The Egg of Columbus

In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, Columbus was a sea pirate, a high Renaissance sea pirate, a slaver and a con man. We’ve all heard how Columbus presented the king and queen of Spain with a scheme to bring the riches of the Indies back to Seville and Barcelona. Bait with the Indies, then switch to the Bahamas.

In his novel, Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut’s narrator undermines the traditional narrative by taking the usual issues with the notion that human beings discovered America in 1492. That year “… was simply the year sea pirates began to rob, cheat, and kill” human beings who already lived in the Western Hemisphere. He goes on to say, “The chief weapon of sea pirates, however, was their capacity to astonish. Nobody else could believe, until it was too late, how heartless and greedy they were.”

To astonish?

Yes, there’s stories about Columbus’ capacity to astonish. He says in his journal that the “Indians” were so primitive that they were astonished to find out that swords would cut their hands when they grabbed the metal blades. One wonders about the manner in which those swords were presented to make that happen. And then there was his parading of captured people and animals from the Caribbean through Spanish streets, which did astonish the crowds as much as anything P.T. Barnum could have ever dreamed up. Another story with some bearing on that is “The Egg of Columbus” There is an unfortunate metaphor involving this trick with a broken egg, and it’s something less than an omelette for the people of the Caribbean.

Columbus and the old egg trick.

The story is most often attributed to an Italian historian Girolamo Benzoni, who in 1565 published an account of a Spanish banquet for Columbus after his return. Columbus confounded a group of noblemen who sugested the Admiral was not as special as he might think. Sooner or later another sailor would have bumped into that land mass by heading west, probably a Spaniard. According to the account, Columbus did not immediately respond. Instead, he asked that an egg be brought to the table, and then said, ‘My lords, I will lay a wager with any of you that you are unable to make this egg stand on its end like I will do without any kind of help or aid.’ Sooner or later, somebody would figure out the trick.

One can see how the story speaks well of Columbus. He was, after all, the most clever man in the room.

One of the many monuments to Columbus is a modernist egg sculpture by Julio Bauza, installed in 1992 on the Spanish Island of Ibiza. A replica of his ship, the Santa Maria, is anchored within a hole in the egg. Some Ibizans claim Columbus was not Genoise, but one of them. That is their grand narrative.

And, in 1883, physicist Nikola Tesla, created a electro magnetically driven device that made a brass egg stand up for the Chicago World’s Columbian Exhibition. He called the machine, “The Egg of Columbus.”

And yet, there is a problem. Like the Ibizan monument, there’s a hole in this narrative. Just as Columbus is erroneously credited with “discovering” America, the famous Egg of Columbus is erroneously credited to Columbus.

Before all that, in 1418, there was this Florentine sculptor and architect named Filippo Brunelleschi who was competing with other architects to be awarded the job of designing a dome for the uncompleted Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. No one had built so large a dome before. It was still unclear how it could be done. Brunelleschi refused to reveal any drawings or present a model. He claimed that if he did any of that, then his ideas would sooner or later be stolen and the commission might just as easily go to any builder willing to employ them.

Instead, says Giorgio Vasari, writing in 1550, Brunelleschi “… made a proposal that the building of the cupola should be given to him who could make an egg stand firmly on the smooth marble, for by doing this he would show his skill. And an egg being brought, all the masters tried to make it stand upright, but none found the way. And when they bade Filippo set it up, he took it, and striking it on the marble made it stand. ”

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