Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Vespucci: Not Bad for a Son of a Notary

"March 9, 1454: This Man Is a Continent … or Two"
This Day in Tech (March 8, 2010)

"Vespucci, the son of a notary, went to work for the Medici banking house. They dispatched him as an agent to Seville, Spain, where he arranged the fitting out of ships and the trading of their cargoes.

"He seems to have been in Seville when another Italian in Spain, Christopher Columbus, returned to the nearby port of Cadiz from his first journey to the West Indies. Vespucci later helped Columbus prepare his vessels for the Genoese mariner's second and third voyages of discovery...."

So far, Mr. Vespucci sounds like a nice enough chap: the sort of person whose job is a what we'd call a white-collar position, somewhere between bank officer and clerical expediter (DOT 222.367-018). Not, though, the sort of person you'd expect to be remembered five centuries later, when almost all jobs had names - and nine-digit numeric codes.

Mr Vespucci was an agent for the Medici banking house, remember: and he showed initiative by setting up his own expedition, after Columbus established the practicality of reaching the Indies by sailing west. (Not that the world was round: that had been known for centuries - Ptolomy's Almagest and all that - and another topic.)

Mr. Vespucci's second expedition was what put him on the map. He decided to explore the coast of the Indies - the lands of India. Which he did, traveling south along the coast until he came to the area we call Patagonia these days.

Another 400 miles, and he'd have reached Tierra del Fuego.

The coast looked like nothing that Europeans had seen. Not the post-glacial lot, anyway. Which is yet again another topic.

Back in Europe, Mr. Vespucci assembled data and published a map. Thanks to breakthrough information technology that had been invented, the printing press, copies of his map spread through Europe.

(Martin Waldseemüller, via Wired, used w/o permission)

Back to the Wired article:

"...Martin Waldseemüller, a modernist-humanist German clergyman and cartographer, reprinted 'The Four Voyages of Amerigo' in 1507 with his own 'Cosmographic Introduction.' He opined:
" 'I see no reason why anyone should justly object to calling this part … America, after Amerigo [Vespucci], its discoverer, a man of great ability.'
"Waldseemüller included a map of the the new lands, on which the name 'America' makes its earliest appearance...."

I'm on the same page as the article's author:

"...Vespucci died in Seville in 1512. Though he reached America after Columbus (and others), it is not unjust that two continents are named in his honor. He does seem to have originated the idea that the new lands were not merely offshore islands of Asia. He reorganized the data, he shifted the paradigm, he deserves the eponym...."

Works for me.

There's more to the article: I think it makes good reading, and tells a bit more than many about Amerigo Vespucci, who put the Americas on the map.

South America, anyway.

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