In Venice, a Young Boatman Steers a Course of His Own
Riccardo Pernetti had no business being so optimistic. In the spring of 1574, the Venetian businessman, who was born in Florence in 1516, was in the midst of a severe depression. Pernetti’s business was losing money; a third of all he made in a year was absorbed by legal and commercial expenses. His creditors were threatening to take away his property. He was running out of credit. His wife, Maria, had left him. The Venetian government was refusing him permission to import luxury goods from the West. He had borrowed so heavily from his own citizens and traders, that he had to get a loan from the government: the sum was a paltry 100 ducats. He was about to be forced to sell his ships and warehouses, and move his family onto an island in the lagoon, where he could at least live a dignified life.
Yet Pernetti was undaunted. He had heard, he says in his memoir, that there were a few men who had taken the trouble to build a ship and sail off to a distant world. They had gone, Pernetti said, not expecting to return, and all because of their determination to become famous for being the first to sail beyond the world’s edge.
The young man who would one day be known as Christopher Columbus had arrived in Venice in 1512, with a modest cargo of salt and a few barrels of oil. The cargo was sufficient to last 12 months, but Pernetti had found himself with an additional problem: that of paying off his debts. He had borrowed heavily to pay his debts, and now he was paying them off by paying off his creditors. And it seems he was paying them at a rate that would bring him no more than the 100 ducats that were still what he owed. He did, however, have $40,000 in a bag in his house. The young man had heard about the famous Captain Columbus, who had sailed past the islands of Indonesia in his three-masted ships, and who had been the first to sail to the West Indies. On his return voyage, Columbus had been attacked by a Portuguese cruiser and had sailed away with his crew. Pernetti took his bag and went to the Doge�