In the late 13th century, two Genoese brothers with a musical surname embarked on the daunting adventure of finding an alternative spice route. Their idea was to reach India with two galleys, aided by sailors from Majorca, but after crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, they were never heard from again. They may have shipwrecked while attempting to sail around Africa, but some suggest they headed westward, potentially opening the door that Christopher Columbus later followed. These pioneers were named Ugolino and Vandino (or Guido) Vivaldi.

It’s common for Christopher Columbus’s arrival in America in 1492 to be clouded by possible earlier voyages by navigators. Indeed, evidence shows that some arrived earlier, as evidenced by archaeological excavations at the Viking site of L’Anse aux Meadows (Newfoundland, Canada) and references to Vinland. We won’t dwell on the argument that it was a very modest settlement (just over fifty inhabitants), ephemeral, and forgotten.

Other predecessors remain largely hypothetical, such as the so-called “prenaut”, the sailor who allegedly informed Columbus of a visit to a new world. This figure is often too readily identified with someone like Alonso Sánchez de Huelva, though the name does not appear in contemporary documents. In fact, it was the Inca Garcilaso who first mentioned it in 1609, in his Comentarios Reales, based on stories he had heard as a child.

The archaeological site of L'Anse aux Meadows
The archaeological site of L’Anse aux Meadows. Credit: Dylan Kereluk / Wikimedia Commons

Lastly, there are sensationalist theories that lend credibility to mere legends like that of St. Brendan or the last Templars – they couldn’t be missing, of course – or even go back in time to antiquity to propose alleged journeys by Egyptians, Phoenicians, Romans, and generally any other civilization whose presence across the Atlantic seems sufficiently extravagant. Forgeries of pieces with hieroglyphic alphabets tend to surface cyclically.

In that vein, not long ago Erdogan updated the Ottoman claim regarding this matter with full conviction, brandishing the inevitable Piri Reis map despite it being proven to have been made in 1513. And there are also those who point to the Chinese fleet of Zheng He, which did exist and made seven voyages but always sailed southwest, towards the Indian coast of Africa and its surroundings; in other words, in the opposite direction of America.

Conversely, the expeditions that actually attempted to cross the ocean often get overlooked. Some time ago, we talked about an unusual one, organized by Abubakari II, the King of Mali, eager to know what lay on the other side and disappeared at sea in 1312. But there were more, such as those of English sailors departing from Bristol or the Portuguese from the Azores, in both cases in search of those rich islands that legends placed in the middle of nowhere (Hy-Brasil, Antilia…).

The various branches of the Spice Route
The various branches of the Spice Route. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

This impulse to unravel the secrets of the Atlantic also included, despite having worse access, Italian navigators; primarily from Genoa, one of the maritime powers of the time, with the two brothers we mentioned at the beginning being of that origin. The voyage they undertook turned out to be truly prophetic, although we barely know the details, much like we’re ignorant of their lives. We only know that they were involved in the spice trade, whose negative circumstances spurred them to action.

The downturn in the business came in 1291, when the Mamluk Sultan Al-Ashraf Khalil captured Acre from the Christians, forcing them to evacuate Tyre, Sidon, and Beirut, and definitively expelling them from the Holy Land. This posed a problem for the caravan routes coming from Asia, leading to a drastic reduction in spice shipments, causing demand to soar along with prices. Alternatives had to be found, and the only one that seemed to avoid Islamic territory was to open a maritime route ad partes Indiae per mare oceanum.

Several merchants joined forces to finance two galleys, led by Tedisio Doria. The Dorias would later fund Portuguese and Spanish explorations two centuries later, and in fact, in Seville, a banker from that family, Francesco, contributed capital to Columbus’s voyage. The Vivaldi brothers’ ships were named Allegranza and Sant’Antonio, carrying a total of three hundred sailors plus a couple of Franciscan friars, with their pilots being from Majorca (they boarded at the first stop of the journey, which was in the Balearic Islands).

As mentioned earlier, we don’t know what the plan was or what their itinerary was since the main historical source for this episode is the Annali that Jacobo Doria (Tedisio’s uncle) presented to the authorities of Genoa in 1294. It reads:

Tedisio d’Oria, Ugolino Vivaldi, and a brother of the latter, along with some citizens of Genoa, initiated an expedition that no one had ever attempted before. They splendidly outfitted two galleys. After stocking them with provisions, water, and other necessities, they sent them on their route in May, towards the Strait of Ceuta so that the galleys could sail across the ocean to India and return with useful merchandise. The two aforementioned brothers went aboard the ships in person, as did two Franciscan friars; all of which truly amazed those who witnessed it, as well as those who heard of it. After the travelers passed through a place called Gozora, there was no further news of them. May God watch over them and bring them safely back.

Cover of the Libro del conosçimiento (Book of knowledge)
Cover of the Libro del conosçimiento (Book of knowledge). Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

There are other references that provide the name of that brother (Vandino), whom Tedisio says did not accompany Ugolino on board, and indicate that they carried provisions for a very long time: no less than ten years. The Libro del conosçimiento (a geographical-literary manual written by a Castilian friar in the second half of the 14th century that describes the world from the perspective of a traveler, following Marco Polo’s model) mentions the Vivaldis, saying they shipwrecked in the Guinea region and that Ugolino’s son was found searching for his father.

Indeed, that offspring was named Sorleone and organized a rescue expedition in 1315 since nothing more was heard from the two galleys. And he wasn’t the only one because three years earlier another one had departed, captained by Lanceloto Malocello, who decided to first look in the Canaries, as one of the archipelago’s islets was called (and still is) Alegranza, like one of the galleys. Except, on the way, he found an island he named after himself (Lanzarote) and liked it so much that he changed plans on the fly, staying to live on it for two decades until the natives rebelled against the Europeans, and he had to leave.

The Guinea region wasn’t what we would understand as such today but rather a term used to refer to all of Black Africa. The Libro del conosçimiento places the episode in Magdasor, which could perhaps be Mogadishu (Somalia), especially given not only the phonetic similarity but also because it describes it as close to the kingdom of Prester John, traditionally located in the Horn of Africa. This would suggest that the Vivaldis managed to round the Cape of Good Hope and sail northward in the Indian Ocean.

Map of Africa by Abraham Ortellius (16th century) showing the kingdom of Preste John.
Map of Africa by Abraham Ortellius (16th century) showing the kingdom of Preste John. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

However, Prester John was nothing more than a persistent legend, and furthermore, that book has a markedly fantastic tone. Not to mention that other details written by the friar seem to indicate that he is talking about the Atlantic African coast since the Senegal River, the Mali Empire are mentioned, as well as other places like Senegambia. Precisely, the Gambia River was the scene of an encounter between the Genoese sailor Antoniotto Usodimare (who worked for the Portuguese) and a compatriot claiming to be a survivor of the Vivaldis’ crew, although Usodimare’s account closely mirrors that of the Libro del conosçimiento:

In the year 1285, two galleys set sail from the city of Genoa commanded by the brothers Ugolino and Guido Vivaldi (Hugolinum et Guidum de Vivaldis fratres) with the purpose of going, by the east (per Levantum), to parts of India. These galleys sailed a lot; but when they entered the sea of Guinea (mari de Ghinoia), one of the galleys broke its hull, and it could not continue sailing further; the other, however, continued through this sea until it reached a city in Ethiopia called Menam; they were captured and detained by the inhabitants of this city, who are Ethiopian Christians, subjects of Prester John. The city is located on the shores of the sea, near the Gion River. They were so closely detained that none of them managed to return home.

Route followed by Bartolomé Díaz
Route followed by Bartolomé Díaz. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

We see that the year is incorrect. All these suppositions and uncertainties only served to enlarge the legend of that voyage, leading to questions about what route the ships could have taken and what their fate might have been. As we mentioned, the galley was not the ideal type of ship for ocean navigation, being too long, with a thin hull and triangular sails; the oars would not have been much help in the enormous Atlantic waves. So, they probably never strayed too far from the coast, which might have betrayed them.

Since the compass had not yet been invented, and they lacked nautical charts of the area to be covered, after passing the Pillars of Hercules and making a possible stop in the Canaries, they may have continued sailing parallel to the African coast, making sporadic landings. This way, they could have reached the mouth of the Senegal River, where at least one of the galleys shipwrecked under unknown circumstances (there are large shallows in that area; the famous frigate Medusa ran aground on one of them) without us knowing what happened to the other.

If we let our imagination run wild, there are other possibilities: they could have circumnavigated Africa, which means they preceded the Portuguese Bartolomeu Dias by almost two hundred years – and, if they managed to reach India, even Vasco da Gama – only to get lost in the Indian Ocean, either on the outbound or return journey… or in the Atlantic heading towards America, foreshadowing what Columbus would successfully accomplish at the end of the 15th century.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on November 21, 2018: Los hermanos genoveses que desaparecieron buscando una ruta marítima a las especias en el siglo XIII

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