Named after the 15th century Italian explorer and cartographer of the same name (who is depicted on the ship's figurehead), Amerigo Vespucci is a sail training
ship built for the Italian Navy in 1931, and still in service. It is one of the most distinctive of all the many sail training vessels in service today; it was designed to resemble an 18th century ship of the line, so rather than
the traditional clipper-like hull with barque rig, it has a tall, beamy hull, black + white painted gun decks and a 3-masted
frigate rig. A sister ship, Cristoforo Colombo, was built at the same time, but did not survive long past WW2, being given to the Soviet Union as war reparations and scrapped (Russia also got the German
sail training ship Gorch Fock, which they kept, and which, renamed Tovarisch, is still in existence today)
Though apparently patterned after an 18th century ship, with its black and white hull paint scheme, ochre-painted superstructure, cabins and funnel, minimal "beakhead", and stern gallery platform, to my eye the Amerigo Vespucci more closely resembles a mid 19th century steam ship of the line or a "broadside ironclad" such as the Re d'Italia sunk at the Battle of Lissa in 1866. Despite its warship-like appearance and painted "gun decks", its armament is limited to two saluting guns on the forecastle.
Whilst not as elegant as more traditional sail training ships like the USCG Eagle, Amerigo Vespucci is certainly a unique and very distinctive vessel.
Heller's 1/150 scale kit was, I believe, one of the last sailing ship kits they produced, in the late 1970s or early '80s. Reissued in the early 2000s, the kit is still (2008) not too hard to find, or expensive, on the second-hand market - no doubt partly because the kit's daunting complexity means that many were bought and never started!
It's certainly one of the most complex kits in Heller's sailing ship range (although the lack of guns, carriages and gunports mean that the parts count is much lower than, for example, Le Superbe), containing 6 large sprues full of parts in addition to the two-piece hull. All of the parts, from the hull and deck to the smallest fittings, are very well moulded and have plenty of detail, and (at least with the kit I have) there is very little in the way of flash, sink holes and mould lines (often
The hull has plating detail and nicely moulded scrollwork on the bow, also found on the seperate stern moulding. The deck (moulded in three pieces) has engraved plank lines, with wood grain detail on the planks which is much finer and less overscale than that found in some earlier Heller kits. Masts and spars are mostly moulded in two pieces, divided vertically, which may cause problems with alignment + cleaning up seams, but should give them more structural rigidity, and means they are mostly free of flash and sinkholes. Less positively, the bulkheads for the forecastle and quarterdeck have minimal moulded detail, the hatches being just shallow rectangles.
Small parts and details are for the most part sharply moulded and in-scale, though some fittings such as the binnacle, saluting guns, and signal lights are rather simplified and sparse on detail, and could do with some scratchbuilt improvement. The ship's boats, including an assortment of rowing boats, open motor boats, and 2 sizeable motor launches, are also nicely moulded, though oddly there are no oars for the rowing boats.
Finally, moulded plastic railings are included, which look fairly good to me, though some may want to replace them with photo-etched parts (1/144 three-bar railings would do).
There are a couple of negative points I can see, both relating to the clear parts sprue - firstly, both the bridge/wheelhouse structure, and the larger motor launches, are moulded entirely in clear plastic, without separate windows. This certainly avoids the problem of getting glue on the windows, but just means you get paint on them instead! Whether you use an airbrush or hand brushed paint, very careful masking will be necessary to keep the windows clear of paint.
Secondly, the distinctive latticework of the stern gallery railing is represented by a decal applied over a rather thick piece length of clear styrene. It seems to me that in a largeish scale like 1/150, this would look very flat and unconvincing, and would look like, well, a two-dimensional decal stuck to a piece of clear plastic! To be fair to Heller, it would be near-impossible to mould an acceptably scale-looking lattice railing from styrene, but even a solid clear styrene piece, with raised latticework which you paint, would look better than this. Anyway, it's best replaced with photo-etched mesh in a suitable pattern; even ordinary aluminium mesh painted black will look better than the default kit parts.
Along with the 1/100 HMS Victory, 1/150 Le Glorieux/Le Superbe and La Belle Poule, and 1/75 La Reale, I would say that the 1/150 Amerigo Vespucci is definitely among the best of Heller's large range of sailing ship kits. A considerable amount of work has obviously gone into researching and developing the kit, representing all of the areas of the ship to a good level of detail, and unlike many other Heller kits it uses absolutely no "recycled" parts from other kits! It is certainly not a kit I'd recommend as a first plastic sailing ship - but for a modeller with some experience, this kit should build into a large and impressive model of a large and impressive ship, virtually out-of-the-box.
I say these words with a bit of reservation, as firstly I haven't compared the kit to plans/drawings to check accuracy (as it is a "modern" and well documented ship, I assume there are no serious problems, though) and, secondly and most importantly, I haven't actually built the kit yet, hence don't know if there are any issues with poor fit, poor/inaccurate instructions (a common Heller "feature") or other assembly problems. The clear superstructure/boats and decal stern gallery are the only immediately obvious problems. When I build the kit, I'll update the preview.
A 1/350 scale kit of Amerigo Vespucci is also available, originally produced by Imai and since reissued by Revell. I haven't seen inside the box of this kit, but if it's like the rest of Imai's range it should be very good.