Sunday, August 5, 2007
The Man Who Gave
His Name to America
By Felipe Fernández-Armesto
Random House. 231 pp. $24.95
April 25, 2007, marked the 500th anniversary of an extraordinary event: the naming of America. The story of how it happened is a murky tale of intrepid seafarers and failed business ventures, naive scientists and greedy publishers, mendacity and spin. Above all, it is the fascinating tale of Amerigo Vespucci, a small-time Florentine trader with a talent for self-promotion who reinvented himself as explorer and stargazer, and whose reputation has since become entangled in webs of myth. Felipe Fernández-Armesto's eminently readable book carefully disentangles these webs to show the part Vespucci actually played in the story.
Vespucci's background was modest, though the family did have connections with the powerful Medici clan that effectively ruled 15th-century Florence. The son of a notary who expected great things from his offspring, Vespucci was educated by humanists, studying Latin (not very successfully) and geography, then fashionable in Florentine academic circles, where classical treatises such as Ptolemy's Geographia sparked a debate on the possibility of sailing across the Atlantic to reach the spice islands of the Indies.
Vespucci was a disappointment to his father; despite his education, he chose trade, buying and selling gems for clients and operating more dubious sidelines in blackmail and pimping. His businesses failed to prosper, and by March 1492, Vespucci was in Seville, working for a fellow Florentine, Gianotto Berardi, one of the backers of Columbus's historic journey across the Atlantic. When Columbus returned in triumph in 1493, they secured the lucrative contract to supply the explorer's second fleet, but the expected profits failed to materialize, especially after the Spanish banned slave traffic in their new colonies. Berardi died suddenly in December 1495, entrusting his daughter to Columbus -- and his debts to Vespucci.
Still convinced that Columbus had reached the edge of the Indian Ocean, and that a fortune trading in gems and spices was his for the making, Vespucci joined an expedition in 1499 to explore pearl beds discovered by Columbus off the Venezuelan coast. This first trip was not a success. Nor was a second. So Vespucci devised another way of making money, transforming himself from luckless trader into a supposed expert on transatlantic navigation and the lands across the sea.
The first account of Vespucci's voyages, Mundus Novus (New World), was published in Florence in 1504. Describing the horrors of the voyage, the ships saved only by his skill at celestial navigation and the exotic people he had seen, richly laced with salacious detail, this blockbuster was an instant success, reprinted 23 times in two years. In 1505, another book appeared, the Soderini Letter, purporting to be by Vespucci and claiming him as the true discoverer of the New World. However, as Fernández-Armesto shows, it was a cut-and-paste fake, designed to cash in on the enormous popularity of Vespucci's Mundus Novus.
The story next moves to the remote French town of St-Dié, where a group of enthusiastic geographers, working under the patronage of the Duke of Lorraine, were preparing a new edition of Ptolemy's Geographia. In early 1507, they received the text of the Soderini Letter, now addressed by Vespucci to the duke, and decided to incorporate it into their work, the typesetting of which was completed on April 25, 1507. On their huge world map, emblazoned over what is now Brazil, was the continent's new name, America, honoring the man they assumed was the author of the Soderini Letter. The hapless geographers soon realized their mistake, but it was too late: Their work also became a bestseller, and the name stuck.
Fernández-Armesto, a history professor at Tufts University, tells this complicated story with verve and skill, likening his own journey through its facts, forgeries, myths and prejudices to Vespucci's voyage of discovery. His lively style is effective in evoking the flashy and violent world of Renaissance Europe, and his wide-ranging knowledge of the period illuminates the boundaries of the Eurocentric mindset as it attempted to come to terms with a New World. ·
Mary Hollingsworth is the author of "The Cardinal's Hat: Money, Ambition and Everyday Life in the Court of a Borgia Prince."