Far from being the innovative navigational genius of legend, Vespucci emerges here as salesman extraordinaire.
Although Fernández-Armesto (History/Tufts; Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration, 2006, etc.) gallantly attempts to make him appear otherwise, Amerigo Vespucci is the historical equivalent of a great trailer for a lame movie. In summation, he’s an undeniably compelling figure, as evidenced by the book’s opening salvo: “Amerigo Vespucci…was a pimp in his youth and a magus in his maturity.” It’s hard not to be intrigued by a man who was on intimate terms with both Columbus and the Medici family, a man who enjoyed an almost mystical reputation as a navigator. Readers will quickly find, however, that broad descriptions of his exploits are far more compelling than the actual events of his life. Vespucci is a shadowy figure; he left behind little original writing, and a number of works attributed to him are of dubious authenticity. He was also a mercenary hack who sold his services to the highest bidder—though, to be fair, this was no egregious offense at the time. Unlike Columbus, from whom he drew heavily in his descriptions of his voyages and the lands he encountered, Vespucci was a passive traveler, not the commander of an expedition. He claimed expertise with a variety of instruments, but in actuality the showy, authoritative manner he employed when flourishing them in front of bewildered seamen was inversely proportional to his ability to use them correctly. The mapmaker who named South America in Vespucci’s honor later regretted that decision and sought to rechristen it “Terra Incognita”; by then, however, historical inertia had taken hold.
More likely to make readers petition for a continental name change than sing Vespucci’s praises.