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Discovering Amerigo

Discovering AmerigoTufts historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto's new biography of Amerigo Vespucci sheds light on the man for whom America is named.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [09.07.07] While it is Christopher Columbus' name that people associate with the discovery of the New World, it is Amerigo Vespucci's that is branded on the names of the continents. But who was this man? In "Amerigo: The Man Who Gave His Name to America," a biography The Economist calls "masterful," Tufts historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto seeks to sort the myths from the truth behind our continental namesake.

"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," writes The New York Times, adding that the book is "wonderfully idiosyncratic and intelligent."

Fernández-Armesto is the Prince of Asturias Professor of History at Tufts and the author of several books on colonial history and exploration.

Vespucci, writes Fernández-Armesto, was a trader and gifted self-promoter and fame-seeker who-hoping to capitalize on Columbus' successful journey in 1492 and the riches it promised-portrayed himself as an expert on navigation and the New World.

He went on two trans-Atlantic voyages himself, in 1499 and 1502. During the latter trip, he went to the Brazilian coast and claimed to have discovered the New World. But as Fernández-Armesto explains in his book, this claim only verified what Columbus himself had inferred about the continent during an early trip.

Fernández-Armesto, writes The Philadelphia Inquirer, "doesn't so much deride or diminish Vespucci's role so much as use the puzzles his career raises to explain perceptions of the new lands that colored the reporting of the time."

In 1504, Vespucci published a best-selling account entitled Mundus Novus ("New World"), filled with richly detailed fables of his navigational prowess and his adventures across the ocean. His "reports" described native people as "denizens of a golden age of sylvan innocence, or as implausibly superior savages-moral exempla for the implicit chastisement of civilised vice." These same "savages," however, were noted to be receptive traders who set up shop in an exceptionally hospitable climate-a key to Vespucci's economic motives, the Tufts historian notes.

"When seen through Mr. Fernández-Armesto's scholarly eyes, his lies are not really whoppers. They provide a guide to the thought processes of Europeans living in the 15th and 16th centuries," wrote The Economist.

The next year, the Soderini Letter-which touted Vespucci as the true discoverer of the New World- was falsely published under his name by people seeking to capitalize on the success of Mundus Novus, Fernández-Armesto writes.

However, in 1507, geographers preparing a new edition of Ptolemy's influential text Geographia received a copy of the Soderini Letter and incorporated it as fact into their work, featuring a map that branded the name "America"-adapting Vespucci's first name-across present-day Brazil. In 1538, the influential mapmaker Mercator applied this name to both the southern and northern continents, leaving us where we are today.

The biography has received wide praise and has been widely reviewed by dozens of media outlets. According to The Washington Post¸ Fernández-Armesto "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."

"Fernandez-Armesto takes what could be called a post-post-colonial stance on the whole business of Europeans' exploring the Americas, a view refreshingly free of political and cultural preconditions," notes the Inquirer.

The fact that the Americas bear Vespucci's name is for the best, says Fernández-Armesto. Naming the New World after Christopher Columbus, he contends, would have left a charged reminder of imperial expansion and the violence that accompanied it. Vespucci, on the other hand, leaves behind no troubling or lasting legacy of exploration and conquest. Through his 1538 map, Mercator ensured the course that history would take.

"The tradition was secure," writes Fernández-Armesto. "The decision was irreversible."

 

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