Every Italian believes that America was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492. He was The Man. He took three second-hand ships across the Atlantic Ocean and found two continents that nobody in Europe knew about. Of course, other people had found those same continents several thousand years before and they weren’t happy to have a sudden influx of illegal immigrants from Europe ruining the neighborhoods. They had come from the other direction, though, and they didn’t look, talk or worship like Europeans, so, according to Columbus and the others that followed him, they didn’t count. The dumb Europeans didn’t know who was meeting them onshore, so they called them “Indians,” as if they were real Indians from India (which they weren’t), and the name stuck.
Forget about that upstart Leif Erikson and his bunch of restless Vikings. They landed somewhere in Canada in 1001 AD, wimped out after a few years, and went home. You wimp out and leave, you lose your standing. Those are the rules.
What few historians know is that the real European discoverer of America was my very very distant uncle, Luigi Squarciamondo. This amazing fact was discovered accidentally, when my grandmother’s sister died, back in the old family home in Paduli, Italy. Old Luigi’s published journal was found in Aunt Teresa’s cupboard, along with a bottle of olive oil and a broken espresso coffeemaker. The journal was given to our cousin Ambrogio for authentication. He must be very learned, because he has a whole bunch of impressive looking seals and things and his handwriting is so artistic that it never looks the same from one signature to another. Ambrogio doesn’t come cheap, but he’s always eager to authenticate things, right there in his basement.
What makes The Journal of Luigi Squarciamondo so intriguing is that it is very fresh looking. It almost looks as if it had been made using Microsoft Word. That’s impossible, though, because they didn’t have Microsoft Word in the 15th Century, and Cousin Ambrogio would never authenticate something that isn’t authentic. He said so himself.
It seems that Luigi and his brother Vito were fishermen who lived in Paduli in the last years of the 15th Century. Being a fisherman in Paduli was a hardship, mostly because Paduli is nowhere near any ocean. Luigi and Vito had to commute many kilometers by donkey cart to get to work. Needless to say, they slept in their boat a lot and their wives and children basically saw them on weekends.
One day in the year 1490 Luigi was out fishing alone because Vito fell off the donkey cart on the way and broke his big toe. This was a huge mistake, because Luigi had a terrible sense of direction. Vito always did the navigating. Anyway, to make a long story short, Luigi went in the wrong direction, got lost and ended up in the Atlantic Ocean. Fortunately, he had a lot of fish on board, in addition to a couple of casks of red wine. He didn’t remember very much about the trip across the Atlantic because he was drunk most of the time.
He landed somewhere on the coast of Florida. Of course, he didn’t know it was Florida. He thought he was probably in Japan. He didn’t know that for sure, either. He just knew he was somewhere, and none of the people he was running into could speak Italian. Fortunately, being Italian, Luigi was fluent in hand gesturing, so he and his new friends were soon communicating in a form of sign language.
Luigi began to enjoy his new life in Florida. One day he noticed that the wife of the chief of his tribe of new friends was giving him signs of interest. The chief was notoriously jealous. Luigi knew he had to get out of there fast. He figured if he sailed back the way he came he would probably get home. So that night he sneaked back to his boat and sailed away. He did the same thing on the return trip that he had done the other time. He stayed drunk most of the time and hoped for the best.
Eventually, he landed in Spain. In a seedy waterfront bar he made the acquaintance of another Italian whose name was Cristoforo Colombo. They got to talking, and Signor Colombo thought it would be fun to take the same trip. Luigi suggested that he find some old boats and just go and do it. “You’ll land in Japan in a few weeks,” he said. “Just stay away from the chief’s wife.”
When he finally landed back in Italy and took the donkey cart back to Paduli, nobody would believe him, including his wife, who was sure he had been shacked up with some schifosa the whole time instead of taking a wrong turn and ending up in America. So the name of Luigi Squarciamondo passed from history, totally forgotten, until his journal was discovered in Aunt Teresa’s cupboard in 1995. In the meantime, Cristoforo Colombo made his trip across the ocean and became known forever as Christopher Columbus, the man who “discovered” America.
Luigi Squarciamondo, you have not been forgotten. Your legacy will live.