.
Starting with the ancient Roman Empire, our ancestors traveled not only within Europe and the Mediterranean but also to Asia and Africa, exploring new territories and establishing contacts with other civilizations. Besides ambition or necessity, they were driven by an undeniable fascination with the unknown.
Among the most famous Italian sailors and explorers of all times is Marco Polo. A native of Venice, he followed in his father’s footsteps - a merchant trading with the Near East - and traveled extensively to Asia and China in the late 13th century, recording his exotic experiences in the popular Book of the Marvels of the World. Allegedly, his chronicles influenced Christopher Columbus and contributed to the development of European cartography.
In the 14th century, although the usual routes had become unsafe due to political instability in Asia, both business and religious travels increased, as many Italian missionaries headed to the Far East to spread Catholicism. This paved the way for the great endeavor that the Italian American community proudly celebrates every year on Columbus Day.
Setting aside the debate on the benefits and evils of western imperialism, as a matter of fact history radically changed when a Genoese sailor named Christopher Columbus embarked on an epic journey at sea. In the service of the Spanish monarchy, which supported him with ships and crewmen, he found a new westward route across the Atlantic Ocean to reach the East Indies - or so he thought. Instead of Asia as he had intended, Columbus reached a previously unknown continent, which he visited four times between 1492 and 1504.
After him, other Italian explorers landed in the “new world”: Giovanni Caboto, who discovered Canada in 1497, and Amerigo Vespucci, who finally identified those territories and inhabitants as not Asian. Following his revelation, an updated world map was outlined in 1507, including the newly discovered land – Central America – that was named after him.
A few years later, Giovanni da Verrazzano from Florence was the first modern European to explore the Atlantic coast of North America, followed by Enrico Tonti in the 17th century and Giacomo Beltrami in the 18th. The former was born in Campania region, and explored Ontario, Illinois, and Louisiana; the latter navigated the Mississippi river up to its head.
The exploration era continued until the mid-1890s, boosted by European nations’ desire to expand their economic influence through productive colonies in America, Asia, and Africa.
More recently, travels have focused on extreme destinations such as the polar region and outer space. Once again, Italy has risen to the challenge with explorers and astronauts the likes of Umberto Nobile, who was the first to fly across the North Pole in his airship; Michele Pontrandolfo, the only professional polar explorer In Italy at present; Umberto Guidoni, the first European on board the International Space Station; Luca Parmitano, the first Italian to take part in a spacewalk; and the first Italian woman in space, Samantha Cristoforetti.