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New Book Sheds Light on Explorer Vespucci

JACKI LYDEN, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Five hundred years ago, a German cartographer gave a name to the newly discovered landmass blocking Europe's western passage to Asia. He called it America. It was a nod to the Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci.

Surely, an honor like that could belong only to one of the greatest travelers in history, a selfless adventurer and a master of navigation and science.

Historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto would beg to differ. He presents the sobering account of the second-rate self-promoter in his new book "Amerigo: The Man Who Gave His Name to America."

Thanks for coming to the program.

Mr. FELIPE FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO (Historian; Author, "Amerigo: The Man Who Gave His Name to America"): On the contrary, thank you.

LYDEN: Of course, we're referring to Vespucci here as Amerigo, but many of us in school will have learned the American pronunciation of Amerigo.

Mr. FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO: Well, Amerigo is a good pronunciation because it sounds like America. But Amerigo is the correct pronunciation in the sense that that's the way Florentines pronounced it and Amerigo Vespucci was a Florentine.

LYDEN: Amerigo Vespucci's reputation back in 1507 when the Americas were named was what? It seems to have been stellar at the time. What was he credited with discovering?

Mr. FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO: He was credited with just about the most fantastic achievement that you could have it at that time. He was credited with being equal to the greatest of the ancients. Particularly, he was specifically hailed by the people who bestowed his name on this hemisphere with being the new Ptolemy, the modern equivalent of the most famous and revered geographer of the Ancient world.

And you go to remember, this is the time of the Renaissance in Europe. So to be equal to the greatest of the ancients was just about the biggest career move you could make it at the time.

LYDEN: And yet, as a young man in Florence, you write that he was, in fact a huckster and even a pimp. Your line(ph) is Amerigo Vespucci, who gave his name to America with a pimp in his youth and a magus, a magician in his maturity.

Mr. FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO: Yes, he's like what (unintelligible) nowadays. In modern America, we would think of the kind of spoiled college kid who's wasted his opportunities, wasted his education. And he resorts to making his living amongst the low-lifes of Florence. He becomes this sort of Mr. Fix-it of Florence. If you've got something shady, something dodgy that you want done, you go to Amerigo and you ask him to fix it for you. It's not just being a pimp. I mean, he was a pimp, you know, there are three letters addressed to him in his youth, which you can only interpret and expressed on rather unguarded language. People writing to him saying kind of - I'm paraphrasing here - thank you very much for what you did for me. I really like the brunette. Could you fix something up for me?

So he clearly is, you know, procuring myriad treasures, women(ph) of clients. But he's also dealing as a small-time commission agent in jewel deals. Just about everything that isn't quite crucial in Renaissance Florence Amerigo handled.

LYDEN: Let me ask you, how did Vespucci come to make this incredibly dangerous and difficult voyage of 1499?

Mr. FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO: Historians always wondered why did Vespucci want to go and why did they want to take him because, you know, he knew nothing about the sea. The only voyage he's ever made as far as we learned in his life up to that time was from Florence to Barcelona, just across the short stretch of the Mediterranean. But one thing that Vespucci really did there was pearls, was jewels, especially pearl.

And in 1498, Columbus had discovered a really rich pearl fishery off the coast of Venezuela, and that's what the voyage of 1499 was bound for. They were going out there to see if they could get some of those pearls. And, by golly, they did. They came back with thousands of dockets worth of pearls, and Vespucci managed to pocket quite a few.

LYDEN: Well, what are Vespucci's claims to fame? Was it his uncanny ability to compute longitude to guide his travels? And you say that this was pure nonsense. You call it flimflam.

Mr. FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO: Yeah, well, I mean, he did claim to be able to read longitude by celestial observations. In fact, he claimed to be able to do it by a method, which in theory was very well known at the time - the lunar distance method. But only in theory this is a great system, it requires instruments of tremendous accuracy in order to be able to make the right measurements in the first place.

So it's, practically, impossible if he could have made these calculations and did he aim the calculational longitude that he actually recalled and sailed wildly and accurately. It would have actually placed him several thousand miles west of the position that he was in when he took the measurement. There I'm afraid I can't go along with the view that Vespucci was, you know, sort of the prophet of the use of longitude.

LYDEN: But did he discover South America as a continent, which was his great claim?

Mr. FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO: Columbus had beaten him to that discovery in 1498, and Columbus had actually accurately identified the southern part of the Western Hemisphere as a continental landmass of enormous proportions and he even called it something very close to calling it as a New World. He called it Another World. And one of Columbus' - few of his friends back in Spain beat Vespucci to the coining(ph) of the name New World.

So really Vespucci didn't actually achieve anything but contemporaries who admired him credited him with. He didn't really do anything that justified the greatness of his reputation except being an absolutely first-rate pompous(ph).

LYDEN: Well, I'd say that Amerigo Vespucci was perhaps the first great American salesman. And since this is a capitalistic society, perhaps he was the perfect person to have lent his name to our shores.

Mr. FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO: Sure, that's true. Yes, certainly the land of the sleek oil salesman in the hot star(ph) league. You know, maybe a pimp and a jewel agent doesn't have a bad patron saint. But, I mean, I do think that there's more to it than that. I mean, I think that America is, and one of the greatnesses of America is that you, you know, you kind of are allowed to reinvent yourself here. You are allowed to wipe your slate clean. Amerigo Vespucci, who was the greatest makeover artist of all time, isn't a bad namesake for this country.

LYDEN: Felipe Fernandez-Armesto is the Prince of Asturias professor of history at Tufts University. His new book is titled "Amerigo: The Man Who Gave His Name to America" and he joined us from the studios of WCBE in Richmond, Virginia.

Well, thank you for brining Amerigo Vespucci back to life.

Mr. FERNANDEZ-ARMESTO: On the contrary, thank you very much for allowing me to be on the program, Jacki. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.