Tomorrow is Cabot Day, a make-believe holiday I celebrate every June 24th by hoisting a tri-color banner with a galleon rampant and the words “Italian Explorers.” I use the same banner four times a year to acknowledge Colombo, Vespucci, Caboto, and Verrazzano. Except for Columbus Day, none of my neighbors or visitors has the slightest clue what the occasion is.
Actually, Giovanni Caboto is celebrated in Newfoundland and Labrador as a 3-day holiday named Discovery Day. After all, Cabot was the first European to claim those islands as well as North America in 1497, and launch the British Empire at his own expense. (I’ll not get into the Viking fables.)
Cabot is our best kept secret. I doubt if you can find one hundred people in all of the United States who remember him from school books or know his real name was Giovanni Caboto. There’s never been a movie about him. He didn’t wipe out any Indigenous people or enslave anyone. But his direct legacy includes our English-speaking nation and English democracy. Wow!
Italian Americans have an uncanny knack for burying their grandeur with piles of immigrant flotsam. Better to be eternally grateful for entry to Ellis Island than bragging that we opened the New World. If modesty is a virtue and ignorance is bliss, we are indeed a happy, virtuous lot.
Right now, we battle to save Columbus Day from ingrates who think crossing the dark Atlantic was child’s play. All our chips are on poor Christopher. (And, we only embraced him when the WASPs made him a hero at the Chicago Columbian Exhibit in 1892. He’s not worth a national holiday even in Italy.) In contrast, Cabot doesn’t exist in our communal memory. Verrazzano only saw the light of day when Italian American researcher Giovanni Schiavo wrote of him in the 1950s and activist John LaCorte of Brooklyn lobbied to have a new bridge named after him in 1964. How many people know that Verrazzano was to France what Columbus was to Spain and Cabot to England? He established France’s title to Canada and the Louisiana territory. Sadly, he was murdered and eaten by Indigenous people in the Caribbean. (Keep that quiet; we don’t want to offend anyone!)
Today, NY Times columnist David Brooks writes how his Jewish forebears are truly God’s gift to humanity. Couched in an article entitled “Your Daily Dose of Optimism,” Brooks explains how Jewish thought flowered in diverse cultures, how Jewish merchants linked China and the West during the Middle Ages, and how they made great contributions to the wider world. In short, they have shown how pluralism can work, how it can replace any unifying national narrative. His piece quotes his favorite rabbi and no less than the prophet Jeremiah. Hurrah multiculturalism! This, from a self-proclaimed conservative from Canada.
A quick check of his biography reveals Brooks married an Irish Catholic who converted to Judaism before bearing his three children. The kicker is he wasn’t religious to begin with. Diversity doesn’t start in his home!
Can you imagine any Italian American journalist pumping up Roman history, pagan philosophers, or Italy’s scientific and political gifts to humanity? First, there aren’t many big name Italic journalists – why is that? If I were one, I would explain to Mr. Brooks how his people should thank Jehovah for the Italic people. They and the Greeks freed “Jewish thought” from an unnatural orthodoxy that is still stuck in the Middle Ages. Even within the old ghettos of Venice and Rome, Jews were exposed to Italian science, arts, and the humanities when they knew only commerce. It was the Italic Bonaparte who freed them from those ghettos while Eastern Europe continued to bred angst and depression.
Of course, the biggest dose of optimum for his people came with the Italian explorers, like Caboto, who found the ultimate refuge for them – a place not even their greatest thinkers and prophets knew of. A place where they could not only join with other ethnic and religious groups but could rise to be one of the most powerful and influential.
I would enlighten Mr. Brooks, but we Italian Americans haven’t awakened to these facts ourselves. -JLM