FLORENCE - This month marks five centuries to the day since the death of Amerigo Vespucci, a Florence-born explorer and writer largely credited with giving "America" its name.
Still, even 500 years after his Feb. 22, 1512 death, Vespucci remains a controversial figure. His legacy was established in part by support from his native Florence, the Wall Street of its day, and his leveraging of the newly invented printing press.
Celebrations are under way in both Florence and New York to mark the fifth centenary of Vespuccis death. A panel last week in the Italian city debated the historical significance of Vespucci as a humanist, a cosmographer and navigator. On March 9, -- Vespuccis birthday Florences Palazzo Vecchio is hosting the congress Tuscan navigators. In New York, St John's University, is hosting an exhibition entitled Amerigo's America: Florence and the Merchants of the New World, which will move on March 25 to Florence, and afterwards to Tokyo.
Of course, history tells us that the American continent was discovered by another Italian, Christopher Columbus, the Genoese explorer who served the Catholic Kingdom of Castile and Aragon. As such, the continents name should more properly be Colombia or Columbia, which have been relegated to various cities, a mid-sized South American country and famous New York university.
Instead, the Western Hemispheres continents were named after a broker who was born in 1454 in Florence, in the Franciscan parish of All Saints.
Vespucci was educated by his uncle, a Dominican friar and humanist, and was later trained by another uncle, a diplomat who brought him to France from 1478 to 1482.
The Vespucci family was trusted by the powerful house of Medici. Amerigos cousin, Marco was married with a beauty from Genoa, Simonetta Cattaneo, who in Florence became the muse of poets and painters such as Politian and Sandro Botticelli. Most importantly, she became the mistress of Giuliano de Medici, Lorenzo the Magnificents brother.
Once back in Florence, the still young Amerigo Vespucci earned the favor of a member of the Medici House, who had a strong banking and commercial network and sent him to Seville, in Spain. There, Vespucci embarked three or four times between 1497 and 1505 on ships that followed the route which Admiral Christopher Columbus had taken first.
Vespucci acquired fame as a diarist. He was also very lucky. One of these expeditions, sponsored by the King of Portugal, arrived in a bay where a large river flowed. It was named "River of January" in Portuguese, after the month of the discovery. Rio de Janeiro would be built there.
Maybe Vespucci was not the worlds best navigator. But indeed he was a great writer. He had the makings of a modern traveler-anthropologist. David Abulafia, an influential UK historian sees him as a brilliant journalist. Translated into Latin, Vespuccis journal from his trips to the New World roused the geographer Martin Waldseemüllers interest, among others.
And it was Waldseemüller who ruled that the new continent had to be named America not for its actual Genoese discoverer who had always stubbornly maintained that he had arrived in Asia but after the first who had bravely called it a new and previously unknown continent, challenging all the most authoritative geographical traditions of the time, from the Bible to Ptolemy.
In 1506, the King of Aragona made Vespucci Piloto Mayor, chief navigator of Spain, inspector and cartographer of the royal fleet. He died in Seville in 1512, without children. His heir was his nephew Giovanni.
Vespuccis extraordinary success was largely attributable to Florence. In the 15th century, the city was Wall Street and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology rolled into one. It was a great city of bankers, businessmen, merchants, and scholars.
But no less important for Vespuccis legacy was Johannes Gutenbergs great invention, which marked the start of the modern age: the printing press. Vespuccis journal was immediately translated into Latin, under the title Mundus Novus, New World. It was published in Florence between 1502 and 1504, and became a bestseller across Europe. Between 1504 and 1506, twelve editions were published.
In 1550, the Italian version of the book was published in an anthology of travel writing, Navigation and Travels, put together by Giovanni Battista Ramusio. Another famous work on the islands discovered during his four trips, The Letters of Amerigo Vespucci, was published in Florence in 1505.
Vespucci was the son of the city which invented the Renaissance and of the invention which marked the start of the modern age. With two parents like that his planetary success was bound for the ages.
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