Half a millennium ago, on April 27, 1521, the Portuguese explorer who made the first tour of the world in human history was shot to death in the Philippines during an unexpected skirmish on the small island of Mactan: Ferdinand Magellan (Fernão de Magalhães, in Portoguese; Fernando de Magallanes, in Spanish).
Born to a noble family in 1480 in Sabrosa, north-eastern Portugal, he was orphaned in 1490 and was welcomed in Lisbon as a page at the court of King John II, where he participated in naval expeditions to the Far East. He wanted to discover a sea route through which to cross the continent where Christopher Columbus had just landed and reach Asia. He found it in the far south, under Tierra del Fuego, through what will be called the Strait of Magellan. His project, rejected by the Portuguese, was financed by Charles V, Holy Roman emperor and king of Spain. We know from the Italian chronicler of the expedition, Antonio Pigafetta, “Patrician of Vicenza and Knight of Rhodes” (The First Voyage around the World, 1519–1522: an Account of Magellan’s Expedition, ed. T. Cachey, Toronto 2007, pp. 3-4), that, “for the purpose of going to discover the spicery in the islands of Molucca,” in command of five vessels and 237 men, the “Captain-General Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese gentleman,” set sail from Spain in 1519. Only the ship Victoria and 18 men, led by the new captain, the Spanish Juan Sebastián Elcano, would return to Europe after almost three years of voyage.
Approaching the great Portuguese navigator in the way we are used to, that of a passion for music, is anything but easy this time. Musical works composed by Francesco Morlacchi (1828), Gaetano Donizetti (1845), Giovanni Bottesini (1847), Alberto Franchetti (1892), Darius Milhaud (1928) are entitled to “that great figure of navigator par excellence that was Christopher Columbus” (John Paul II, Greetings to the people gathered in Genoa, September 21, 1985). To “that prince of Portuguese explorers, Vasco Da Gama” (Pius XII, Sæculo exeunte octavo, June 13, 1940, n. 7) refers L’africaine, a grand opera in five acts by Giacomo Meyerbeer (1865). However, an opera inspired by Magellan is missing, and here are the three acts of Magallanes. No hay rosa sin espinas. Marco Reghezza, one of the two composers, goes on to say: