Columbus letter dated 1493 returns to Italy

Christopher Columbus announced the discovery of America in the letter (above).
Christopher Columbus announced the discovery of America in the letter (above).PHOTO: EPA

ROME (AFP) - A stolen letter dating from 1493 in which Christopher Columbus describes his trip to the Americas was handed back to Italy on Wednesday after being discovered in the library of the US Congress.

"500 years after it was written, the letter has made the same trip back from America," Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini said at a ceremony in Rome to mark the handover, thanking US authorities for their cooperation in returning the precious document.

Columbus wrote the original letter during his return voyage to Europe, the year after he had landed in the Americas thinking he had reached India.

It was written in Spanish and addressed to Spain's King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who had financed his trip.

The letter was then translated into Latin, the lingua franca of the time, and copies were made for distribution around Europe. Eleven copies were made in 1493 and six others between 1494 and 1497.

It was one of the first batch of translation copies that found its way to the Library of Congress after being stolen from the Riccardiana library in Florence and replaced with a forged copy.

The investigation into what happened has not established exactly when that happened but it is now known that an anonymous collector sold the letter to a New York-based antiquarian book dealer in 1990.

Two years later it sold at auction for US$300,000 to a buyer who donated it to the Library of Congress in Washington.

The file on the original theft remains open. The stolen letter is to be returned to Florence where it will go on public display. No one knows what happened to the original Spanish text.