In this installment of a series celebrating the lives of renowned Italians and Italian-Americans, the author draws on imagination and research to fill in the many gaps in the historical record of Italian merchant and explorer Giovanni Caboto, better known as John Cabot.
The book follows Giovanni from childhood in Genoa until his family relocates to Venice and Giovanni nudges his way into the fringes of the city’s elite and begins to travel for the family trading business. Financial ruin drives them out of the city, and Giovanni makes a living designing public works in Spain, hoping to get royal authorization to seek out routes to Asia, just like his rival Cristoforo Colombo. When the Spanish monarchs refuse him, he relocates to England, where he is able to convince Henry VII to approve his voyages, ultimately making two trips to North America and claiming land for England. Working from a scanty historical record (historians are not even sure whether Caboto survived his second voyage), Selbo (Piazza Carousel, 2017, etc.) animates the era with strong pacing and well-developed characters, including Giovanni’s brother, Piero, his most committed supporter, and his wife, Mattea, an independent-minded daughter of Venetian nobility. Some of the imagined scenes may be a bit heavy on coincidence (Giovanni and Cristoforo first meet as teenagers in a Genoa map shop, and the adult Giovanni’s first voyage to the New World is on one of Cristoforo’s ships), but the plot is so emotionally and historically satisfying that the reader is likely to forgive this. The writing is skilled, though characters are at times overly aware of their place in history (“These are instruments necessary for what I would like to call the European Age of Discovery,” Giovanni’s teacher declares). On the whole, however, the book is both an enjoyable read and a well-informed exercise in historical speculation.
An elucidating portrayal of a noted figure in European history.