Gallery of reconstructed portraits

Created: 2005
Published: 2005
Modified: 2008
Modified: 2012

The reconstructed portrait of Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus

Always looking for personal gain and improved social status, Christopher Columbus (*1451–†1506 ce, by birth ‘Cristoforo Colombo’, of humble, Genoese descent) had already sailed to the farthest corners of the world that was known to him. He had travelled to Greece, England, the shores of West Africa, and perhaps even Iceland — initially employed by trading houses in Genoa, later by Portuguese businessmen (who knew him as ‘Cristóvão Colombo’). Though it was common knowledge that South and East Asia — the ultimate goals of most European merchants because of spices and silk — could be reached by just sailing westward, he was the first to seriously plan a supposed profitable attempt. Basing his plans on some deliberate miscalculations he convinced the king and queen of Aragon and Castile (i.e. Spain, where he was known as ‘Cristóbal Colón’) to support his undertaking. Christopher Columbus made a deal fitting a true entrepreneur. He would deliver the royal couple a shortcut to Asia due west plus possession of all unknown territories that were to be found in that direction. In return he demanded a noble title and financial security for life — a percentage of all profits that would be made from his discoveries. In 1492 ce Christopher Columbus and his crew set sail with three caravels and defied the seemingly endless Atlantic Ocean in search for Japan and China, with little else to navigate than compass, quadrant (or similar instruments), and intuition. By accident, they encountered the Caribbean islands and a whole ‘new’ continent that only much later would be known as ‘America’ (from Amerigo Vespucci, another Italian navigator). Not realising his actual location on the globe, Christopher Columbus named the inhabitants ‘Indians’ — a denomination that would endure for many centuries to come. He returned to Europe with samples of tropical fruits, some kidnapped locals, and a wonderful, celebrated story in his journal. As promised, he acquired nobility and a steady income. He went back to America several times, but his luck wouldn't last. Contrary to his pretended objective of bringing Christianity, Christopher Columbus brutally enslaved and exploited many indigenous Americans on a desperate quest for gold. Conflicts with Spanish immigrants and the new local government ended his fame and fortune. Christopher Columbus died as a disappointed man: fallen from favour, never having found the expected treasures, and never having reached Asia.

How should we picture the appearance of Christopher Columbus? As Lester points out, none of the many existing portraits is even remotely truthful. We therefore must turn to other sources. Christopher Columbus's second son Fernando Colón, who accompanied him on many journeys, describes him as a large man of normal build (neither fat nor thin), with a long face, high cheekbones, an aquiline nose, light eyes, white hair, and a reddish skin. Other accounts more or less support this description. Nothing is known about the wardrobe of Christopher Columbus, except for the fact that he dressed like a monk in the last stages of his life. Before that he probably wore clothes that were customary to well-to-do merchants and noblemen along the northern Mediterranean. These clothes can be examined from many North Italian, Early Renaissance frescos: a soft hat or cap (brimless or with the brim turned up), a doublet (called farsetto, a padded undercoat with puffed upper sleeves) with a shirt and shorts underneath, a pleated overcoat (i.e.cioppa with sleeves, or a giornea without sleeves and open at the sides), a girdle, tight hose (calzebraghe) that were tied to the doublet, and soft shoes. Quite often the separate hose were of different colour. Older men wore longer overcoats, while young men tended to wear very short ones. In addition, one could drape a cloak on top of it all. The men had their hair mostly cut short at the front and longer at the back, covering the ears. Beards or moustaches were not fashionable.

Which style was generally accepted at the time of Christopher Columbus? Art was in a process of change in Christopher Columbus's time — an era that's now called ‘Early Renaissance’. Artists increasingly looked at nature to make their designs, instead of consulting the old example books. They started to study pleats in clothing, human posture, and perspective. Portraits were very much in demand (in fact a revival after many centuries of almost complete absence) and the facial features were reproduced with great skill and in great detail. Paper became available for drawing and, as it was much cheaper than parchment, sketching became a common practice. And, finally, the time-honoured fear of empty space in a design (horror vacui) was gradually abandoned. The specific style characteristics of artwork came to depend mainly on the talent of the artist concerned and the materials that were used — marble, bronze, oil on canvas, tempera on wood, watercolour on plaster, ink on paper. Anything was possible: all ranges of realism, all ranges of colours.

There was another development. The craft of printing just started to flourish, so woodcuts steadily became widespread. The quality of these early printed illustrations, however, was nothing compared to the handmade images and didn't really fit portraiture very well. But, since it was indeed the printing press by which the discoveries of Christopher Columbus reached the general public, it seems appropriate that his portrait would constitute of a manually watercoloured, printed woodcut on paper. Woodcuts in this time frame were rough-cut images of black lines on a light background, with simple hatching. As a special edition, they were sometimes hand-coloured. Since this was done in series, the colour was applied swiftly, with a limited colour palette, and hardly ever with a steady hand.

The following details were included in the reconstructed portrait. Christopher Columbus poses with a quadrant, which he proudly mentions several times in his journal (though he couldn't handle it very well). His dress is similar to the clothes that are showing on the Early Renaissance frescos. His face, hair, and general build were drawn in agreement with the description that's given by Fernando Colón. The background was left blank, as was fairly common for simple woodcuts.

Do you have a suggestion or remark concerning this reconstruction? All comments are much appreciated.


  • Journal of the 1st voyage of Christopher Columbus to America (1492–1493 ce), summary by Bartolomé de las Casas, España: Madrid: Biblioteca Nacional de España, Ms. 10255 fol. 1r–123v (1513–1527 ce). The original manuscript of the journal and a known copy were lost during the early 16th century ce. The text only survives as this summary by Bartolomé de las Casas, whose father had travelled with Christopher Columbus. De las Casas made the summary (quoting in full the most exiting parts) for his own use, when preparing for his later book Historia de las Indias.
  • Paul Martin Lester, ‘Looks Are Deceiving. The Portraits of Christopher Columbus’, Visual Anthropology 5 (1993 ce) p. 211–227. Lester analyses some of the images that contributed to many misconceptions concerning the appearance of ‘The Admiral’.
  • Fernando Colón, Historie del S. D. Fernando Colombo. Nelle quali s'ha particolare, & vera relatione della vita, & de'fatti dell'Ammiraglio D. Christoforo Colombo, suo padre (Venezia 1571 ce). The original manuscript, which was written in Spanish before 1539 ce, has now been lost. This Italian translation in print is the earliest remaining edition. Fernando Colón tells us literally (in chapter 3): “L'Ammiraglio fu uomo di ben formata e più che mediocre statura, di volto lungo e di guance un poco alte, senza che declinasse a grasso o macilento. Aveva il naso aquilino, e gli occhi bianchi, ed era bianco e acceso di vivo colore. Nella sua gioventù ebbe i capelli biondi, benché giunto che fu ai trent'anni, tutti gli divennero bianchi.
  • Some examples of Early Renaissance frescos with representations of contemporary fashionable dress:
    • Benozzo Gozzoli, Procession of the Magi, Italia: Firenze: Palazzo Medici–Ricardi: Cappella dei Magi (1459–1460 ce).
    • Andrea Mantegna, frescos that represent Ludovico Gonzaga with family and courtiers, Italia: Mantova: Palazzo Ducale: Castello di San Giorgio: Camera degli Sposi (1465–1474 ce).
    • Pietro ‘Perugino’ Vannucci, Christ handing the key to St. Peter (“Conturbatio Iesu Christi Legislatoris”), Italia: Roma: Musei Vaticani: Cappella Sistina (1481–1482 ce).

Alternatives for ‘Christopher Columbus’: Christoffel Columbus / Christoph Kolumbus / Christophe Colomb / Christophorus Columbus / Cristóvão Colombo / Cristóbal Colón / Cristoforo Colombo

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