Amerigo Vespucci: America's Namesake Gets Historical Rediscovery 500 Years Later

Five centuries after his death, Florentine explorer and chronicler Vespucci is still derided for having his name slapped on two continents that many think should've been called North and South Colombia. But the history, and the man, are more subt

Crew members of the Amerigo Vespucci ship (daffyduke)
Crew members of the Amerigo Vespucci ship (daffyduke)
Franco Cardini

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 Vespucci's 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, -- Vespucci's birthday – Florence's 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 continent's 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 Hemisphere's 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. Amerigo's 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 Magnificent's 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.

Lucky scribe

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 world's 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, Vespucci's journal from his trips to the New World roused the geographer Martin Waldseemüller's 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.
Vespucci's 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 Vespucci's legacy was Johannes Gutenberg's great invention, which marked the start of the modern age: the printing press. Vespucci's 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.

Read more from La Stampa in Italian

Photo - daffyduke

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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