An innocent error in judgment by geographers in 1507 at St. Die, then a sovereign duchy located between France and Germany, led to the naming of the Western hemisphere's continents after the Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451-1512). We know more about Vespucci than any of the other explorers of his time, except Christopher Columbus. The problem is that little of Vespucci's writings survives, and sorting out the truth about him has confounded scholars for years. In a fascinating exploration of Vespucci and his times, Amerigo: The Man Who Gave His Name to America, noted historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto now believes he has overcome enough serious questions to give readers a coherent, but, of necessity, at times speculative, biography.
Although Vespucci sailed for Spain and Portugal, there is documentation of only one fleet for which he was to be captain and that ship never sailed. Fernandez-Armesto describes him as a master of relentless self-invention, from which sprang a dazzling succession of career moves. From early on in Florence he was engaged in all kinds of business dealings, primarily as a commission agent buying and selling gems for others. He became a fixer with a talent for wheeling and dealing for a wide circle of clients, including the Medici family. Vespucci moved to Seville and became a long-range, large-scale merchant, working with Gianotto Berardi, a prominent slave dealer who financed Columbus' voyages across the Atlantic Ocean. Upon Berardi's death, Vespucci, as his agent, was responsible for the debts incurred by these failed voyages. Then, when others were allowed to make the transatlantic voyage for Spain, Vespucci, with no known maritime experience or qualifications, made the trip, probably because of his expertise about pearls, which Columbus had discovered. After this voyage, Vespucci presented himself as a nautical authority and next turns up in Portugal, where the king asked him to sail on a voyage whose purpose is still unclear.
Vespucci was well-read, and Fernandez-Armesto says that when he related his experiences, he filtered them through his reading. He meticulously elucidates how the genres of romance, travel, and hagiography were so interpenetrated that it was hard to tell fancy from fact and says that to separate one from the other in Vespucci's writings is a work of critical literary exploration. Nevertheless, he is able to establish a checklist of characteristics of Vespucci's writing style that help him to measure authenticity.
Amerigo offers many historical riches, among them that those early scholars only meant to attach Vespucci's name to the southern part of the hemisphere, where tradition placed the Antipodes and where Vespucci thought he had found them. The book also includes an ongoing discussion of the ties between Columbus and Vespucci and the claims by the partisans of each man that their hero has been fairly or unfairly treated.
Fernandez-Armesto considers Vespucci of particular importance as a representative of a strange, world-shaping breed . . . Mediterranean men who took to the Atlantic. He finds it hard to believe that without the initiative of Mediterranean participants, the Atlantic we now inhabit the home sea of Western civilization, across which we traffic in goods and ideas and around which we still tend to huddle for defense ever would have come to be. As we acknowledge the 500th anniversary of the naming of America, it is good to have this fine book to tell us how it came about.
Roger Bishop is a retired Nashville bookseller and a frequent contributor to BookPage.