AMERIGO: THE MAN WHO GAVE HIS NAME TO AMERICA, by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Random House, 233 pages, $15, softbound.

The author of this informative book is a cartographer and history professor at Tufts University in Boston and the author of several books on early American history. Amerigo Vespucci is mostly a forgotten adventurer and merchant for whom the new world was named. Apparently, he was a talented self-promoter who turned himself into an explorer.

In 1507, European cartographers decided to name the western hemisphere "America" after this Florentine man who was most noted for his obscurity. According to Fernandez-Armesto, Vespucci was an occasional pimp and jewel-trader who dabbled in magic and constantly reinvented himself. The author finds him guilty of promoting lies, evasions, outrageous fantasies and huge misjudgments involving his career.

Using the informed judgment of a careful historian, Fernandez-Armesto plows through the evidence with discipline. The picture that quickly emerges is one of a rogue and raconteur, a salesman, a sorcerer and someone who thought nothing of making someone else's adventures his own.

Vespucci was 45 years old before he took to the ocean and "rebranded himself as an expert in navigation and cosmography," writes the author. Vespucci, who has never been the subject of a modern biography, was a little like a very smooth con man who portrayed himself as something unbelievable by today's standards.

Without hesitation, the author asserts that Vespucci "made no significant contribution to any art or science — as we shall see, his cosmography was amateurish, his navigation overrated, his writing feeble — he was an important figure in global history because he was one of the last in a series of adventurers from the Mediterranean who helped conquer the Atlantic and extend across the ocean the reach of what we now call Western civilization."

The author spends much time comparing Vespucci to Columbus and finds that both men were romantics, especially about themselves. But Vespucci did not share Columbus' "messianic religiosity and was less deeply steeped in chivalry and hagiography."

Both men spent much of their lives seeking the East by way of the West. Both agreed that what we now know as South America represented a "new" or "other" continent. Columbus only referred to Vespucci once in a letter to his son. In it, Columbus seemed to see Vespucci as "an amiable fixer, a reliable man of business" but also "a luckless, guileless victim of other men's depredations."

Columbus claimed Vespucci was "a man of high standing, but Fortune has been unfair to him, as she has to so many others." It appears that Vespucci promised to intercede with the government of Spain on Columbus' behalf but never did so. He emphasized the need for secrecy and Columbus bought it.

This is part of the reason that America was named incorrectly for Vespucci instead of Columbus. As slight as Vespucci's accomplishments appear to have been, the author makes him and his time period unfailingly interesting.


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