Ludovico di Varthema

Ludovico di Varthema (ca. 1470-ca. 1517) was an Italian traveler and adventurer. Current opinion holds that he did, indeed, visit all the places in the East he claimed, including some in which he was the first European.

Nearly everything that is known of the life of Ludovico di Varthema comes from his own account. Evidently a native of Bologna and a soldier, he left a wife and child in 1502, when, slightly over the age of 30, he left to visit the East. Curiosity alone impelled him; he did not seek to make money. He traveled first to Egypt, proceeding as far as Cairo, then visited Syrian Aleppo and Damascus, by which time he had mastered enough Arabic to pass as a Moslem. He joined a pilgrimage to Mecca as a Mamluk, or military protector, and thus became one of the first (if not the first) Christians to behold the holy Moslem city. In the "temple of Mecca" he said that he had seen unicorns, "not very common in other places, " a remark that has caused much later speculation.

Varthema made his way southward by the Red Sea to Yemen and there became a prisoner of the sultan of Sana, one of whose wives fell in love with him. He triumphantly resisted her advances, but she nevertheless helped him escape. He proceeded eastward to Persia (now Iran) and Indian Calicut. He went to Burma (now Myanmar), Malacca, and beyond to Sumatra, the nutmeg-growing Banda Islands, Borneo, and the clove-yielding Moluccas. From there he retraced his course to India, where, deciding to return to Christian life, he left a faithful Moslem friend in the lurch and identified himself to the Portuguese. They accepted his services, and he fought in several battles under Viceroy Francisco de Almeida.

Probably in late 1507 Varthema sailed for Lisbon with a Portuguese fleet; he arrived there, after a rough voyage during which he saw Madagascar, in June. Almedia had knighted him in India, and Manuel I of Portugal confirmed this honor, also hearing with interest his account of Eastern regions the Portuguese had not yet visited.

Varthema straightway returned to Italy. An independent source reveals that he was in Venice in November 1508 relating his adventures to the Signory. Nothing more is known of him other than that he spent his remaining years in Rome and was referred to as dead in June 1517. His travel book, Itinerario de Ludovico de Varthema Bolognese …, was published at Rome in 1510.


Further Reading on Ludovico di Varthema

The modern English translation of Varthema's narrative is Henry Winter Jones, Travels of Ludovico di Varthema, published by the Hakluyt Society (1863) and reproduced in Sir Richard Carnac Temple, Itinerary of Ludovico di Varthema of Bologna from 1502 to 1508 (1928). The same version is republished in Lincoln Davis Hammond, Travelers in Disguise (1963), with some explanations by Hammond. Varthema's career is discussed in Percy Sykes, A History of Exploration (1934; 3d ed. 1949), and Boies Penrose, Travel and Discovery in the Renaissance, 1420-1620 (1952).