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Amerigo Vespucci Statue

With the holiday weekend celebrating America’s birthday now over, I decided on this lunchtime bike ride to visit a statue of our country’s namesake.  So during this ride I visited the grounds of the Pan American Union Building, which serves as The Headquarters for the Organization of American States, located on 17th Street between C Street and Constitution Avenue (MAP) in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of northwest D.C.  One of the sculptures there is of an early Italian explorer named Amerigo Vespucci, who is the namesake of the continents of North and South America, and subsequently the United States of America.

The stone sculpture depicts a bust of Amerigo wearing a sea-farer hat of his era, and stands on a circular stone pedestal base with a relief of the globe inscribed on it. The base also contains an inscription which reads, “Amerigo Vespucci, 1454 – 1512.”

Amerigo Vespucci was born on March 9, 1454, in Ognissanti, Florence, Italy, the third son of Ser Nastagio Anastasio and Lisabetta Mini, members of a prominent Florentine family comprised of statesmen, philosophers, and clergy, which intermarried with the renowned Medici family who ruled Italy for more than 300 years. After being educated by his uncle, Amerigo worked for the Medicis as a banker, and later as a supervisor of their ship-outfitting business in Seville, Spain, where he moved in 1492. Amerigo’s position allowed him to see great explorers’ ships being prepared before they sailed off in search of new discoveries. In fact, Amerigo’s business helped outfit one of Christopher Columbus’ voyages, giving him the opportunity to talk with the explorer with whom he would one day be compared.

Fascinated with books and maps since he was young, his meeting with Columbus further fueled a fire burning inside him for travel and exploration. The fact that his business was struggling helped Amerigo, already in his forties, decide to leave the business behind and set out on his own voyage to see the “New World” while he still could.

Although historians are unsure of exactly how many voyages he embarked on, through his travels Amerigo was the first to be able to demonstrate that South America and the West Indies did not represent Asia’s eastern outskirts as initially conjectured from Columbus’ voyages, but instead constituted an entirely separate and previously unknown landmass. Based on the work of a German clergyman and amateur cartographer named Martin Waldseemüller, he labeled a portion of what is today Brazil as “America”, deriving its name from Americus, the Latin version of his name. Later, in 1538, a mapmaker named Gerardus Mercator applied the name “America” to all of the northern and southern landmasses of the New World.  The continents have been known as such ever since.

So here in the District of Columbia, a name which references Christopher Columbus and was chosen at a time when many people were still upset that we hadn’t actually named our new nation Columbia, I visited the statue of Amerigo Vespucci.  And although he never visited here on any of his voyages, Amerigo’s name is forever associated with our 239-year old country.

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]

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