Too bad Cecil B. DeMille isn't around to film Gavin Menzies' 1434, a swashbuckling, overly detailed account — including copious speculation — of Chinese influence on the Renaissance. Check out the subtitle: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance. Menzies writes sentences but thinks in marquees.
Not only does Menzies, an obsessive raconteur and indefatigable traveler of controversial provenance, claim the Chinese discovered America before Columbus, he also debunks da Vinci and downplays Copernicus. 1434 is full of astonishing characters and claims that Menzies gives prominence by way of forensic cartography, exploration of obscure Chinese and European documents and Wiki-based collaboration.
This roguish work is sure to spur discussion, much as its predecessor, 1421: The Year China Discovered America, did upon publication six years ago. Whether it stands up as history is a matter for experts to settle. In the meantime, it makes for largely fascinating reading.
Despite Menzies' excessive detail — the chapter linking da Vinci and contemporaries Francesco di Giorgio Martini and Mariano di Jacopo ditto Taccola (I hadn't heard of them either) is the last word in exhaustive — his thesis is certainly provocative.
Menzies argues that a massive fleet, sent on behalf of Emperor Zhu Zhanji under the command of Grand Eunuch Zheng He, left Nanjing, China, in January 1431. The seafarers ultimately wound up in Venice in 1434, where courtiers and businessmen learned from them about astronomy, mathematics (including calculus and trigonometry), cartography, physics, architecture and weaponry.
It's as if, he suggests, China poured all its knowledge into Italy, triggering the Renaissance. Is Menzies the agent of a Chinese revisionist lobby? Or are his books merely yet more proof that, culturally, China is on the ascent, Europe on the way down? (America, forget about it.)
Menzies also suggests that a tsunami destroyed the fleet, but only after the Chinese had voyaged to America. In addition, a map in the doge's palace in Venice convinced him that "both the Venetians and the Portuguese knew the contours of the whole word before the Portuguese voyages of exploration even started."
His book sets out to prove that thesis, underlining the author's numerous connections, a new Web site designed to buttress it(www.1434.tv) and voluminous footnotes attesting to Menzies' voracious reading and eager collaborators.
There were times I thought I was eavesdropping on a dotty academic, as when Menzies assumes the reader will drop everything to dip into 1421 to round out a story about cartographic discrepancies.
And there are times when the speculation winds on and on for naught. Menzies calls Leonardo da Vinci more illustrator than inventor and spends quite some time trying to prove that da Vinci had access to Chinese documents presaging his own accomplishments. Research proves, however, that that didn't happen, Menzies says. So why make the effort?
Still, Menzies' ruminations can ensnare you, and his descriptions of places he visits as he weaves this rich, unorthodox tapestry make you want to go there.
One thing for sure: He has struck a lucrative historical vein. As long as he restricts his books to the years before 1492, Menzies will do just fine.
Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer from Cleveland.