Sunday, August 12, 2007

Columbus Hot, Vespucci Cool

In a post entitled One Hell of a Misnomer that I put up here back in April, I acknowledged the 500th anniversary of the naming of America as America, and how intimately what was essentially a case of mistaken identity was linked to the enormous powers of the then new medium of print, as an agent of publicity.

So, today's New York Times Book Review section carries a review of Amerigo: The Man Who Gave His Name to America, by Felipe Fernández-Armesto. The review itself is by Nathaniel Philbrick. And early on in the review, Philbrick also points to the power of publication, but adds that Vespucci himself was very much the self-made celebrity:

It’s one of the stranger quirks of history and geography. The continent that was supposedly discovered by Christopher Columbus is named for a decidedly second-rate Johnny-come-lately of an explorer named Amerigo Vespucci. Like Columbus, Vespucci was an Italian who sailed on occasion under the flag of Spain. But unlike Columbus, Vespucci was more at home in a counting house than a sailing ship. (Even Ralph Waldo Emerson, normally a booster of all things American, dismissed him as a mere “pickle dealer.”) What Vespucci did have, according to Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s wonderfully idiosyncratic and intelligent new biography of the explorer, was a gift for chicanery and self-promotion, along with an aching need to be remembered. As it turns out, America — this nation of notorious hucksters, dreamers and spin doctors — was named for just the right guy.
Philbrick might also have mentioned that this was also a nation of capitalists, entrepreneurs, people seeking fortune as well as fame, and people who knew a thing or two about numbers, at least up until the late 20th century. Patricia Cline Cohen refers to Americans in the formative stages of our republic as "a calculating people" in a book of the same name, summarized by her on her website. So, it's a combination of J. P. Morgan and P. T. Barnum that makes America go 'round, but don't tell Donald Trump I said that.

But whatever sort of advertisements for himself that Vespucci put out there, when you think about it, how much do you know about the man? How much does anyone know? It's no accident that the pickle dealer is something of a cipher (what, were you expecting a joke about the art of the dill, maybe? apple cipher?), as Philbrick explains:

Fernández-Armesto’s previous books about world history and exploration — “The Americas,” “Civilizations” and “Pathfinders,” among them — are must reading in these globally minded times. But even a historian of Fernández-Armesto’s learning and reach might have chosen to ignore the fact that 2007 marks the 500th anniversary of the naming of America. Except for a few brief narratives and letters, the record is maddeningly slight when it comes to Vespucci. But “Amerigo: The Man Who Gave His Name to America” is much more than an occasional throwaway. Using the bare bones of what is known about Vespucci to expatiate on subjects as diverse as the brutal world of Renaissance Italy, the importance of trade winds to world history and the poetics of travel writing, Fernández-Armesto has written a provocative primer on how navigators like Columbus and Vespucci set loose the cultural storm that eventually created the world we live in today.

Consider the fact that we all have an idea of what Columbus looked like, his iconic image is pretty commonplace in the United States. But what about old Amerigo, what did he look like? Don't know? Well, here ya go:


Handsome devil, ain't he? Well, okay, looks aren't everything, and in this case they really don't tell us anything. Let's let Mr. Phibrick fill us in:

Vespucci (1454-1512) grew up in the turbulent orbit of the Medici family in Florence. Although he spent considerable time as a student and traveled briefly to Paris on a diplomatic mission, most of his early years were spent juggling a variety of business ventures. It might seem like an unlikely way to prepare for a career as a navigator and cosmographer, but as Fernández-Armesto says, “a man with a head for accounts may also have a head for astronomical lucubrations.”

It was business that brought Vespucci to Seville just around the time that Columbus was mounting his famous voyage across the Atlantic. By the time Columbus returned in triumph in 1493, Vespucci was intimately connected with the group of merchants that supplied the explorer’s subsequent, far less successful voyages. By the late 1490s, with Vespucci’s financial prospects deteriorating and with the example of Columbus’s sudden fame offering apparent inspiration, Vespucci (now in his late 40s) opted for a career makeover. He would go to sea. Even though Columbus had so far failed to find the westward route to Asia, Ferdinand and Isabella were still willing to follow up on Columbus’s discoveries — as long as it didn’t involve Columbus, who was now in disfavor with the court. Into the breach leapt Vespucci.

So, now the stage is set. Now, what exactly did Vespucci accomplish? Surely, there was some discovery, some achievement that earned him the right to be seen as the father of our continent. Back to you, Nathaniel:

Vespucci earned what reputation he has as an explorer by participating in two trans-Atlantic voyages between 1499 and 1502. It was during the second voyage, this time under the Portuguese flag, that Vespucci ventured to the coast of modern-day Brazil and claimed to have discovered a new continent — what he called the New World. As Fernández-Armesto explains, this claim was not as bold and prescient as it might otherwise seem. Several years earlier, in 1498, Columbus had sailed past the mouth of the Orinoco River and reasoned that this huge outwash of fresh water could come only from a landmass of continental proportions. Columbus called it “an enormous land, to be found in the south, of which at the present time nothing has been known.” In claiming that South America was a continent, Vespucci was only confirming what his mentor and role model Columbus had already established. Vespucci, it turns out, was also not the first to use the phrase “New World” — that distinction goes to Peter Martyr, who had coined the term three years earlier.

So, that's it? Two trips across the Atlantic? No firsts of any kind? So, what exactly was Vespucci famous for?

Even more important than his actual accomplishments were the accounts of his voyages. In his writings he was driven, like many explorers before and since, by a desire to establish a lasting name for himself. In one of his few existing manuscript letters, Vespucci tells of his decision to write an account of his most recent voyage so he can leave “some fame behind me after I die.” In these narratives, Vespucci depicts himself as a navigator par excellence. While mere seamen rely on experience and orally transmitted sailing instructions to find their way across the ocean, Vespucci ostentatiously wields his navigational instruments. Much like that of the medical doctors of his day, Vespucci’s science appears to have been more about deception and bluff than actual results, but as Fernández-Armesto writes, “the difference between magic and science is narrower than most people think today.”

So, a celebrity, famous for being well known as Daniel Boorstin famously put it, a product of the media of his time. And using number, technology, scientism, as part of his efforts at impression management. This is the true beginning, in many ways, of American media culture. And on to the most familiar part of the story, how the early mapmakers created brand recognition for Vespucci's New World:

It was in 1507, with the publication of a large cut-out map suitable for creating a do-it-yourself globe, that Vespucci’s first name, if not Vespucci himself, achieved lasting renown. On this map, published in the intellectual backwater of St. Dié in Lorraine, the designation “America” (the feminine of Amerigo) was chosen for the portion of the hemisphere where Vespucci claimed to have landed during his second voyage. In 1538, the noted mapmaker Mercator, apparently referring to the earlier map from St. Dié, chose to use the name America to mark not just the southern but also the northern portion of the continent. The rest, as they say, is history. “The tradition was secure,” Fernández-Armesto writes, “the decision irreversible.” And so, because of Mercator and assorted others, more than 350 million of us now call ourselves Americans.

So we are all products of Mercator's folly. This was not the only mistake that Mercator was responsible for, I should add. The Mercator Projection characteristically expanded Europe and the Northern Hemisphere and contracted Africa and the Southern Hemisphere, giving a false impression about the relative size of the European nations, that is, making them seem much larger than they really are in relation to their former colonies. Also, another misconception comes simply as a byproduct of translating a globe into a rectangular map: the polar regions are stretched out and made to look much larger than they really are, for example, take a look at Greenland on a map and on a globe, it isn't as big as it seems on the map.

So, in the end, does it really matter that we call the Western Hemisphere the Americas, and not the Columbias? Sure, it's one hell of a misnomer, but is it a difference that makes a difference? Interestingly enough, the answer seems to be yes. But whereas you would expect that credit where credit is due is the way things ought to be, Philbrick, and Fernández-Armesto argue that the opposite is in fact the case, that we are better off for not taking Christopher's name as our own:

As Fernández-Armesto astutely observes, it’s probably a good thing Mercator went with America instead of what might have been the more obvious choice, Christopheria or, say, Columbia. “Columbus has such an ineluctable presence in history,” he writes, “that a hemisphere named after him would never be free of association with him. With every vocalization, images of imperialism, evangelization, colonization, massacre and ecological exchange would spring to mind. The controversies would be constant, the revulsion unendurable.” Since Amerigo Vespucci is a historical nonentity, the term “America” is free of the disturbing connotations that would have been associated with his more famous forebear. “History has made him irrelevant,” Fernández-Armesto writes, “to the major resonances of his own name.” Thanks to the ephemerality of Amerigo Vespucci’s reputation as an explorer, America was given an enduring name.

An irony, yes. An empty name, America, which we then set out to fill with meaning. And boy, did we ever! And all this suggests another way to understand what's in a name, Shakespeare notwithstanding, by drawing on Marshall McLuhan's concepts of hot and cool media from Understanding Media.

A hot medium is high in definition, that is clear and unambiguous, while a cool medium is low in definition, or fidelity, with missing pieces, gaps, that require the audience to fill in what's missing. Because we have to go to that extra effort, a cool medium requires more participation, while a hot medium requires relatively less participation of us, less effort in making sense of it.

When I teach this in my class on Communication and Technology, I tell my students that it is best to think about hot and cool as categories that are relative, and that they work best when applied to pairs of media. For example, movies are hot because the image is sharp and well defined, television (traditionally) is cool because it is a low definition image; radio is hot because it is high fidelity sound, while the telephone is cool because the sound range and quality is more limited. And I ask them to come up with new pairs of their own.

I should add that McLuhan used media in a very broad sense, so that just about anything could be viewed as a medium and could be analyzed in terms of the hot and cool categories. And McLuhan did talk about different personality types and images being hot and cool. For example, pointing to the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960, he argued that Kennedy was cool, and worked best on TV, while Nixon was hot and only had appeal through radio and in print.

Which brings me to Columbus and Vespucci. And love him or hate him, you have to acknowledge that old Chris is a hot figure, the subject of heated debate, a figure we know a good deal about relative to his time period, so much so that his heroic status has been tarnished, probably beyond repair, and it is certainly something of a question as to whether he should be considered a hero, a villain, or even a fool. But also, given the fact that he lived well before the invention of photography, his is a relatively well-defined image, familiar within the United States through pictures in schoolbooks and various public monuments, for example the following bronze sculpture located in Central Park, created by Jeronimo Suñol in 1894:


In contrast, our amigo Amerigo is cool, man, a cool, cool medium, nondescript, indistinct, a nebish, a nobody, or an everybody, a regular guy, an indistinct figure, entirely open, allowing and requiring us to project ourselves onto him, to participate in his construction in order to fill in what's missing. That's America today, baby, cool, and beautiful, just chillin', hanging out, wearing shades (at least, the America we want to be). In the old United States of the 19th century, and a good part of the 20th, a society dominated by hot print media, supplemented by other hot media such as film and radio, Columbus was an American idol. In the age of cool media such as television and the web, Amerigo is the way to go!

1 comment:

Joann said...

Your article really opened my eyes, but there is more to the story... let me show you