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Avoid a narrow view of Columbus' achievements

In America, the quincentenary of Christopher Columbus' first voyage seems to have become a moment of introspection, a search for identity and cultural heritage. Americans are questioning its significance in a debate whose meaning goes beyond the expedition of the Genoese navigator.

From Europe, though, our perspective is different: That the man and his deed should provoke such passion is in itself proof of the lingering impact of his mysterious personality and of his accomplishments.

Cliches of the past are being questioned. The terms "discovery" and even "celebration" are no longer accepted, and part of the emphasis is being placed on the negative consequences of the subsequent colonization.

Columbus, though, is not an American monopoly. His heritage is shared on both sides of the Atlantic, and the European dimension of this great event should also be taken into account.

In the first place, it is unrealistic to believe that the American continent could have remained in splendid isolation, a remote and untouched paradise throughout these five centuries. Sooner or later, the encounter between the two worlds would have taken place.

But the meaning of the quincentenary, at least from a European point of view, goes beyond the mere event of the voyage; Columbus' genius lies especially in his faith in the capabilities of mankind, his bold intuition, his unyielding willpower. These qualities made Columbus the embodiment of the Renaissance man; and these values today are shared on both sides of the Atlantic to the point that we can consider the Genoese explorer as the symbolic forefather of what can be defined as the trans-Atlantic civilization.

One cannot ignore the bloody conquest, nor the cruelties and injustices that followed Columbus, but one should also allow the events of 1492 to be considered from a different perspective.

It was the dawn of modern times. After 1492, the geographical, political, economic, cultural, religious and philosophical terms of reference were radically different from those that had set the stage of the Middle Ages. Suddenly, Western civilization had a new reality.

The revisionist approach is understandable. And, certainly, one cannot completely detach colonial exploitation from the Columbus adventure.

But to view such an event from only that perspective would be unbalanced just as it would be unbalanced to judge it only by the parameters of the last decades of the 20th century. Clearly, Columbus was no saint; some of the long-term effects of his expedition have been devastating. But neither is it just to condemn him for environmental and epidemic consequences of which he could not possibly have been aware.

The Columbus voyage was first and foremost a great moment of integration between world civilizations that, until then, could only ignore each other. The challenges we have overcome since 1492 _ especially in this century _ were enormous, and the ones we are facing are even greater. The strong partnership between the two shores of the Atlantic is the backbone of today's world balance. It is an ongoing voyage, worth supporting and commemorating.

Boris Biancheri is the Italian ambassador to the United States.

Special to the Washington Post