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Original spin: how lurid sex fantasies gave us "America." (letters of Amerigo Vespucci)

When I was in Mrs. Poulnot's third grade class, history was taught in tableaux. Christopher Columbus was forever peering from a gunnel, crying "Land ho!" Amerigo Vespucci was eternally gazing at the stars, sextant in hand.

In the past year, many of us have had the Columbus tableau radically rearranged. Among other things, we now know that he was not the first to spy land. A simple seaman named Rodrigo de Tirana actually had that honor. Now, in my mind's eye, Columbus has stepped back from the bow; I see him down below, writing false log entries, mumbling to God and worrying himself mightily about whether Isabel would cheat him out of his payments- which she did.

Amid all this revision, one figure of this era has gone unexamined. Amerigo Vespucci remains the kindly mapmaker who lent his name to both continents of our hemisphere. I can remember asking Mrs. Poulnot: "What did he do that was so great? Why aren't we the United States of Columbia?" She thumped me on the head with her engagement ring and sent me to the principal's office.

The question still seems a good one to me, and I recently descended into Columbia University's stacks to find an answer. There was, I learned, a precise time and place when Amerigo's name become ours, and in the depths of Butler Library, I found the identity of the obscure man responsible for christening a third of the earth. It turns out that the tableau of Amerigo the mapmaker needs some tinkering, too. The story of our baptism is a glorious chain of mistakes so tawdry and preposterous that it is prophetically American.

Despite the generous treatment he receives in third-grade history books, Amerigo the man was a dweeb. He was born into a family of great prominence and connections in 15th-century Florence (the model for Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus" was his cousin, Simonetta). All the advantages of an aristocratic birth notwithstanding, Amerigo was not one of the brighter lights of his class. In fact, he flunked. As was typical in those days and these, his parents procured Amerigo a sinecure, in this case working as a steward for a member of the notorious Italian banking family, Lorenzo di Pier Francesco de Medici.

By the time Columbus raised his sails, Amerigo had worked his way up to a plum posting in Seville, Spain, where he toiled for the Medicis as an accountant. But Amerigo, perhaps looking for a more fulfilling avocation, soon threw himself into collecting maps and books on cosmography and astronomy. Around the turn of the century, he contrived to sail on at least two voyages bound for the New World.

Amerigo served as mapmaker on these voyages tracing the coast of South America. In one harbor, he observed that the natives elevated their huts on pilings above the water and was reminded of Venice. On his map he wrote, "little Venice," or in Spanish, "Venezuela." On another occasion Amerigo entered a huge fiver during January. Plumbing the shallows of his imagination, he wrote in Portuguese, "Rio de Janeiro."

At this point in the story, the standard explanation in the grade-school textbooks starts to crumble. We all learned that Amerigo's maps launched his fame. But this was an era overwhelmed with cartography, and what was to distinguish Amerigo's maps was what accompanied them. After each of his voyages, Amerigo wrote long letters home: one to his employer, Lorenzo de Medici, and another to the political boss of Florence, Piero Soderini. These two letters represent our namesake's true legacy. Without them, this dull accountant would have disappeared into the vapors of history.

Goodbye, Columbus

Why didn't Mrs. Poulnot or the textbooks mention these letters? One has only to read them to understand. Amerigo's letters are delicious dispatches laced with wild adventures, bizarre events, and lewd encounters. They are outrageous even by the jaded standards of license we maintain today. But to truly appreciate the content of the letters, one has to realize that Amerigo didn't write them.

The originals have been lost. What we have are copies published on a then-newfangled machine called a printing press. These letters, by whatever path, found their way to the media of the day--printers who knew they could make good money peddling pamphlets crammed with fresh information about the New World.

These journalists lived during the infancy of the printing press, and their new technology was reshaping the Old World as rapidly as the computer has transformed our own. Venice, for example, employed 268 printers soon after Columbus departed.

At this time there was no First Amendment, no copyright law, and no tradition of authorship. These scurrilous, mercenary printers simply rewrote Amerigo's flat prose and exaggerated his plodding descriptions of the New World in an early stab at yellow journalism. Indeed, if hype has an origin, it may well be here in the letters of Amerigo Vespucci.

The most obvious evidence of the journalists' sloppy hand is in the reckless disregard for the facts. One transatlantic route, as written, would have sailed Amerigo across the belly of South America into the Pacific Ocean, somewhere near the Galapagos Islands. Another route would have plowed directly through the continental United States to Puget Sound, Washington. But the most compelling evidence is the occasional burst of lewd prose. Imagine your average squire in 1505 reading the following description of the randy savages of the New World:
 They do not practice marriage: Each man takes
 all the women he desires; and when he wishes to
 discard them, he repudiates them without dis-
 crediting himself or disgracing the woman; for
 in this the woman has as much liberty as the
 man. They are ... excessively libidinous and
 the women much more than the men; for I re-
 frain out of decency from telling of the art with
 which they gratify their immoderate lust.

And yet decency can't quite keep its tenuous hold on the author when the topic of wanton women comes up (and it frequently does). The reader learns that "the greatest mark of friendship which they show you is that they give you their wives and their daughters, and fathers and mothers feel highly honored when they bring you their daughter, even though she be a virgin, if you sleep with her." A few lines later, decorum again slips its slack tether to inform us that despite such orgies, the women maintain unnaturally tight bodies, especially where it counts:
 It was to us a matter of astonishment that none
 was to be seen among them who had a flabby
 breast, and those who had borne children were
 not to be distinguished from virgins by the
 shape and shrinking of the womb; and in the
 other parts of the body similar things were seen
 of which in the interest of modesty I make no
 mention. When they had the opportunity of cop-
 ulating with Christians, urged by excessive lust,
 they defiled and prostituted themselves.

These rewrite men knew how to wield the plot device of invoking modesty and decency. The letters continuously resist--try to resist, then yield (and yield, baby) to descriptions of ruttish nymphs who want nothing more than a shameless romp with a European. It's a time honored technique still used by writers at Penthouse magazine: I never thought it would happen to me, but one day some explorer buddies and I were hugging the coast of the New World when....

These journalists knew that a world of voluptuaries was not enough. Consider this twist on the usual travelogue entry on local cuisine: "... among other kinds of meat, human flesh is a common article of diet among them. Nay be the more assured of this fact because the father has already been seen to eat children and wife, and I knew a man whom I also spoke to who was reputed to have eaten more than 300 bodies ." One also reads of a mother remorselessly impaling her newborn infant on a spit for a roasted snack, of a battle with a tribe of giant women, and of an encounter with a 150-year-old man.

By comparison, Columbus's epistolary oeuvre is tame. Columbus's letters did sell, but not nearly as well as the prurient Amerigo letters. One 1976 study counts 22 editions of Columbus's letters in the 35 years after he first sailed. Amerigo's editions add up to 60, making them the overwhelming bestsellers of the age.

Good sales do not name a hemisphere, but they help. As Amerigo's letters moved swiftly across Europe, one copy found its way into the possession of a fevered, poetic soul named Matthias Ringmann, who lived in a small French academic community. When Ringmann got a copy of the Amerigo letter to Soderini, the academy was beginning work on a grand edition of the most respected geography text of the day, Ptolemy's Cosmographia. With Ringmann's new material, the scholars decided to publish a separate introduction that would include not only Amerigo's letter, but an updated map of the world.

The map was drawn by Ringmann's friend Martin Waldseemuller, a noted cartographer. Remember the name. He's the man who named America (although only after a few late-night, heady chats with the giddy Ringmann). On this map are the crude outlines of the South American coast, an amputated chunk of North America, and a few of the Caribbean Islands. Beside Brazil, in Latin, Waldseemuller set in type, "I see no reason why we should not call it 'America,' that is to say, land of Americus, for Americus its discoverer, man of sagacious wit." Emblazoned across this new continental fragment, in capital letters, it reads: AMERICA.

If you like dates, hold April 25, 1507, in your heart. That is the day the presses rolled out Ringmann's book. Soon after publication, Ringmann died, and this was the only map with "America" on it for some time. Waldseemuller removed the name from his later versions. Perhaps he learned the truth. If he did, it didn't matter. "America" was the nom juste. With its muscular consonants and pleasing assonance, America sat comfortably alongside her peers, Asia, Africa, and Europa. When George Mercator applied the name to both continents on a map 31 years later in 1538, America was no longer a name but a place fixed firmly in the minds of Europeans.

Mr. Amerigo

Amerigo Vespucci warrants neither scorn nor praise. He died penniless, as did his friend Columbus. Amerigo won a fame as broad as can be had on this earth, and one appropriate to a world that was made new more by the printing press than by the discovery of distant lands. Guttenberg initiated an era marked by the swift collison of ideas, as good an epithet for America as there is.

Amid the primitive anarchy touched off by the debut of the printing press, the earliest editors found a way to get their readers' attention and thus created a lasting truth: Sex and violence sell. This maxim of the publishing industry has sustained it for five centuries and accounts for much of what you read today. Probably even this article.

In the intervening 500 years, history has tried to make Amerigo into either an esteemed explorer who made lasting contributions to cartography or a fraud who deliberately twisted the truth to snatch Columbus's fame. In a famous explosion of vitriol, Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: "Strange... that broad America must wear the name of a thief. Amerigo Vespucci, the pickledealer at Seville ... whose highest naval rank was boatswain's mate in an expedition that never sailed, managed in this lying world to supplant Columbus and baptize half the earth with his own dishonest name."

How difficult it is to accept that behind the facade of our tidy narratives rages the aimless human circus. Amerigo's fame was not earned but thrust upon him by techniques as old as typeface and no different than those used to sell a Bruce Willis movie or a Tom Clancy novel. America was not baptized in the honest sweat of labor, but in the maddening confusion of hype.

Jack Hitt is currently writing a book about the medieval road to Santiago, Spain, for Paseidon Press. He is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine.
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Author:Hitt, Jack
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Biography
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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