Page 13 Book Reviews Non-Fiction October 2007

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by Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Key Porter Books, hardcover,
231 pages, $34.95 ISBN 978-1-55263-892-7

Felipe Fernández-Armesto

Vespucci shown on Waldseemüller map of 1507

Ptolemy on Waldseemüller map of 1507

Waldseemüller map of 1507

Woodcut of 1505 depicting Tupi life according to Vespucci

Vespucci in a 19th century depiction

The Voyage of the Vizcaína
by Klaus Brinkbäuer and Clemens Höges, Harcourt,
paperback, 328 pages, $15.00, 978-0-15-603158-1


By Alidë Kohlhaas

Does the name Vespucci mean anything to you? Search your mind before reading on because it is a name we should know.

Most people born before the Boomer Age will quickly identify the man's first name, or close to it, and why he is important to us. Boomers and their off-spring generations have no clue, at least not in my experience. Some boomers might venture to think of Vespucci as having been either a famous painter or composer of Italian origin, but that is, of course, far removed from the truth. The Florentine, Amerigo Vespucci, happens to be the man whose given name, in the feminine, graces the continent on which we make our home, the Americas, North and South. It must be noted here that Vespucci styled himself Americus Vespucius in what is believed to be his Latin writings.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto has written a fascinating account of Vespucci in a biography, Amerigo. Through detailed research he reveals to us a man of many guises, whose most important talent seems to have been self-promotion. But whether or not one can take Fernández-Armesto conclusions about other aspects of the man as gospel truth is a personal matter. Vespucci is an elusive fellow, and what we know of him has to be pieced together from a varied and scant source of material. The author does a good job of filling in the gaps of knowledge with interesting details, and so makes the book a good read.

The story, in great part, is about how this Florentine, who joined the exodus of Italians to Spain in hope of cashing in on Isabella and Ferdinand's eagerness to explore a western route to India, managed to usurp Columbus. Vespucci even lived in Columbus's home for a while, but that did not stop him from taking more glory for himself than he most likely deserved.

"Amerigo Vespucci, who gave his name to America, was a pimp in his youth and a magus in his maturity. This astonishing transformation was part of his relentless self-invention, from which sprang a dazzling succession of career moves and what the celebrity press now calls 'makeovers'."

Vespucci, The Magus

So begins the preface to Amerigo. This paragraph contains the essence of the man and why in 1507 his Christian name and image graced the first map of the Western Hemisphere, a map that also featured Claudius Ptolemy's image and his concept of the world. The name America had been placed on a map over the area that is present-day Brazil. This map had been produced by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller in conjunction with the Alsatian scholar, Matthias Ringmann.

The two men collaborated on an attempt to translate Ptolemy's great work 'Geography' from the Latin and Greek into French, and illustrate it with the latest maps of the known world. These two had studied together the German university of Freiburg, and then resided in Switzerland from where they had been called to a little town now known as St. Dié-de-Vosges, around 1503-4 together with a number of other scholars. There, the Duke of Lorraine, René II, had hoped to create a great place of learning that would equal such cities as Paris, Rome and Freiburg (Waldseemüller's birthplace).

Alas, René II died before he could fullfil his ambitions. At the same time Waldseemüller and Ringman realized that the translation and illustration of the 2nd century sage of Alexandria's 'Geography' was far too ambitious a work for them and would take years to finish. Eager for some return on their work, they settled on publishing instead an introduction to the future translated work. Called Cosmographiae Introductio, it was released with a huge world map that measured around three meters in width. They also produced a world globe. It is thanks to their efforts that to this day a yearly international geography congress is held in St. Dié, a sleepy little town of about 8,000 people.

 Although when Waldseemüller and Ringman created their map and introduction they did not yet have the full knowledge of the Continent to the West, they decided to call it America in honor of Vespucci, whose alleged work, Mundus Novus (New World), had arrived in St. Dié sometime around 1505. It greatly inspired them. So, it came about that our continent got its name from Vespucci rather than Columbus, who had called his newfound world the Other World. It was on April 15, 1507 when the printers finished typesetting the first book that suggested that the name of the new continent should be America. The two authors chose this feminine version of Amerigo to coincide with the feminine of the other continents, Asia, Europa, Africa. Australia, of course, was unknown at the time.

Not everyone was happy with the suggestion of America, but strangely enough, despite the misgivings of other scholars, the name stuck. In fact, Waldseemüller corrected what he realized as being an error in later editions and writings, but to no avail. Vespucci had not been responsible for the naming, but because of his self-promoting skills it became the favorite choice in Europe for the southern part of the hemisphere. North America, explored by John Capot in 1497-8 and his son Sebastian about 10 years later, for some time still had been referred to as The Indies. But, once people realized that none of the explorers sailing westward had discovered a new route to India, but instead an unknown continent that separated Europe from Asia, America became the name for the whole continent, including Central America.

Fernández-Armesto painstakingly subjected all the known documents that are either attributed to Vespucci, or are about him—most are copies of copies written by those who wanted to be associated with him—to considerably scrutiny. Fernández-Armesto had to be a detective in many ways, and he had to be sensitive to the style and manner in which Vespucci would have expressed himself, but which his imitators failed to capture in their writings. One can say that the author searched for the 'fingerprints' of Vespucci in the many documents he examined and at times he convincingly finds them.

The whole account is fascinating. It is revealing about the manners and attitudes of the Age of Discovery many have called the late 15th century and early 16th. We learn not only about Vespucci, but about the beliefs held in his era, religious and otherwise. Superstitions abounded, as did myths. This is why Vespucci got away with describing the existence of strange races of people that he had supposedly seen, such as dog-faced humans, which had actually come down from the writings of antiquity.

Vespucci, a merchant by profession, claimed to possess navigation skills based on the astrolabe and quadrant. While he actually had been a passenger on the ships in which he made his journeys, he had portrayed himself as the captain or navigator in his writings. There is no doubt that Columbus had reached the mainland of Panama on his second voyage, yet it is Vespucci who had been credited with the discovery of what we now call South America. He may have traveled as far south as the coastline of Brazil, but most likely only to the Venezuelan coastline.

Fernández-Armesto makes a good case for his own opinions gathered from the various manuscripts, but I am not sure that I can always fully agree with his conclusions. There is some doubt in my mind because when one finds errors in the smaller points one wonders just how thorough a writer is about the bigger ones. One of those small points is his reference to the origins of Waldseemüller and Ringman. One might say that I am being finicky, but I have found that lack of thorough research on small points can ruin the efforts on large ones. So, why not apply this rule to a professor of history at Tufts University, eager to get his book out in time for the 500th anniversary of the naming of America?

Yet, I enjoyed the book, and learned much from it. But, I am taking a leaf from Ringman, who obviously anticipated some trouble when he and Waldseemüller published Cosmographiae Introductio. "Don't snub your nose when you read it, like a rhinoceros's snout," is the advise they added to their 1507 publication. "Stay unprejudiced."

The Wycliffe New Testament 1388 and The Case Against Johann Reuchlin
can now be found in Archives

November 2007

By Alidë Kohlhaas

While on the subject of the Age of Discovery, I have just finished reading a book called The Voyage of the Vizcaína. Its subtitle is 'The Mystery of Christopher Columbus's last Ship. The authors are two German journalists, Klaus Brinkbäumer and Clemens Höges, who work for the magazine, Der Spiegel. First released in Germany in 2004, it has now come out in North America through Harvest Book, an imprint of Harcourt, Inc.

The German title of this book, Die Letzte Reise: Der Fall Christoph Columbus (The last Journey: The Case of Christopher Columbus) comes a little closer to the subject of the book than the English title. That does not change the fact, that the two journalists and their magazine are somewhat guilty of exploitation journalism.

On the flimsy excuse of the find of what appears to be an ancient wreck in an inlet at the village of Nombre de Dios, near Portobelo, Panama, they wrote a book that takes a look at Columbus, but has very little to do with the wreck. Yet, the book opens and closes with comments about the Vizcaína, a ship Columbus scuttled on his final voyage to the 'Indies'. It had been so badly chewed up by the treaded shipworm it could not be saved.

The book, perhaps because of translation, often does not hang together as its subject changes course several times. It contains details that one can easily skip over, which is always a bad recommendation for a book. The Voyage of the Vizcaína is not exactly the best biography of Columbus, but it contains some interesting facts about him. The two authors also several times raise the possibility that Columbus had actually been a Jew, even though they base their findings on fairly flimsy evidence. One is that he had a tendency to refer to the Old Testament, and another is that he had not taken a priest with him on his first voyage. So, who cares whether he was a Jew or a Christian? To me that is—as I said before—writing a book with sensationalism in mind.

The wreck, found in the 1990s, has not yet been recovered. There is a battle raging between various factions in Panama and elsewhere who want to cash in on this find for if it really is the Vizcaína, it would be worth a lot of money to whoever owns the rights to it. Greed is very much a factor in this story, and that includes the journalists and their magazine owners. They have spun the tale not only into this book, but also into a talking book, and a TV documentary.

Up to now, no one really knows what the ships looked like in which Columbus sailed on his four voyages. Not a single one has been found. The reproduction of the Santa Maria is based on mere hypothesis. There are no sketches, no plans of the little boat in existence that became the mariner's lead ship on his first voyage. Nor are their plans or sketches of the other ships that went with him.

One cannot help but wonder why various people are so sure it is the Vizcaína? Surely, if the shipworm chewed it up so badly it could no longer sail, these nasty creatures would have continued to chew it up at its resting place where it had been left to rot. As, when and if this boat is ever recovered, we may find out. It would have to be based on fairly good evidence, not only that it is a wooden ship that has several cannons lying near it.

This book can be recommended only to those who are desperate for reading material about Columbus. There is better to be had.

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