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Syndic Literary Journal


Pop Goes America

By Baltimore Writer Charles Rammelkamp

“The main thing about Amerigo,”  Pop said, “the essential fact, is that people liked him.”  After dinner, he’d been telling us all about Vespucci, arcane facts about Amerigo’s childhood, and I remembered how boring Pop could be, when he started to pontificate, excited though he was. Now, he told us how Amerigo had been one of four boys, how his mother, whose name was Mona Lisa, had been partial to her first-born son Antonio but how the other two brothers, Girolamo, a Hierosolymite friar in Rhodes, and Bernardo, a sort of vagabond adventurer in Hungary, had both looked to Amerigo as the brother to confide in; they preferred to write to Amerigo rather than to Antonio.

Two of Amerigo’s uncles took a special interest in him, Pop told us. Giorgio Antonio, a Dominican friar, took responsibility for educating Amerigo.  He provided moral instruction as well as lessons in Latin and mathematics and geography. 

“All his life,” Pop went on, waxing sentimental, “Amerigo would remember the moral precepts his uncle taught him.  They even showed up in his famous letter to Soderini about the New World. Giorgio Antonio took Amerigo to Rome and developed in him his love of travel and interest in humanism. 

“There’s a painting by Ghirlandaio in the Ognissanti Church in Florence that shows members of the Vespucci family.  It’s a fresco divided into two scenes.  The upper part shows Our Lady of Mercy covering eleven of the Vespucci with her mantle, and in the bottom part, which shows the Descent from the Cross, all the characters are from scripture except Giorgio Antonio and Amerigo. Amerigo’s a young man of about twenty in it.  Both he and Giorgio Antonio are depicted with halos of sainthood around their heads.  At that time they thought Amerigo would enter the church.

“The other uncle who took an interest in Amerigo was named Guido Antonio.  Guido Antonio was an ambassador for Lorenzo the Magnificent, the famous grandson of Cosimo de’ Medici.”  It was as if Pop were back in his element, the classroom. He must have been an inspiring teacher in his day; his enthusiasm was infectious, even if his facts were unrelenting.

“Pope Sixtus of Rome didn’t care for the Medici,” Pop went on, as if gossiping about his neighbors in Potawatomi Rapids, “and he wanted to make a change in the leadership of Florence.  He called Lorenzo ‘an evil man.’  Plans were initiated to overthrow the Medici.  This became known as the Pazzi conspiracy.  Lorenzo’s younger brother Giuliano was killed at the Duomo in the Pazzi conspiracy, but they only wounded Lorenzo; Giuliano was stabbed to death in the Duomo, that big gaudy church in the center of town – the one Henry James said looks like it’s wearing pajamas – and left in a pool of blood to die.

“Giuliano was quite a dashing figure, apparently.  He was known as ‘the delight of the youth of Florence’ and ‘the Prince of Youth.’  He was in love with Amerigo’s beautiful cousin, Simonetta. Botticelli painted them together in Venus and Mars and in the Primavera.”

“Botticelli, huh?  No shit.”  Under the deluge of factoids Pop was peppering us with, I was still impressed.  Botticelli! Cool!

“Well, after the Pazzi conspiracy, which failed to get rid of Lorenzo, the Florentines were pretty upset, as you can imagine,” Pop lectured on, “and they threw Cardinal Raffaelino in prison.  He was part of the conspiracy and a good friend of Pope Sixtus.  This got Rome mad, and it looked like there was going to be a war between Rome and Florence.  It was a very delicate situation.  Lorenzo recalled the Florentine ambassador to Rome and replaced him with Guido Antonio Vespucci, Amerigo’s uncle.  Amerigo was Guido Antonio’s favorite nephew, and he took Amerigo along with him to Rome as his giovane — his attaché.  Later, he took Amerigo with him to Paris, and that’s how he began his career as a diplomat, because that’s what Amerigo always was, essentially, a diplomat.”

 “Huh, that’s interesting,” Anita said, bemused. We were in a food-and-wine coma, listening to Pop go on. And on.

“For instance, after Isabella, the Queen of Spain, died, Amerigo and Vicente Yanez Pinzon, who’d accompanied Columbus on his initial voyage as captain of the Nina, negotiated a new colonial policy with King Ferdinand that had two objectives.   First, they’d strengthen and defend the colonies in the Caribbean, and second, they’d pursue the discovery of the southern passage to the spice islands.

“Well, that was fine, except Isabella’s daughter, Joanna the Mad, and her husband, Philip the Handsome, a German prince, decided to take Castile over from Ferdinand. Ferdinand had remarried, to the niece of the King of France, and the Castilian people were a little upset.  So when Philip and Joanna took over, where did that leave Amerigo?  He had to persuade Philip that the whole idea was sound, and since he was caught between the two parties, he had to watch out for his own neck, too. A diplomat to the core.

“Amerigo went to Philip and made him understand the importance to his reign of finding a passage to the spice islands.  It would rival the one found by Vasco da Gama for the Portuguese.  The Portuguese were their chief rivals, and according to the Treaty of Tordesillas, the passage was theirs by rights to develop.

“And then Philip the Handsome dies!” Pop cried, raising his hands to heaven in a gesture of cosmic exasperation.  “He was playing a game of handball with a group of Basques, got overheated and drank a pitcher of ice water.  He developed a fever and died a few days later.  Joanna the Mad went completely nuts then, and Ferdinand came back from exile in Genoa and took Castile over again, and guess what?  Amerigo had to negotiate with him all over again!  Eventually Ferdinand made Amerigo Pilot Major, in charge of all Spanish navigational enterprises.  Tell me all that didn’t take diplomacy.  Big time.”

“So I guess he was . . . persuasive,” I shrugged, suppressing a yawn, and Pop roared with laughter at that.

“Yeah, you could say that. He was persuasive.”

“But, what does this have to do with America, again?” Anita asked.

“Everything,” Pop declared.

What a lovely guy my father was! I’m not sure I’ve ever known anybody as fervent and animated and interested. But sometimes it was a bit overwhelming.

“Why don’t we go to bed?” I suggested to Anita, standing up and yawning.  “See you in the morning, Pop!”





Compiled/Published by LeRoy Chatfield
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