America celebrates her independence today the 4th of July and across the great continent the sky will ablaze with fireworks as hundreds of millions across the country get together with family and friends to barbeque and cook, to eat, drink and be merry, just as many more all around the world will join the party with the United States in celebrating her day. None more so than in Italy.
Hardly surprising seeing as the cultural links between Italy and America are as strong today as they have been throughout history. The history of these two countries are entwined from the beginning and unusually of mutual benefit to both nations. Italy was influential on America even in its infancy, an influence that is exerted even today, a part of the American DNA is Italian. A signifier of this is the very name of the continent – America, North ad South, which takes its name from the Italian Amerigo Vespucci.
Why does the continent not bear the name of the man who discovered it Columbus? Columbus did discover the West Indies and the landmass that is today America but it was Vespucci who realised that it was in fact a ‘New World’ and not the westernmost fringes of Asia. In fact it’s debateable how much ‘discovery’ Vespucci did, as the historical records of the supposed four voyages he made across the Atlantic are vague and have been obscured by forgeries. Historians differ greatly as to the real contributions he made to the cartographic realisation of the new continent of America, yet there are some things we are sure he did achieve.
Vespucci was a Florentine born in 1454 when the de Medici ruled and the Tuscan city was the centre of the Universe. He was fortunate to born in a time when the new discoveries had literally opened up a new world of possibility and growth. While his brothers were sent to the University in Pisa, Amerigo entered the merchant classes and found himself working under the de Medici family. Finding favour with Lorenzo Pierfrancesco de Medici, at the age of 38 he was dispatched as a confidential agent to Cadiz in Spain. It was just at that time that the Crown of Castille broke their monopoly with Christopher Columbus and started handing out licences to other navigators for the West Indies.
It was in 1499 that Vespucci, on his first voyage discovered that the continent of South America extended much further south that previously thought. He discovered Trinidad, the mouth of the Amazon and the Orinoco river. Whatever about his exploratory achievements Vespucci seems to have been a brilliant politician and after only two voyages the role of Chief of Navigation of Spain was created for him. He proved capable in this role and devised a rudimentary yet accurate method of discerning longitude. He publicised and his voyages through letter writing and through the letters his name grew. It was however and obscure German clergyman and amateur geographer Waldseemuller who gave his name to ‘New World’.
He wrote: “I see no reason why anyone should justly object to calling this part ... America, after Amerigo (Vespucci), its discoverer, a man of intelligence, Amerige, that it, the land of Americus or America as both Europa and Asia took their names from women.” As is often the case the name just stuck. Although Vespucci used the Latinised version of his name Americus, the name Amerigo is the Italian version of Emericus, which in German is Heinrich and in English Henry. It is unusual in that it is a place name derived from a man's first or given name, the standard at the time was to use the second or family name.
By Hugo Mc Cafferty