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God Bless Amerigo

It’s been 500 years since a flamboyant hustler—a confidant of Columbus with a magician’s touch—inspired the name of the western hemisphere. To know him is to understand a bit better how the modern world came to be.

Amerigo Vespucci, who gave his name to America, was a pimp in his youth and a magus in his maturity. This transformation was part of his relentless self-reinvention, from which sprang a dazzling succession of career moves and what the celebrity press now calls makeovers.

Not everyone agreed to name the western hemisphere after him. In 1507, when the first book to suggest the name America was published, devotees of Christopher Columbus asserted, correctly, their own hero’s priority in exploration. The debate continued. Thomas Jefferson found room in his private museum at Monticello for likenesses of both Columbus and Vespucci; Ralph Waldo Emerson dismissed Vespucci as a “pickle-dealer,” referring to one of the explorer’s more mundane vocations, as a ship’s chandler. Florentines, on the other hand, vaunted their hero and taunted Spaniards with his supposed achievements.

In life, Vespucci and Columbus were as inseparable as Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Both represented a strange, world-shaping breed: Mediterranean men who took to the Atlantic, denizens of a calm inner sea who crossed an immense ocean. Columbus’s enterprise was Vespucci’s inspiration. The trajectory of Vespucci’s life not only intersected with that of Columbus, it largely followed it, from Italy to Spain and on to the New World. Much of the time, Vespucci was in thrall to the old admiral. And at times, Columbus depended as much on Vespucci for means as Vespucci depended on Columbus for a model.

Born into a Florentine clan in 1454 or a few years later, Amerigo was brought up to pursue worldly ambitions. Some branches of his extended family were prosperous, with lifelines to the court of Lorenzo the Magnificent, the Medici potentate who ruled Florence, but his immediate family members were classic “poor relations,” dependent on wealthier relatives for patronage and loans. Nastagio Vespucci, Amerigo’s father, cherished the hope of change with the next generation. “Vehemently does my father desire that I should learn and understand all things by which I may acquire fame and fortune,” Amerigo wrote in the copybook he kept as a young man.

While neither fame nor fortune was forthcoming at first, Amerigo did find employment. He worked as a commission agent, buying and selling goods for people; he dealt mainly in jewels, but references in his letters to unidentified or obscurely identified women suggest that he procured prostitutes as well. In the demimonde, he displayed the quality Arthur Miller prized in a salesman: he was liked. He was the Figaro of Florence, the city’s Fixit, the factotum della città—especially if the deal on hand was dodgy.

Still, it is hard to resist the temptation to wonder about his trustworthiness. Patrons used him for small deals, not big jobs. One of the draft letters in his copybook anticipates a dispute with an employer over accounting shortfalls: “I will never,” he protested, “buy or sell anything of importance on your behalf, except in accordance with your explicit instructions and expectations.” Was this a preenactment of a potentially embarrassing encounter such as we all practice in our heads?

Whatever honor Amerigo enjoyed in Florence was honor among thieves. As well as meretricious women, his associates included inmates of the debtors’ prison, and he established what sounds like a corrupt relationship with the town jailer, who asked him for a pair of women’s shoes “because we are preparing a masquerade . . . . Pardon me if I am too presumptuous.” This is the sort of language small-time blackmailers use—though we do not know exactly what his hold over Vespucci was.

In 1491 Amerigo escaped from the restricted social opportunities of Florence to a new life in Seville. The decision was a throw of the dice and an effect of frustration. It would not be surprising if he had grown restive in the trammels of his relationships at home, with his demanding clients and his dubious companions. In Seville he could seek the kind of honor his father had in mind. The city was one of the best places in Spain for a foreigner to do business: center of some of the country’s highest-yielding land, with booming industry and a clutch of useful nearby harbors. It had long attracted immigrants from Italy. One of the most prominent was the Florentine businessman Gianotto Berardi, who dealt mainly in slaves but had recently become one of the biggest investors in Columbus’s first transatlantic voyage. Amerigo took a job as Berardi’s agent. From now on his life entwined with Columbus’s.

At first, Columbus looked like a good investment. In 1493 he returned from the Atlantic with astonishing proofs that he had landed somewhere exotic and exploitable: parrots, “Indians,” tiny but exciting droplets of gold. Ferdinand’s and Isabella’s court cosmographer, in charge of keeping the throne up to date on the growing knowledge of the earth and heavens, hailed Columbus’s achievement as “more divine than human.” The Genoese weaver’s son was instantly transformed into a nobleman, admiral of the ocean sea, viceroy, and governor.

Berardi’s business, however, was soon in trouble. When Columbus returned to Hispaniola, he found that natives had massacred the 30 men he had left there as a garrison. Malaria and other tropical ills killed off his colonists. The island produced none of the goods for which he had hoped. The lands he sought—China, India, Japan—continued to elude him. He tried to recoup his investors’ losses by enslaving the natives, but the Spanish monarchs forbade enslavement of their newly acquired subjects. Berardi’s chances of making money collapsed under the weight of a few royal scruples.

Like many investors embroiled in expensive failures—and many gamblers banking on a change of luck—Berardi redoubled his efforts. In April of 1495 he signed a contract with the crown, promising to send more ships with Columbus to Hispaniola, even though he was probably already fully stretched. In December of the same year he lay on his deathbed, with Columbus on his mind. “To serve him,” he said, “I have . . . wasted my property and that of my friends, and have even sacrificed my own person, for if our Lord should take me from this world with this present sickness, it is the result of the travails and sufferings I have endured for the service of his lordship.”

Berardi made “Amerigo Vespucci, my agent” responsible for recovering the funds from Columbus and using them to take care of the financial obligations the business had incurred. But there was no hope of getting money out of Columbus, who never had any to spare and whose failures plunged him into disgrace. The explorer’s report on his third Atlantic crossing of 1497–98 sounded mad: full of visionary ramblings, paranoid laments, and speculations about a pear-shaped globe, with the earthly paradise at the tip of a nipple-shaped protuberance that he had, he claimed, approached but not surmounted. By 1499 Columbus was a source of disappointment to his patrons and exasperation to his friends.

Meanwhile, the Berardi firm’s last fleet was lost at sea, leaving Vespucci heavily in debt. Columbus’s example, however, suggested the Florentine’s next career move. It was clear that the really glowing prospects lay not in financing and provisioning fleets, but in sailing in them, for neither failure nor disgrace entirely reversed Columbus’s fortunes: he still clutched his titles and grasped at wealth. Moreover, just as other opportunities for Vespucci faltered, the chance to imitate Columbus opened up. In May 1499, Ferdinand and Isabella revoked the admiral’s monopoly of transatlantic navigation and began to license rival adventurers to exploit his discoveries. Vespucci sailed with the first of them, Alonso de Hojeda.

Hojeda had been Columbus’s strong-arm man, both in repressing rebels and in terrorizing natives into submission. His expedition’s goal was to garner pearls from a rich fishery Columbus had discovered off the coast of Venezuela the previous year. Vespucci joined in an unknown capacity. Later he claimed that his motive was disinterested curiosity. But this is not likely. At the time, disinterestedness was a luxury he could not afford. The most likely explanation is that Vespucci shipped as the expedition’s pearl expert. The small-time jewel dealer had come into his own.

Vespucci returned with a pocketful of pearls, which he had bartered cheaply from natives, but his greatest prize was a new role—another self-reinvention—which he immediately began to promote, evincing the quicksilver tongue, prestidigitator’s skills, and infectious self-confidence that he had developed as a wheeler-dealer in his hometown. In a letter he wrote to his former patron in Florence, he presented himself as a nautical commander, celestial navigator, surveyor of the heavens, and reader of latitude and longitude—a magus in action. “Your Magnificence,” he wrote, “must already know that I left with two caravels on 2nd May, 1499, by command of the king of Spain, to go to make discoveries in the western region by way of the Ocean Sea.” This trick of assuming on the reader’s part foreknowledge of information that the writer then goes on to convey is one of the oldest rhetorical devices around. It flatters the reader with an assumption of knowledge while covertly supplying the knowledge in question. Instantly, Vespucci also boosted his image in the reader’s mind by associating his activities with royal patronage and even giving the impression that he had led the fleet. At the same time, his reference to the quest for “discoveries” makes his motives sound anything but personal and mercenary.

Amerigo went on to supply a description of his route that is sketchy, as one might expect of a previously sea-shy passenger who probably had only a vague idea of where he was or where the ship was headed. The only place name he mentioned was the Gulf of Parias, which Columbus had named on his previous voyage to the Venezuelan coast. It is worth noting, too, that Vespucci’s tally of ground covered—at least 2,800 miles of coastline—seems hugely overestimated: more than double Hojeda’s tally.

But probably the most extravagant claims Vespucci made were of navigational prowess. It was as if a single sea voyage had made him proficient in a new art. He was like Minerva leaping into life fully armed. Notwithstanding his lack of qualifications, he was so convincing in his new role that he eventually became a kind of official cosmographer, with a monopoly from the Castilian crown in the training of Atlantic pilots and the making of Atlantic charts. Fellow experts hailed him as the new Ptolemy—a reincarnation of the greatest or, at least, the most influential geographer of antiquity. In the world of the Renaissance, there was no greater praise than to be acclaimed as the equal of the ancients. The most influential printed map of the time displays him in a cartouche, alongside Ptolemy, presiding jointly over the unfolding world.

What we now call science was still entwined with magic; astrology, alchemy, and sorcery had not yet proven to be false leads. Vespucci, salesman that he was, showcased his stargazing intriguingly. Technology accredited him—or, rather, the way he handled nautical instruments impressed onlookers. But his quadrants were great, lolloping, crudely calibrated objects; his astrolabes, despite their delicacy and finesse, were unsuitable for the calculations Vespucci claimed he had made. Manipulating them on his travels and in his reports, he resembled a stage magician distracting his audience with props. But they were extremely useful for cowing impressionable sailors and conning uncritical readers. Mundus Novus—a version of his accounts of his experiences, published in 1504—became a little blockbuster in sixteenth-century Europe.

One of his most celebrated assertions was that he could make readings of longitude at sea. The method he used was well known in antiquity and the Middle Ages, at least in theory. It involved measuring the difference in degrees between the position of the moon and another celestial body, relative to the observer, at a given time. These figures would then be compared with information from tables that predicted where and when the two celestial bodies would be in conjunction. Yet even in stable conditions on land, this method proved fickle and deceptive until well into the eighteenth century, when accurate tables, timekeepers, and telescopes made it practicable. Furthermore, Vespucci seems not to have known the location for which his tables were compiled. Those for Nuremberg he took to apply variously to Ferrara and Cadiz.

Vespucci also made an impact with descriptions of the new lands he encountered. Such descriptions are interesting to modern readers, too, far more interesting than any of Amerigo’s navigational flimflam. But they are interesting mainly for what they tell us about the workings of his own mind.

He waxed rhapsodical, for instance, in his account of his first voyage when he described a probe into the mouth of the Amazon. The land there was continuously low and the trees “so dense that scarcely a bird could fly between them.” The explorers saw “an infinite quantity of birds and parrots so great and of so many varieties that it was a wonder.”

Some were scarlet, some green and red and lemon-like, and others all green and others black and red and the song of the other birds that were in the trees was a thing so sweet and melodious that whoever attends to it will often be arrested by its sweetness. The trees are of such beauty and so smooth that we thought we were in the terrestrial paradise. And none of those trees nor their fruits conformed to those of ours in this region. Along the river we saw many kinds of fish of various forms.

Like most of Vespucci’s attempts at description, this is maddeningly vague, maddeningly exaggerated, and feebly poetic. He describes nothing directly or in detail. It is as if he were peering into a kaleidoscope where all the vivid colors were in motion. Modern writers have similar problems trying to describe, say, an LSD trip.

Yet the prose here is not particularly fresh or original. Rather, it seems to have been mediated through his reading, owing less to the reality of the New World than to the rhetorical tradition of the locus amoenus—the undifferentiatedly agreeable place, a staple of pastoral literature as far back as ancient Greece and Rome. Likewise, the richness and diversity of the colors that spill from his lines, like jewels from a casket, are reminiscent of the maps of Vespucci’s era, more decorative than informative.

To a large extent, Vespucci’s reliance on sources other than his own senses is nothing out of the ordinary. The genres of romance and travel were so interpenetrated at the time that it was hard to tell fancy from fact. Readers believed romantic elements in real travelogues. They mistook fictional for historical work. We know this because they sometimes included passages from fiction in what they supposed to be accurate accounts and occasionally reproduced whole fables as true narratives. For example, the English Elizabethan magus John Dee mistook romances of King Arthur, in which that legendary monarch conquered Russia, Greenland, Lapland, and the North Pole, as evidence of an ancient British maritime empire.

What is remarkable about Vespucci’s writing, however, is how closely it resembles that of Columbus in its style, choice of details, and other distinguishing characteristics. Take Columbus’s awestruck account of the trees he found at the end of his first Atlantic crossing. In the first published report of the voyage, he described islands

full of trees of a thousand kinds, and tall . . . so green and so handsome, as in Spain in May. And some were in flower and some in fruit and others at other stages, according to their kind. . . . And there are six or eight kinds of palm that it is wonderful to behold them for their beautiful diversity . . . as with the other trees and fruits and grasses. There are evergreen woods to wonder at and very large grasslands and there is honey and many kinds of birds and very varied fruits.

Columbus’s unpublished account is also worth bearing in mind, as Vespucci had plenty of opportunity to be briefed privately by the admiral, or to discuss impressions of the New World with him. Of descriptions of the landscape that survive in his own words, Columbus wrote the first within five days of making land: “I saw many trees that are different from ours . . . and all so diverse that it is the greatest wonder in the world. . . . For example, one branch had leaves like sugar cane, another like mastic, and so on, with five or six different types in a single tree.” The trees, it seems, fused before Columbus’s eyes like the colors of the birds before Vespucci’s. Columbus, too, noticed the fish:

The fish are so different from ours that it is a wonder . . . of the finest colours in the world—blue, yellow, red, and every sort of colour—and some are streaked with a thousand tints, and the colours are so fine that there can be no man who would not marvel at it and feel refreshed by the sight.

He went on to mention the parrots. If Columbus did not directly influence the way Vespucci beheld the New World, then both of them struggled for utterance in the same awe and under the same constraints. Either way, the psychological and cultural links between Amerigo and his predecessor are striking.

The time has come at last to revisit that most debated of questions about Vespucci. Did he deliberately seek to cheat his friend Columbus and have the New World named after himself?

A letter from Columbus to his son, dated February 1505, suggests that he may have been disloyal enough to do so. Columbus, by that time old for his years, sick, and weary (he would die a year later, aged about 55), was putting all his failing energies into trying to get the Castilian crown to pay him the money he felt he was owed. The letter was part of that effort. Vespucci, who is mentioned prominently in it, comes across as an amiable fixer in whom Columbus had confided, a man of business who could be relied upon to help him realize his claims; however, he also seems like a luckless, guileless victim of other men’s depredations—someone with whom Columbus sympathized.

Both images almost certainly originated with Vespucci himself. “He always desired to please me,” wrote Columbus, and one can almost hear Vespucci’s insinuations. “He is very much a man of high standing, but Fortune has been unfair to him, as she has to so many others.” Here one can detect the sort of methods Vespucci used to win over his interlocutors: he must have encouraged Columbus’s tales of woe, commiserated with him, and then reaped the approbation we tend to give to those who confirm our self-image.

“He goes determined to do all he can for me,” Columbus continued, still addressing his son in recommendation of Vespucci. “Find out at court what he can usefully do and work towards it. He will do everything, and will speak for me and put all into effect, and let everything be done secretly so that no one may suspect him.” The appeal to secrecy is a common device of those who promise much but intend little. As far as is known, Vespucci never interceded at court on Columbus’s behalf.

On the basis of this document, we can assert with some confidence that Vespucci was his usual slippery self, even with the man who had inspired him. Nevertheless, it is quite another thing to suppose that he actively planned to deprive Columbus of the honor that was his due, and as it turns out, the naming of the western hemisphere resulted from an innocent error.

The scholar Martin Waldseemüller, who was responsible for the 1507 work that suggested the name America, genuinely believed at the time that Vespucci’s contributions outstripped Columbus’s. Waldseemüller based his belief on the Soderini Letter, a text first published in 1504 or 1505. The letter—supposedly addressed to Piero Soderini, then head of the Florentine state—was attributed to Vespucci and described voyages he never took. Amerigo himself never claimed to have written it. When Waldseemüller revised his work in 1514, he acknowledged that he had made a mistake, but it was too late. The name America had spread and stuck like an oil slick, extending over the entire western hemisphere and getting fixed in Old World minds.

Vespucci died in 1512 having achieved a greater reputation than his father could ever have imagined possible. Today Amerigo’s honor is spattered with reproaches. Yet his is one of the few stories that provide us with the means to know or infer why Italians sought the way west, rather than staying in the relatively rich, old, equable Mediterranean. At every stage of his life, every moment of self-reinvention, he was in flight from poverty and failure. And that, I think, was the background of most adventurers who abandoned the Mediterranean for the Atlantic. To leave a calm and familiar sea for an ocean of uncertain hazards, ambition may be enough to draw you, but desperation will surely drive you.

For generations, men like Vespucci were at the frontier of Atlantic voyaging, leading the way first to the archipelagoes of the eastern Atlantic, then along the shore of the west African bulge, as if Atlantic-side Europeans could not explore their own ocean without these outsiders’ help. 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—would never have come to be. My own ancestors lived on Spain’s Atlantic shore for centuries, perhaps millennia, without ever venturing far out to sea.

Vespucci may not “deserve” to have the western hemisphere named after him, yet if we are to understand the origin of the Atlantic world we inhabit today, we must also recognize that his legend has obscured the truth. Amerigo was not the captain of his fate, as tradition has represented him: he took to the sea not out of curiosity or vocation, but because he ran out of other options in his search for fame and honor. In reality, he was never well enough endowed with wealth or talent to make independent choices. Circumstances—poverty, failure, the need to escape—forced each successive self-reinvention on him, as the poor but promising Florentine youth became successively a kind of Artful Dodger, a banker’s bellhop, an unsuccessful merchant, an explorer, and a self-advertised magus who was more like a conjurer or con man.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the naming of America. It may seem grim to inhabit a continent and a country named after someone whose search for fame and honor was so shifty. But this is America. Here in the land of the fresh start, the celebrity rehab, the born-again booster, the makeover merchant—where even presidents embody unconvincing fictionalized versions of themselves—self-reinvention is part of the national character. It may be no disgrace to bear the name of the greatest self-reinventor of them all.

Adapted from Amerigo, by Felipe Fernàndez-Armesto. Copyright © 2007 by Felipe Fernàndez-Armesto. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House Publishing Group.

FELIPE FERNÁNDEZ-ARMESTO is the Prince of Asturias Professor of History at Tufts. He is the author, coauthor, or editor of more than 25 books and numerous papers and scholarly articles, and his work has been translated into 22 languages. He is preparing material on early-modern Creoles in the New World in preparation for the Schouler Lectures, which he will present at Johns Hopkins University next year. His latest book is Amerigo, from which our article is adapted.

  © 2007 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155