What's with the Silence About Amerigo Vespucci?

Mr. Fernández-Armesto is the author most recently of Amerigo: The Man Who Gave His Name to America (Random House, Aug. 2007).

Strangely, in the western hemisphere today, and in the United States in particular, there is almost no discernible interest in commemorating the 500th anniversary of the naming of America.

On April 25th, 1507, printers finished type-setting the book which first proposed naming this part of world after the Florentine adventurer, Amerigo Vespucci, but the opportunity to stimulate scholarship and debate has passed almost without notice. The four hundredth anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, meanwhile, has excited disproportionate brouhaha. Jamestown was not the first permanent European colony on the present territory of the USA. That honor belongs to Puerto Rico. Nor was Jamestown second: St Augustine, Florida, has the right to that place. Nor third: that was New Mexico. Jamestown inaugurated Anglo-America only – an event one might expect to attract more obloquy than enthusiasm nowadays. Yet America has turned its back on its own baptism.

I propose two reasons why this year’s great quincentennial is being ignored. The first, I suspect, is the embarrassment aroused in the United States by the very name of America. We all get embarrassed by names. In the very year in which America was named, the first Italian version of an account, under Vespucci’s name, of what he called Mundus Novus appeared. But the printer got the name of the author wrong. He set it as Alberico Vespucci.

If you have a name like Felipe Fernández-Armesto, you get very used to people garbling it. And I guess Vespucci had to put up with this, too . But it seems to me striking that in the very moment when the world began to name the continent after Amerigo, the printer of one of the key works got the namesake’s name wrong.

Unease about the appropriateness of what we are called is a very common experience. And I think in part it is because we just cannot get out of our heads the obvious error that names should be descriptive, that they should convey a sense of what we are like and who we are. Of course names are not descriptive, they are purely designators. Otherwise, a black woman could never be called Bianca, or a tall, fair man could never be called Nigel, because that means “small and dark.” Or an ugly person could never be called Linda or Belle. I am called Felipe which means “lover of horses.” I have nothing against horses but whenever I try to ride one they show unmistakable hatred for me. Intellectually, we can understand that names are purely designators, but we still want them to describe us. We want them to have the right connotations.

In terms of connotations, America today has become one of the worst names that a hemisphere, and a particular country, can have. The USA is the only country in the hemisphere that actually calls itself “America.” Clearly, that alone is enough to conjure up all sorts of embarrassment and all sorts of resentment among other communities in the New World. Then there is the fact that the name is loud with imperial resonance which has been imposed on this hemisphere from outside. Amerigo Vespucci, finally, is a rather embarrassing namesake, who, though a hero to some, is a villain to many, denounced as a charlatan or a fraud, a cuckoo who nested in Columbus’s rightful glory. Nowadays, corporations and even countries seem always to be changing their names in pursuit of an enhanced image. If rebranding consultants were to look at America, they would say, "You’ve got to change the name. ‘The United States of America’ presses the wrong button, sets up the wrong vibes. Call it something politically correct. Change it to the United States of Turtle Island."

The second reason for the neglect of this centenary is that we know so little about Vespucci. Historians have been inhibited from writing about him until now, because of the commonest of historians’ complaints: the problems of the sources. No one has been able to establish a consensus about which are genuine . In my book on the subject, I claim to have solved this problem by a simple expedient, going back to the manuscripts. There is not enough material to do a full statistical analysis of imagery, but there is enough to identify what I call Vespucci’s intellectual tics: the obsessions that concerned him, the authors he quotes, the kinds of material he deals with over and over again. In my opinion, for example, if there isn’t a lot of egotistical rhetoric in the text, it’s not by Vespucci; or if there isn’t a lot of bombast about the superiority of celestial over practical navigation, it isn’t by Vespucci; or if there are no quotations from Petrarch or Dante, it probably isn’t by Vespucci. So if we use the unquestionably genuine letters as a template, collating them with the contested sources, we can be certain of what is genuinely Vespucci’s own work, and confident about what is intercalation or forgery.

When I put the sources together, the picture that I get of Vespucci is of what we would now call a makeover artist, whose many self-reinventions were all escapes from failure. He was a pimp in his youth and a magus in his maturity. Along the way, he became the Figaro of Florence, the factotum della città, a dealer in pearls, a merchant’s agent, an explorer, and a self-proclaimed cosmographer. This extraordinary trajectory of his life, this chameleon-like story of self-adaptation, seems to me to be worthy of being narrated and investigated. I think it makes America suitably named. Vespucci prefigured a typical story of modern American: of life, at least, in the United States, which has become the land of self-reinvention, of makeover, of celebrity rehab, of flexi-careers and flexi-lives. A country that is actually ruled by a president who seems himself to be a projection of a sort of fictional self image properly owes part of its identity to the greatest self-reinventor of them all.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

The Italian printers named America, and it is interesting to know more about who they named it after, and about that fellow's resemblances to the current chief executive of his namesake, but why did British settlers follow their lingo? (The 13 colonies which declared independence as the "United States of America, in General Congress assembled," in 1776, were colonies of Britain, not Spain, Florence, or Turtle Island: that more than any great shame about Vespucci, accounts for the relative hyping of Jamestown's anniversary.)

Is there another book explaining the adherence of late 18th century colonists to a basically bogus "baptism" of the early 16 century?

James Jude Simonelli - 8/13/2007

Jonas Bronck is also worried in his grave. His name sake THE BRONX carries an "anglo" version of his name for the location. Brooklyn has been spelled the British way for 100's of years, sweeping away the Dutch influence on North America.

England and now America are sweeping all of history into the "English" dictionary version of History.

What about the Manhattas Indians? On Governor's Island (New York harbor) there is a small plaque commemorating the Manhattas Indians, as the original inhabitants of the New York Islands. Who ahs seen or heard of that plaque or that tribe?

What further should we do, rename all the cities with the name Columbus - COLUMBO? YES, by George, Yes!!!

Elliott Aron Green - 8/13/2007

Florence --and Italy generally-- seem to have mapmaking centers in Vespucci's time, THE mapmaking centers. Do you discuss and/or reproduce in your book the various maps and globes produced in that early period?

History News Network