Book Reviews

10 agosto, 2007

134) Amerigo, o homem que inventou a America

God Bless Amerigo
By NATHANIEL PHILBRICK
The New York Times Review of Books, August 12, 2007

AMERIGO: The Man Who Gave His Name to America
By Felipe Fernández-Armesto.
231 pp. Random House. $24.95.

It’s one of the stranger quirks of history and geography. The continent that was supposedly discovered by Christopher Columbus is named for a decidedly second-rate Johnny-come-lately of an explorer named Amerigo Vespucci. Like Columbus, Vespucci was an Italian who sailed on occasion under the flag of Spain. But unlike Columbus, Vespucci was more at home in a counting house than a sailing ship. (Even Ralph Waldo Emerson, normally a booster of all things American, dismissed him as a mere “pickle dealer.”) What Vespucci did have, according to Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s wonderfully idiosyncratic and intelligent new biography of the explorer, was a gift for chicanery and self-promotion, along with an aching need to be remembered. As it turns out, America — this nation of notorious hucksters, dreamers and spin doctors — was named for just the right guy.

Fernández-Armesto’s previous books about world history and exploration — “The Americas,” “Civilizations” and “Pathfinders,” among them — are must reading in these globally minded times. But even a historian of Fernández-Armesto’s learning and reach might have chosen to ignore the fact that 2007 marks the 500th anniversary of the naming of America. Except for a few brief narratives and letters, the record is maddeningly slight when it comes to Vespucci. But “Amerigo: The Man Who Gave His Name to America” is much more than an occasional throwaway. Using the bare bones of what is known about Vespucci to expatiate on subjects as diverse as the brutal world of Renaissance Italy, the importance of trade winds to world history and the poetics of travel writing, Fernández-Armesto has written a provocative primer on how navigators like Columbus and Vespucci set loose the cultural storm that eventually created the world we live in today.

Vespucci (1454-1512) grew up in the turbulent orbit of the Medici family in Florence. Although he spent considerable time as a student and traveled briefly to Paris on a diplomatic mission, most of his early years were spent juggling a variety of business ventures. It might seem like an unlikely way to prepare for a career as a navigator and cosmographer, but as Fernández-Armesto says, “a man with a head for accounts may also have a head for astronomical lucubrations.”

It was business that brought Vespucci to Seville just around the time that Columbus was mounting his famous voyage across the Atlantic. By the time Columbus returned in triumph in 1493, Vespucci was intimately connected with the group of merchants that supplied the explorer’s subsequent, far less successful voyages. By the late 1490s, with Vespucci’s financial prospects deteriorating and with the example of Columbus’s sudden fame offering apparent inspiration, Vespucci (now in his late 40s) opted for a career makeover. He would go to sea. Even though Columbus had so far failed to find the westward route to Asia, Ferdinand and Isabella were still willing to follow up on Columbus’s discoveries — as long as it didn’t involve Columbus, who was now in disfavor with the court. Into the breach leapt Vespucci.

Vespucci earned what reputation he has as an explorer by participating in two trans-Atlantic voyages between 1499 and 1502. It was during the second voyage, this time under the Portuguese flag, that Vespucci ventured to the coast of modern-day Brazil and claimed to have discovered a new continent — what he called the New World. As Fernández-Armesto explains, this claim was not as bold and prescient as it might otherwise seem. Several years earlier, in 1498, Columbus had sailed past the mouth of the Orinoco River and reasoned that this huge outwash of fresh water could come only from a landmass of continental proportions. Columbus called it “an enormous land, to be found in the south, of which at the present time nothing has been known.” In claiming that South America was a continent, Vespucci was only confirming what his mentor and role model Columbus had already established. Vespucci, it turns out, was also not the first to use the phrase “New World” — that distinction goes to Peter Martyr, who had coined the term three years earlier.

Even more important than his actual accomplishments were the accounts of his voyages. In his writings he was driven, like many explorers before and since, by a desire to establish a lasting name for himself. In one of his few existing manuscript letters, Vespucci tells of his decision to write an account of his most recent voyage so he can leave “some fame behind me after I die.” In these narratives, Vespucci depicts himself as a navigator par excellence. While mere seamen rely on experience and orally transmitted sailing instructions to find their way across the ocean, Vespucci ostentatiously wields his navigational instruments. Much like that of the medical doctors of his day, Vespucci’s science appears to have been more about deception and bluff than actual results, but as Fernández-Armesto writes, “the difference between magic and science is narrower than most people think today.”

It was in 1507, with the publication of a large cut-out map suitable for creating a do-it-yourself globe, that Vespucci’s first name, if not Vespucci himself, achieved lasting renown. On this map, published in the intellectual backwater of St. Dié in Lorraine, the designation “America” (the feminine of Amerigo) was chosen for the portion of the hemisphere where Vespucci claimed to have landed during his second voyage. In 1538, the noted mapmaker Mercator, apparently referring to the earlier map from St. Dié, chose to use the name America to mark not just the southern but also the northern portion of the continent. The rest, as they say, is history. “The tradition was secure,” Fernández-Armesto writes, “the decision irreversible.” And so, because of Mercator and assorted others, more than 350 million of us now call ourselves Americans.

As Fernández-Armesto astutely observes, it’s probably a good thing Mercator went with America instead of what might have been the more obvious choice, Christopheria or, say, Columbia. “Columbus has such an ineluctable presence in history,” he writes, “that a hemisphere named after him would never be free of association with him. With every vocalization, images of imperialism, evangelization, colonization, massacre and ecological exchange would spring to mind. The controversies would be constant, the revulsion unendurable.” Since Amerigo Vespucci is a historical nonentity, the term “America” is free of the disturbing connotations that would have been associated with his more famous forebear. “History has made him irrelevant,” Fernández-Armesto writes, “to the major resonances of his own name.” Thanks to the ephemerality of Amerigo Vespucci’s reputation as an explorer, America was given an enduring name.

Nathaniel Philbrick is the author of “In the Heart of the Sea,” “Sea of Glory” and, most recently, “Mayflower.”

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