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21 december 2012

Half the world is named after Amerigo Vespucci, but hardly anybody knows anything about him. I certainly knew nothing about him till I picked up Felipe Fernández-Armesto's Amerigo at my university library, where for some reason this 2007 publication was sitting in the "popular reading collection." I suspect our library rents these on the dirt-cheap from suppliers of current leisure fare to public libraries, so we get the scrapings and leavings of stuff so unpopular and outdated that nobody but me wants to read it. Amerigo is a heck of a book, though: testy and challenging, it develops a keen portrait of a typical Italian adventurer of the turn of the sixteenth century, whose name, if not much else about him, broke out of the pack and won inconceivable renown.

Historiographically speaking, if there weren't controversies over Amerigo Vespucci, he would scarcely exist. He was a business traveler, a (very) minor diplomat in an era when business and politics were inseparable, a ship-chandler, pretty much a passenger aboard a couple of voyages of exploration, and later, thanks to his own efforts as a self-promoter and some confusion over who actually did what in the exploration of the brand New World, an official of some note: the chief pilot of the burgeoning Spanish maritime empire – despite having no actual experience in piloting vessels of any sort.

I learned a lot about late-Quattrocento Florence from Fernández-Armesto's literate and witty book. One of the most interesting sections of Amerigo is a brief aside that takes issue with many of our received ideas about the Renaissance (6-7). The period, according to Fernández-Armesto, was one of many "rebirths" of a classical culture that had never disappeared; was not revolutionary, or secular, or Platonic, or centered on Greece, or humanism, or nature. In other words, the world didn't suddenly become modern in 1492 (though to be fair, Fernández-Armesto has since written a book called 1492: The Year the World Began). For his purposes in Amerigo, this means that Fernández-Armesto is most interested in the origins of Vespucci's career in what was still essentially a medieval Italy in many ways.

I reckon I learned as much as I could about Vespucci. His life records are not exactly in the Winston-Churchill range. Did he have a Florentine mistress? a Spanish wife? and children? how did he die? how close was he personally to Lorenzo de'Medici, to Christopher Columbus? I know some vague ranges of answers to these questions now, but I will never know more. Five hundred years is a long time, for all that it is five long human lifetimes, and when someone has been dead that long, we often know little except his name.

Amerigo, the name, we know overwhelmingly. Fernández-Armesto suggests that we say a version of that name far more often than we say "Columbia" (unless we're a college registrar in Manhattan, or a civil servant in Bogotá) because Vespucci won a particular rhetorical battle over Columbus, even though he wasn't really fighting it. Amerigo is a fascinating book for students of the power of rhetoric, which consists not always so much in active persuasion as in fortuitous conforming to an audience's preconceptions. Columbus obviously sailed to the New World before Vespucci did, and drew solid inferences from what he observed (that he'd found new continents, that he had arrived at terra incognita). But he kept hoping he was near China, and that he was just a lucky strait or two away from the spices of the East.

Meanwhile, Vespucci had the brilliance, ignorance, or sheer chutzpah to suggest that he'd arrived at the Antipodes. Unlike Columbus's what-the-hell landfall, Vespucci's divagations along the coast of Brazil were transformed, in his few writings, into the discovery of a long-predicted anti-continent at the diametric ends of the earth. Columbus may have found real things; Vespucci found what everyone had been waiting for. To the pleaser go the naming rights.

Did Vespucci go to the New World at all? Probably; he was too vulnerable to bullshit-calling to make the whole voyage up. But at times, in Fernández-Armesto's portrayal, Vespucci seems to have plagiarized just about every aspect of his narrative from those of Columbus (his friend and confidant, though never his shipmate). His achievements lie almost entirely in language. About a hundred years after the continents of the West took their name from Amerigo, John Donne could write of a beloved: "Oh my America, my new found land." Imagine a kid in Italy growing up to become a by-word for all the wonders life can bestow.

Fernández-Armesto, Felipe. Amerigo: The man who gave his name to America. New York: Random House, 2007.