Vespucci, Amerigo (1454–1512)

views updated

Vespucci, Amerigo (1454–1512)

The Florentine navigator and cosmographer Amerigo Vespucci was the first to reveal to Europe the existence of a previously unknown continental landmass south of the equinox, and also to state that the empirical knowledge attained in the exploration of this new land could change long-held ideas in the cosmographical tradition. He was born on March 9, 1454, into an extended family that enjoyed relative economic success and played a prominent role in Florentine political and cultural life. In 1478 an uncle, Guido Antonio, went to the court of Louis XI in France on a diplomatic mission on behalf of Lorenzo de' Medici, bringing Amerigo as his secretary. Amerigo returned to Florence in 1482, this time to work as Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici's head steward, a position he retained until 1491.

Vespucci's involvement in overseas exploration began in Seville, where between 1492 and 1496 he looked after Lorenzo's commercial interests and worked with Giannotto Berardi, outfitting fleets to America. Vespucci's participation in three overseas voyages can be documented, all involving the exploration of South America. His two first voyages covered most of the northern and eastern continental coasts; a third voyage under Fernão de Noronha (1503), exploring only between Bahía and San Vicente, seems to have been inconsequential. He returned to Seville in 1504 to begin working in the Casa de Contratación in 1507 and the following year became pilot major, the officer in charge of licensing pilots, inspecting navigational instruments, and keeping up-to-date navigational charts, an occupation in which he would remain until his death on February 12, 1512.

Vespucci's first voyage was a defining moment in his realization that new information acquired in exploration could be used to correct and expand the theories previously stated by philosophers and geographers. He departed from Cádiz as a pilot in Alonso de Hojeda's expedition (May 18, 1499–June 1500) and explored from present-day Surinam to Lake Maracaibo. In his letter to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco of July 18, 1500, he says he was attempting to round the Cape of Cattigara near the Sinus Magnus, the easternmost part of the Indian Ocean in Asia. His main concern, however, was not so much to describe territories uncharted on European maps, because unknown islands and stretches of land had always been supposed to exist. He rather "longed to be the author who would designate the other polar star of the firmament" (1992, p. 6). He was convinced that navigation could change cosmographic history, that is, radically challenge accepted ideas of the world and cartographic practice. Designating the southern star closest to the firmament (the one that moved the least) not only satisfied a navigational need for a point of reference in the sky but also served to connect the poles and the skies symmetrically through an imaginary axis (an essential conceptual device in mapping). He further sought to become a cosmographical authority by putting forth two more major propositions: a detailed explanation of his method for calculating longitude; and a confutation of the theory of the inhabitability of the Torrid Zone. Thus his main goal was to break the boundaries of learned geographical discourse and set new standards for cosmographical knowledge.

It was after his second voyage that he put forth the claim that the countries he had explored should be considered a New World. He had left from Lisbon, this time at the service of the Portuguese king Manuel I, in the expedition commanded by Gonzalo Coelho (May 13, 1501–July 22, 1502). They landed near Cape San Roque on the northern coast of Brazil and explored the coast to the south as far as Patagonia. His observations during this voyage revolved around three main themes that further developed and expanded his observations of his first voyage: the existence of a continent previously unknown, whose diversity and novelty surpassed the world known to antiquity; the habitability of the equinoctial region; and the designation of the Southern Cross to determine the southern pole.

These statements were first published in the Mundus Novus (1503), a letter addressed to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco and later included in Francanzano Montalboddo's Paesi, a collection of exploration narratives. It was, however, the Lettera addressed to Piero Soderini, a collection of four spurious voyage accounts attributed to Vespucci, that brought him fame. Martin Wadseemuller included Vespucci's letter as an appendix to his Cosmographia introductio, where he presented an updated world map. Here the name "America" was given to the portion of the South American continent explored by Vespucci. The Soderini letter was thus canonized as the authoritative source on Vespucci's voyages, and it continued to reappear in important collections such as the Novus Orbis and Giovanni Battista Ramusio's Navigationi.

See alsoAmerica; Explorers and Exploration: Spanish America; Manuel I of Portugal; Noronha, Fernão de.


Primary Works

Alberic[us] Vespucci[us] Laure[n]tio Petri Francisci de Medicis Salutem Plurima[m] Dicit. París: Felix Baligault y Jehan Lambert, 1503.

Lettera di Amerigo Vespucci delle isole nuouamente trovate in quattro suoi viaggi. Florence: A. Tubini & A. Ghirlandi, 1505.

Secondary Works

Caraci, Ilaria Luzzana. Navegantes italianos. Madrid: Mapfre, 1992.

O'Gorman, Edmundo. La invención de América. Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1977.

Pohl, Frederick J. Amerigo Vespucci, Pilot Major. New York: Columbia University Press, 1944.

Rivera Novo, Belén, and Luisa Martín-Merás. Cuatro siglos de cartografía en América. Madrid: Mapfre, 1992.

Roa-de-la-Carrera, Cristián. "El Nuevo Mundo como problema de conocimiento: Américo Vespucio y el discurso geográfico del siglo XVI." Hispanic Review 70, no. 4 (2002): 557-580.

Varela, Consuelo. Amerigo Vespucci. Madrid: Anaya, 1988.

Wolff, Hans. America: Early Maps of the New World. Munich: Prestel, 1992.

                          CristiÁn Roa-de-la-Carrera