A stolen copy of a rare 15th-century letter written by Christopher Columbus was repatriated to Italy this week and unveiled in a ceremony in Rome that was attended by U.S Ambassador John Phillips and Italian Culture Minister Enrico Franceschini.
On his return voyage from the Caribbean in 1493, the Genoese explorer penned a letter to his Spanish sponsors, detailing his discoveries. Columbus, at the time, was still convinced that he had found “the Indies” and realms near “Cathay,” or China. The original document has been lost, but a Latin translation was reprinted and spread around Europe. This specific version is known as the “Plannck II” letter, named after the Rome-based printer who reproduced it in 1493.
This particular version of the letter had been housed in a library in Florence, Italy, before it was apparently stolen and replaced with a forgery in the 1950s. It resurfaced in the possession of a Swiss collector in 1990, who sold it to an American rare-books collector. It was eventually donated to the U.S. Library of Congress in 2004.
Only in 2012 did the Carabinieri, or Italian military police, realize that the letter in Florence was a forgery. A subsequent American-Italian investigation led to the genuine document’s handover this week.
“Preserving records and chronicles of our past, like this letter, is of utmost importance not only to the special agents who investigate these crimes, but to the global community at large,” Dan Ragsdale, deputy director of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, said in a statement. “Today’s repatriation ceremony signals our continued commitment to these investigations and is a testament to our partnerships, both here and abroad.”
The irony of the missive finally making its way back from the New World, centuries after the first journey, was not lost on Rome.
“It is interesting how 500 years after the letter was written it has made the same trip back and forth from America,” Franceschini, the Italian culture minister, said.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Ishaan Tharoor