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Amerigo Vespucci

Amerigo Vespucci

A Florentine navigator and pilot major of Castile, Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512), for whom America is named, is no longer accused of having conspired to supplant Columbus; but interpretation of documents concerning his career remains controversial.

The father of Amerigo Vespucci was Nastagio Vespucci, and his uncle was the learned Dominican Giorgio Antonio Vespucci, who had charge of Amerigo's education. The entire family was cultured and friendly with the Medici rulers of Florence. Domenico Ghirlandaio painted Amerigo in a family portrait when the youth was about 19. However, the explorer had reached his 40s at the time he began voyaging to America, so Ghirlandaio furnishes only an approximate idea of Vespucci's mature appearance.

It is known that Vespucci visited France, in his uncle's company, when about 24, and that his father intended him for a business career. He did engage in commerce, first in Florence and then in Seville in a Medici branch bank. Later, in Seville, he entered a mercantile partnership with a fellow Florentine, Gianetto Berardi, and this lasted until Berardi's death at the end of 1495.

Meanwhile, Columbus had made his first two voyages to the West Indies, and he returned from the second in June 1496. At this time, he and Vespucci unquestionably met and conversed, and Amerigo appears to have been skeptical of the Admiral's belief that he had already reached the outskirts of Asia. Moreover, Vespucci's curiosity about the new lands had been aroused, together with a determination, though no longer young, to see them himself.

"First Voyage"

If the letter he reputedly wrote to Pero Soderini, Gonfalonier (Standard-bearer) of Florence, may be taken at face value, Vespucci embarked from Cadiz in a Spanish fleet May 10, 1497. Serious doubts have been raised about the letter's authenticity, because it does not fit chronologically with authenticated events, and because the voyage, if made, presents serious geographical problems and passes unnoticed by the cartographers and historians of the time. Alberto Magnaghi (1875-1945) believed the letter fabricated, or mostly so, by Vespucci admirers in Florence, who had no idea of the problems they were raising.

If the letter is taken literally, the ships passed through the West Indies, sighting no islands, and in 37 days reached the mainland at some Central American point. This would antedate the Columbus discovery of the mainland of Venezuela by a year. Following the coast, the ships reached "Lariab, " tentatively taken for Tamaulipas. They then continued along the Gulf of Mexico, rounded the tip of Florida, and went northward to Cape Hatteras or Chesapeake Bay. On the return to Spain, they discovered the inhabited island of "lti," identified by some as Bermuda, though by 1522 the Bermudas were unpopulated. The expedition reached Cadiz in October 1498. This voyage should have revealed the insularity of Cuba, yet it failed to establish the fact in contemporary minds, and it remained for Sebastián Ocampo to do so in 1509.

Vespucci, in all probability, voyaged to America at the time ascribed, but he did not have command and as yet had had no practical experience of piloting. Amerigo, or whoever wrote the Soderini letter, deals in leagues covered, seldom in latitudes. These are badly off and at one point would have had the ships in the region of British Columbia. Inexperience could explain many of the errors, but the strong likelihood remains that the letter has been doctored.

In 1499 Vespucci sailed again, and this time there is documentary support of the expedition besides his own letters. His education had included mathematics, and he had surely learned a great deal from his first crossing. Alonso de Ojeda commanded the 1499 expedition at the start, and in his later report he named "Morigo Vespuche" as one of the pilots. From Cadiz, they first dropped to the Cape Verde Islands and then divided forces in the Atlantic. Ojeda went to the Guianas and then to Hispaniola without further discoveries.

Vespucci explored to Cape Santo Agostinho, at the shoulder of Brazil, after which he coasted westward past the Maracaibo Gulf until he too turned to Hispaniola. This may have been the first expedition to touch Brazil as well as the first to cross the Equator in New World waters. Vespucci probably discovered the Amazon mouth; he certainly did so if he remained close to land while sailing west.

A New World

Two years later, Amerigo went on by far his most important voyage, this time for Portugal, at the invitation of King Manuel I. In 1500 that King's commander, Pedro Álvares Cabral, on his way to the Cape of Good Hope and India, had discovered Brazil at latitude 16°52'S. Portugal claimed this land by the Treaty of Tordesillas, and the King wished to know whether it was merely an island or part of the continent Spanish explorers had encountered farther north. Vespucci, having already been to the Brazilian shoulder, seemed the person best qualified to go as an observer with the new expedition Manuel was sending. Vespucci did not command at the start—the Portuguese captain was probably Gonçalo Coelho—but ultimately took charge at the request of the Portuguese officers.

This voyage traced the South American coast from a point above Cape São Roque to approximately 47°S in Patagonia. Among the important discoveries were Guanabara Bay (Rio de Janeiro) and the Rio de la Plata, which soon began to appear on maps as Rio Jordán. Vespucci, whatever his earlier beliefs had been, now realized that this could be no part of Asia, as flora, fauna, and human inhabitants in no way corresponded to what ancient writers, and such later ones as Marco Polo, had described. The expedition returned by way of Sierra Leone and the Azores, and Vespucci, in a letter to Florence, called South America Mundus Novus (New World).

In 1503 Amerigo sailed in Portuguese service again to Brazil, but this expedition failed to make new discoveries. The fleet broke up, the Portuguese commander's ship disappeared, and Vespucci could proceed only a little past Bahia before returning to Lisbon in 1504. He did not sail again, and as there seemed no more work for him in Portugal he returned to Seville, where he settled permanently and where he had earlier married Maria de Cerezo. He was middle-aged, and the fact that there were no children might indicate that Maria was also past her youth.

Columbus never thought Vespucci had tried to steal his laurels, and in 1505 he wrote his son, Diego, saying of Amerigo, "It has always been his wish to please me; he is a man of good will; fortune has been unkind to him as to others; his labors have not brought him the rewards he in justice should have."

In 1507 a group of scholars at St-Dié in Lorraine brought out a book of geography entitled Cosmographiae introductio. One of the authors, Martin Waldseemüller, suggested the name America, especially for the Brazilian part of the New World, in honor of "the illustrious man who discovered it." To a conventional Ptolemy map of the Old World, there was now added as much of the new hemisphere as was then known, with the name America upon it. Some objected to this, and both Spain and Portugal proved slow and unwilling to adopt the name, but it prevailed, in part no doubt because of its pleasant sound. Vespucci was no party to this undoubted injustice to Columbus and possibly never heard of it.

In 1503 the Castilian crown created the Casa de Contratación at Seville to govern trade with the New World, and in 1508 King Ferdinand, regent for his mentally unstable daughter, Joanna, established the office of pilot major as a part of the Casa. Amerigo was the first holder of the office, and it became his duty to train pilots, examine them for proficiency in their craft, and collect data regarding New World navigation. This he incorporated in the great Padrôn Real, the master map kept in his Seville office. He remained pilot major until his death on Feb. 22, 1512, a month short of his fifty-eighth birthday.

Further Reading

Biographers differ sharply in their judgments of Vespucci. Frederick Julius Pohl, Amerigo Vespucci, Pilot Major (1944), rejects the first voyage entirely and considers the Soderini letter spurious, while Germán Arciniegas, Amerigo and the New World: The Life and Times of Amerigo Vespucci (trans. 1955), maintains that both voyage and letter are authentic. The controversy over the rival merits of Columbus and Vespucci is examined in De Lamer Jenson, ed., The Expansion of Europe: Motives, Methods, and Meanings (1967). A general survey of the Atlantic voyage is Gerald Roe Crone, The Discovery of America (1969). □

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Vespucci, Amerigo

Amerigo Vespucci

Born: March 9, 1451
Florence, Italy
Died: February 22, 1512
Seville, Spain

Italian navigator

A Florentine navigator and pilot major of Castile, Spain, Amerigo Vespucci, for whom America is named, played a major part in exploring the New World.

Childhood

The father of Amerigo Vespucci was Nastagio Vespucci, and his uncle was the learned Dominican Giorgio Antonio Vespucci, who had charge of Amerigo's education. The entire family was cultured and friendly with the Medici rulers of Florence, a family that ruled Italy from the 1400s to 1737. Domenico Ghirlandaio (14491494) painted Amerigo in a family portrait when the youth was about nineteen. However, the explorer had reached his forties by the time he began his voyage to America, so Ghirlandaio's painting shows only an approximate idea of Vespucci's mature appearance.

It is known that Vespucci visited France, in his uncle's company, when he was about twenty-four years old, and that his father intended for him a business career. He did get involved in business, first in Florence and then in Seville, Spain, in a bank. Later, in Seville, he entered a partnership with a fellow Florentine, Gianetto Berardi, and this lasted until Berardi's death at the end of 1495.

Meanwhile, Christopher Columbus (14511506) had made his first two voyages to the West Indies, and he returned from the second in June 1496. At this time, he and Vespucci met and talked, and Amerigo appears to have been doubtful of Columbus's belief that he had already reached the outskirts of Asia. Moreover, Vespucci's curiosity about the new lands had been aroused, together with a determinationthough no longer youngto see them himself.

First voyage

According to a controversial letter, Vespucci embarked from Cadiz, Spain, in a Spanish fleet on May 10, 1497. Serious doubts have been raised about the letter's authenticity (based on fact), because dates in the letter do not coordinate with authenticated events, and because the voyage, if made, presents serious geographical problems and seems to have passed unnoticed by the cartographers (mapmakers) and historians of the time.

If the letter is real, the ships passed through the West Indiessighting no islandsand in thirty-seven days reached the mainland somewhere in Central America. This would predate Columbus's discovery of the mainland of Venezuela by a year. On their return to Spain, Vespucci's men discovered the inhabited island of "Iti," identified by some as Bermuda. However, by 1522 the Bermudas were unpopulated. The expedition returned to Cadiz in October 1498.

Vespucci, in all probability, voyaged to America at the time noted, but he did not have command and as yet had had no practical experience piloting a ship. Inexperience could explain many of the errors in the letter, but the strong likelihood remains that the letter was altered.

In 1499 Vespucci sailed again, and this time there is proof of the expedition besides his own letters. His education had included mathematics, and he had surely learned a great deal from his first crossing. From Cadiz, they first dropped to the Cape Verde Islands and then divided forces in the Atlantic. Vespucci explored to Cape Santo Agostinho, at the shoulder of Brazil, after which he coasted westward past the Maracaibo Gulf. This may have been the first expedition to touch Brazil as well as the first to cross the Equator in New World waters. During these travels, Vespucci probably discovered the mouth of the Amazon River.

A new world

Two years later Amerigo went on his most important voyage, this time for King Manuel I (14691521) to Brazil. Vespucci, having already been to the Brazilian shoulder, seemed the person best qualified to go as an observer with the new expedition. Vespucci did not command at the start but ultimately took charge at the request of the Portuguese officers.

This voyage traced the South American coast from a point above Cape Sào Roque to Patagonia. Among the important discoveries were Guanabara Bay (Rio de Janeiro) and the Rio de la Plata, which soon began to appear on maps as Rio Jordán. The expedition returned by way of Sierra Leone and the Azores, and Vespucci, in a letter to Florence, called South America Mundus Novus (New World).

In 1503 Amerigo sailed in Portuguese service again to Brazil, but this expedition failed to make new discoveries. The fleet broke up, the Portuguese commander's ship disappeared, and Vespucci could proceed only a little past Bahia before returning to Lisbon, Portugal, in 1504. He never sailed again.

Vespucci's legacy

In 1507 a group of scholars at St-Dié in Lorraine brought out a book of geography entitled "Cosmographiae introductio." One of the authors, Martin Waldseemüller, suggested the name America, especially for the Brazilian part of the New World, in honor of "the illustrious man who discovered it." After some debate, the name was eventually adopted.

During his last years, Amerigo held the office of pilot major, and it became his duty to train pilots, examine them for ability in their craft, and collect data regarding New World navigation. He remained pilot major until his death on February 22, 1512, a month short of his fifty-eighth birthday.

For More Information

Arciniegas, Germán. Amerigo and the New World: The Life and Times of Amerigo Vespucci. New York: Knopf, 1955. Reprint, New York: Octagon Books, 1978.

Baker, Nina Brown. Amerigo Vespucci. New York: Knopf, 1956.

Donaldson-Forbes, Jeff. Amerigo Vespucci. New York: PowerKids Press, 2002.

Fradin, Dennis Brindell. Amerigo Vespucci. New York: Franklin Watts, 1991.

Pohl, Frederick Julius. Amerigo Vespucci, Pilot Major. New York: Columbia University Press, 1944, revised edition 1966.

Swan, Barry. Amerigo Vespucci. Wembly, Middlesex, England: Valley Press, 1998.

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Vespucci, Amerigo

Amerigo Vespucci (ämārē´gō vāspōōt´chē), 1454–1512, Italian navigator in whose honor America was named, b. Florence. He entered the commercial service of the Medici and in 1492 moved to Seville. He accompanied Alonso de Ojeda in 1499, but by agreement the two separated shortly before land was sighted in the West Indies, and Vespucci alone explored the mouths of the Amazon. Subsequently he sailed along the northern shore of South America and among the islands. He returned to Spain in 1500, and in 1501 he entered Portuguese service to explore the southern coast of South America. Vespucci found the mouth of the Río de la Plata and probably went as far as lat. 50°S. He explored c.6,000 mi (9,700 km) of coastline, but it is in the scientific application of his discoveries that his achievements are remarkable. He evolved a system for computing nearly exact longitude (previously determined by dead reckoning); he arrived at a figure for the earth's equatorial circumference only 50 mi (80 km) short of the correct measurement. Vespucci accepted South America as a new continent, not part of Asia. Consequently cosmography was radically altered, and in 1507, with the publication of Martin Waldseemüller's Cosmographiae introductio, the name America first appeared as applied to the continent. His voyage completed in 1502, Vespucci returned to Spain, where in 1508 he was made pilot major, a high and prestigious position. He died of malaria contracted on his voyages. Vespucci's achievements were long belittled by scholars, but the conclusions of Alberto Magnaghi in the 1920s and 30s are now widely accepted, and the pilot major is given his due. An edition of Vespucci's letters and other documents appeared in English in 1894.

See biographies by G. Arciniegas (tr. 1955), F. J. Pohl (1966), and F. Fernández-Armesto (2007); J. B. Thacher, The Continent of America (1971).

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Vespucci, Amerigo (1454–1512)

Vespucci, Amerigo (14541512)

Italian navigator whose name was given to the New World. Vespucci was a merchant of Florence who was hired by the Medici rulers of the city to work in Seville, Spain. He supplied essential goods to the expeditions of Christopher Columbus and was later taken on as a navigator by Alonso Ojeda. In 1499, Ojeda reached South America; he and Vespucci separated and Vespucci sailed south from the Caribbean, becoming the first European to reach the mouth of the Amazon River. In 1502 Vespucci joined a second expedition to the New World, this one sponsored by Portugal and which reached Guanabara Bay, the present site of Rio de Janeiro, and the Rio de la Plata, which separates Argentina and Uruguay. Vespucci developed a new system for computing longitude and calculated the circumference of the earth to within 50 miles (80.5km) of the correct figure. Realizing that South America was an entirely new continent and not an unknown part of Asia or the East Indies, Vespucci provided European navigators with a more accurate concept of the distances facing them in their voyages of exploration.

An account of these voyages was read by the German mapmaker Martin Waldseemüller, who worked as a mapmaker for a merchant company of Seville. Waldseemüller came to believe, erroneously, that Vespucci had commanded an expedition of 1497 that was the first to reach the mainland of North America, one year before the same feat had been accomplished by Christopher Columbus. In 1507 Waldseemüller honored Vespucci by using his first name as a label for the new continent in his Cosmographiae Introductio, a series of maps. In the meantime, Vespucci was honored with the title of pilot major, a chief navigator for the king of Spain. He died of malaria that he had caught during his second voyage.

See Also: Columbus, Christopher

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Vespucci, Amerigo

Vespucci, Amerigo (1451–1512), Italian merchant and explorer. He travelled to the New World, reaching the coast of Venezuela on his first voyage (1499–1500) and exploring the Brazilian coastline in 1501–2. The Latin form of his first name is believed to have given rise to the name of America.

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Vespucci, Amerigo

Vespucci, Amerigo (1454–1512) Italian maritime explorer. He was possibly the first to realize that the Americas constituted new continents, which were named after him by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller in 1507. Vespucci made at least two transatlantic voyages (1497–1504).

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