Tuesday, May 4, 2010

How Florence Invented America

20. How Florence Invented America, by Giancarlo Masini

In case you've been wondering where the heck I've been, the answer is: Florence and Amsterdam. I spent several glorious days in Florence, and then on to Amsterdam, which was also tremendous fun, but, thanks to a volcano in Iceland, I was there longer than expected. So I have been playing catch up, at home and work, but now I think I'm back on track.

And I will begin by talking about some of the books that I read on my trip.

When I travel, I like to bring books that are in some way connected to the places to which I am going. In fact, I found this one at a used bookstore and bought it specifically to read for the trip.

When I first picked it up, I thought it would be a lot of puffery and braggadoccio, but it was actually quite interesting. It's about Amerigo Vespucci, Giovanni Verazzano and Filippo Mazzei. It was particularly interesting to compare Vespucci and Verazzano's explorations, and their reactions to the native people they encountered.

I learned much more about Vespucci than I had known. We are told in school, "he was a mapmaker and so America got named after him." But that's a real distortion, because he was actually the first European "discoverer" of South America. Verazzano was the first European to set foot in Manhattan. There's a stone from the family castle enclosed in a wall of the Verrazzano Bridge.

Mazzei was trained as a doctor, and practiced in a wide variety of places, including Smyrna and London, but eventually headed to America, where his agricultural and ideological interests brought him into contact with, among others, Thomas Jefferson, whose good friend he became. His philosophical exchanges with our Founding Fathers influenced the War of Independence and, later, the U.S. Constitution. Eventually, he was involved with both French and Polish progressive movements.

These men may not have "invented" America, but they were certainly in at the "creation", so to speak!

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