February has a particular meaning in the Florentine calendar primarily because it marks the recurrency of Amerigo Vespucci’s death in Spain at 58 on Feb. 22, 1512, and the move to our city of the King of Italy Victor Emmanuel II on Feb. 3, 1865, as Florence was proclaimed the new capital of the Italian Kingdom.
Born on March 9, 1454, in Florence from a prominent family friends with the Medicis, as a young man Vespucci was fascinated with books and maps. After being educated by his uncle and having worked for the Medicis as a banker, he became the supervisor of the Medicis’ ship-outfitting business which operated in Seville, Spain, where he moved in 1492.
Here, he could see the great explorers’ ships being prepared and understood lucrative trade could be.
At the time, explorers were searching for a northwest route to the Indies — the lands and islands of Southeast Asia — which would make trade easier and bring their country wealth.
Vespucci helped outfit one of Christopher Columbus‘ voyages, and in 1496 the two of them met, which further encouraged Vespucci’s interest in travel and discovery.
There is some controversy among historians about when Vespucci set sail on his first voyage. Many accounts place the sail date in 1499, when he sailed to the northern part of South America and into the Amazon River naming places such as like the “Gulf of Ganges” thinking as his explorer contemporaries that he was in Asia. However, other accounts suggest that his first voyage was in 1497 with destination the Bahamas and Central America, in which case, Vespucci would have reached the the Americas a few months before John Cabot and more than a year before Columbus.
His next trip was in 1501, when he traveled along the South American coast down to Patagonia. Along the way, he encountered the rivers Rio de Janeiro and Rio de la Plata. It was during this voyage that he began to suspect that the continent in front of his eyes was not Asia.
After a few other voyages, probably between 1505 and 1507, in 1508 he was named a Pilot Major of Spain while helping to develop and standardize navigational techniques and to select new pilots.
Most interestingly, it was the work of a German clergyman and amateur cartographer called Martin Waldseemüller, and not Vespucci’s ambition, to name two continent America from Amerigo’s name.
In 1507, in fact, while working an introduction to cosmology that would contain large maps, Waldseemüller proposed that a portion of Brazil that Vespucci had explored be named “America,” a feminized version of Vespucci’s first name.
Waldseemüller’s maps sold thousands of copies across Europe, and in 1538, a mapmaker named Gerardus Mercator applied the name “America” to both the northern and southern landmasses of the New World: the continents have been known as such ever since.
On Feb. 3, 1865, king of Italy Victor Emmanuel II checked in into his new residency, the Pitti Palace, as Florence replaced Turin as the capital of Italy.
“This morning at 8 a.m. Her Majesty the King of Italy, accompanied by His Excellency the Prime Minister General Alfonso La Marmora, has left Turin with destination Florence,” reads the Official Gazette of the Italian Kingdom of that day.
The move of the capital brought to its end the ancient court of the Savoy in Turin, which ironically had began precisely on that same day, Feb. 3, of 302 years before, in 1563.
Transportation, even by train, was quite slow back in those days, and the King arrived in Florence only at 10.30 p.m. With him was not just La Marmora, although the only State official cited in the Official Gazette of the Italian Reign, but also the Minister of Education of Italy, the Sicilian Baron Giuseppe Natoli, and almost the entire military and civil staff of the sovereign.
According to the chronicle by journalist Ugo Pesci, the “horrible Florence train station” was embellished and enlightened in honor of the new, prestigious guest of the city. Not knowing the precise hour of arrival, “the congressmen of the Florence Council eagerly awaited the King for hours alongside the platforms onto the tracks,” and “Victor Emmanuel was quite surprised by such a warm welcome which, given the late hour, he really did not expect.” As soon as he got off the train, he was “embraced” by the warmest of the attendees, the old and blind Florentine senator Gino Capponi. Shortly after, it began a tremendous jubilation all along the route to the Pitti Palace. On Via Tornabuoni people went crazy, and “such was the pit that the carriages had to slow down while surrounded by the most influential members of the Florence nobility.” Upon his arrival at the Pitti Palace, due to the “insisting acclamation of the people,” Victor Emmanuel had to “repeatedly go out on the balcony of his room.”
In the period when Florence was the capital, in an effort to modernize the city, the old market in the Piazza del Mercato Vecchio and many medieval houses were pulled down and replaced by a more formal street plan with newer houses, the today Piazza della Repubblica was widened and a large triumphal arch was constructed at the west end (however, the new Piazza was unpopular and prevented from continuing by the efforts of several British and American people living in the city).
The downtown held a lifestyle that was similar to that of a great town: markets and fairs coexisted with the bourgeois customs of cafes, social circles, and carriage rides. But new constructions were not enough, as it was mostly 19th century refurbishings of buildings, and the city’s housing problems grew worse as the establishment in the city of the new government of Italy drew about 15.000 to 20.000 new people to live in the city.