A central theme—that the purpose of an individual’s life is to add to the world’s store of knowledge—unites the events that Baker selects to tell in Amerigo Vespucci. Vespucci becomes Baker’s heroic embodiment of this theme.
Amerigo’s preparation for adding to the store of knowledge began when Uncle Giorgio took him into the monastery for intensive schooling. During the fifteen years Amerigo studied, he copied maps for Dr. Toscanelli, then considered to be the world’s greatest geographer. One copy of this map showing a globe-shaped world without the American continents was sent to an unknown sailor who wanted to sail west to reach India.
After Vespucci left the monastery, he went to Paris with another uncle who traveled as a representative of the Medici business. From this uncle, he learned business practices and social skills. Within two years, Vespucci himself worked for the Medici family. In 1491, he was the Medici representative in Seville, where he first met Christopher Columbus, the sailor for whom he had copied the Toscanelli map and for whom he now equipped ships. These ships for Columbus’ second voyage west would carry the men and supplies to colonize the Indies. Alonso de Hojeda, Columbus’ second-in-command, teased Vespucci about coming along on the voyage, but, at forty-one, Vespucci saw himself as a businessman, not an explorer.
Hojeda returned to Spain after leaving the colonists with Columbus as the royal governor. After six years, rumors of Columbus’ harsh...
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Amerigo Vespucci carries a clear message: Vespucci contributed to knowledge. Nina Brown Baker contrasts Columbus, who sought riches and power, with Vespucci, who practiced tolerance and sought the truth. Columbus lost all, while Vespucci kept his wealth and gained honor.
American writer Baker acknowledged that she wrote with a purpose and that she liked writing biographies. Out of the twenty biographies that Baker wrote, twelve feature heroes from nations other than the United States because, through their lives, she could promote an understanding of other cultures. Her first biography, He Wouldn’t Be King (1941), celebrates Simón Bolívar. It won the Intra-American Award of the Society for the Americas. Her other biographies of foreign heroes include Juarez: Hero of Mexico (1942) and Bruce: King of Scots (1948). Baker’s biographies of Americans include Nickels and Dimes: The Story of F. W. Woolworth (1954) and Nellie Bly (1956), which was reissued in 1972.
Baker’s sixteenth biography, Amerigo Vespucci, exemplifies her method of writing. After reading from a number of authoritative sources, she made an outline of dates of significant events. In Amerigo Vespucci, the first event portrayed is Amerigo’s being alone at night so that he can study the constellations. Other events that show his eagerness to learn make up much of the biography. In old age, he reaps the benefits of his learning: Continents are named for him and the king appoints him pilot major. Through this position, he passes on his knowledge to people who continue to explore and to contribute to knowledge.