Ludovico di Varthema

Nothing is known of Ludovico di Varthema's origins. Most historians agree he was born in the Italian city of Bologna around the year 1470. He was obviously clever and observant, two important traits for a traveler of his time period. That he knew how to read and write points to a family with either a little money or influence; in those days, education was reserved for those who could afford it. Varthema mentions in passing that his father was a doctor, but that has never been verified.

In 1502, Varthema apparently decided that he had had enough of merely reading about exotic locations and the strange customs of foreign lands. With that, he packed up and left Europe, hoping to find adventure (and, no doubt, profits) in the mysterious East. Early 1503 found Varthema in Egypt, where he took in the sights and sounds of the capital city, Cairo. During an extended stay in Damascus, Syria, Varthema picked up some basic Arabic, which helped him communicate with his Muslim hosts.

It is in Damascus that Varthema revealed himself to be something of a shady character. According to his later account, he took the Arabic name of Yűnas (a form of the name Jonah, one of the Biblical prophets) and joined the local garrison, the body of soldiers tasked to protect Damascus. Pretending to be a Muslim was a serious crime, not just in predominantly Muslim Syria, but back in Varthema's native Italy as well. In disguise as a Muslim, Varthema made his way to the holy cities of Medina and Mecca, being one of the first (and only) Europeans to see important Muslim shrines and holy sites.

Varthema was finally uncovered as a fraud in the kingdom of Arabia Felix (modern day Yemen), and only through some quick thinking (and bribery) was the man formerly known as Yűnas able to escape on a ship bound for Persia. From Persia (modern day Iran), Varthema made his way to India, which the Portuguese were in the process of colonizing. Traveling almost the entire length of the Indian subcontinent's coastline, Varthema ended his journey visiting Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka) and the Spice Islands (Columbus's original destination in 1492).

All of what we know about Varthema and his wanderings were published in 1510 in Rome. Varthema claimed he returned to Europe in 1508, and began to pull together his memories of the trip. The book, entitled Itinerario de Ludouico de Varthema ("Route of Ludovico di Varthema") was eagerly read by Europeans fascinated by the East, especially the portions claimed and jealously guarded by the Portuguese. For many years, Varthema's account was the go-to source for information on Portuguese activities in India and the Spice Islands, and over the years it was translated into numerous languages. Itinerario became one of the most popular early works of travel literature; even modern readers find themselves liking the humorous and sometimes disreputable adventurer Varthema, even if his motives for traveling are sometimes mysterious.

Some historians have called into question Varthema's truthfulness in recording his life. Certain trips he undertakes are completed much quicker than period travel methods would allow, and some of his descriptions of foreign locales are woefully superficial, leading some to theorize that Varthema had something to hide in his past (perhaps he had converted to Islam for a time; that would be a serious matter in 16th-century Europe) or that portions of his narrative were lifted from other sources available to him at the time.

Accusations aside, Itinerario provides a look at the local customs, wildlife, dress and beliefs of the Middle East, India and the Spice Islands from a time when many Europeans were obsessed with these places. Blending in with local populations whenever possible, Varthema was able to sneak into places that readers back home in Europe would never see. It was this singular look at the mysterious East that made Varthema a favorite of Europe's literate elite.