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.
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.
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). □
Born: March 9, 1451
Died: February 22, 1512
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 (1449–1494) 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 (1451–1506) 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 determination—though no longer young—to see them himself.
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 Indies—sighting no islands—and 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 (1469–1521) 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.
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
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.
Merchant, explorer, and navigator
Early Wealth. A native of Florence, Amerigo Vespucci was a wealthy businessman who traveled extensively. He was in Spain as a representative of the Medici family when Columbus sailed in 1492. While in Seville, Vespucci turned his hobby of geography and navigation into a new midlife career as an explorer. He made the first of at least two voyages to the Americas in 1499-1500. The first voyage was to Venezuela aboard a Spanish ship. Vespucci calculated longitude on the voyage by mapping the planets and the moon, a method so complicated that it was rarely used, despite remaining in navigation manuals for hundreds of years. After his second voyage he returned to Spain and was promoted to Chief Pilot of Spain, the first person to hold the office.
Brazil. Vespucci's second voyage was a direct result of Portuguese navigator Pedro Alvares Cabral's sighting of Brazil. Cabral had sailed in a south-southwesterly direction and sighted the coast of Brazil in 1500. However, he did not explore the land because he was actually attempting to repeat Vasco da Gama's voyage around the southern tip of Africa. Vespucci set sail in 1501 under the Portuguese flag in order to find and chart the Brazilian coast. He continued south along the coast of South America for more than two thousand miles until he crossed the “Line of Demarcation” (an imaginary boundary that divided the Portuguese and Spanish areas of exploration). Vespucci's two known voyages thus covered most of the Atlantic coast of South America. It was obvious to him and others that South America was a vast continent.
Propaganda. Unlike Columbus, who thought he was in the Indies, Vespucci claimed that he had sailed to a new land: “It is proper to call [it] a new world.” Vespucci was the first to popularize the wonders of the Americas despite the fact that he may not have actually written material attributed to him. In 1507, Fracanzano da Montalboddo published a collection of accounts titled Paesi novamente retrovati that included two essays purportedly written by Vespucci. The author's sexual imagination and eye for the outlandish filled the work with accounts of Amazon women, cannibals, and giants. For instance, a 1504 letter to Piero Sodarini vividly describes Vespucci's voyage of 1501-1502 to Brazil. He offers a stark contrast between the inhabitants of the new land and the Europeans, whom he refers to as Christians. One incident in the letter details how a woman killed a Christian on the beach. Within open eyesight of his ship, other women dragged the body to higher land, where it was butchered and cooked over a fire. Men and women from the new lands then flaunted their victory by waving portions of the body in the air. To make matters worse, they then reenacted how they had earlier killed and eaten two missing Christians. Vespucci expressed his disgust, yet his exotic descriptions were clearly meant to stir emotions in Europe.
Legacy. Vespucci's propaganda allowed him to win much of the fame that should have gone to Columbus. His claim of “a new world” so influenced German cartographer Martin Waldseemuller that his Cosmographiae introductio (1507) proposed the name America, after Amerigo Vespucci, for the newly found western lands. Waldseemuller's great world map states across the top that it is “according to the tradition of Ptolemy and the voyages of Amerigo Vespucci and others.” (Ptolemy's view of the world was not consistent with Vespucci's claim of new lands, and Waldseemuller later abandoned his support of Ptolemiac theory.) Vespucci's real legacy is in Waldseemuller's use of Amerigo's name for the new lands. Decades later Gerardus Mercator used the name for North America and South America. The term remains today despite the fact that Vespucci never saw the North American shore.
G. R. Crone, ed., The Explorers: Great Adventurers Tell Their Own Stories of Discovery (New York: Crowell, 1962).
J. H. Parry, The Age of Reconnaissance: Discovery, Exploration and Settlement, 1450-1650 (Cleveland: World, 1963).
Frederick J. Pohl, Amerigo Vespucci, Pilot Major (New York: Octagon, 1966).
Italian Merchant and Geographer
Amerigo Vespucci was one of the most important personalities of the European Age of Exploration. His vast knowledge of geography would set the stage for the European colonization of the Western hemisphere.
Amerigo Vespucci was a child of the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543) would move the Earth from the center of creation to the position of third satellite orbiting the sun. Galileo (1564-1642) and his telescope proved the heliocentric theory, and a questioning attitude would define this early modern period. The development of the scientific method created a process through which humankind could decipher God's "Book of Nature."
Italy was at the center of this knowledge explosion. By the late fourteenth century, certain Italian city-states had seized control of the flow of spice, perfumes, and silk from the East. Florence was the most powerful of these city-states. Into this intellectually vibrant environment, in 1454, Amerigo Vespucci was born. The Vespucci family had been prominent for over a century, with family members holding important positions in the city's government. These family connections enabled Amerigo to receive an exceptional education, including an introduction to the latest geographic theories, and very early in his education he decided to make geography his intellectual focus. The turning point in his formation as a geographer came when he began an intellectual relationship with Paolo Toscanelli (1397-1492). Toscanelli was regarded as Florence's greatest intellectual, and he always stressed the importance of experience over authority. He believed that in the modern world one should reject all knowledge that did not stand the test of empirical examination.
In 1492 Christopher Columbus (1456-1501) declared that he had reached India by sailing west. As this information became public Vespucci began to question the veracity of Columbus's claims. The length of his voyage was less than a month, and Vespucci believed that was too short a period of time to travel such a great distance. Most experienced geographers believed that a degree on the surface of the Earth was equal to 66⅔ miles (107.3 km). Columbus argued that his voyage was shorter than expected because in fact a degree was only equal to 56⅔ miles (91.2 km), thus making the circumference of the earth much smaller than previously thought. Vespucci's second problem was based upon the fact that Columbus had sailed directly west from Spain. It was common knowledge that Bartholomeu Dias's (1450-1500) voyage to the Cape of Good Hope not only had taken much longer than that of Columbus, but he also had to sail south of the equator. These two facts were in direct conflict with the information put forth by Columbus.
Following the training he received from Toscanelli, Vespucci set out to gather his own empirical data and signed on as an expert astronomer for the next expedition funded by the Spanish monarchy. Of the five ships assigned to this voyage, Vespucci was in charge of two. Both ships sailed westward and reached the coast of what is now Brazil. Along with mapping the entire coastline, he also charted territory, which consists of present-day Colombia, Uruguay, and Argentina. He then explored parts of the Amazon, the Para, and the La Plata rivers. The information from these detailed expeditions convinced European scholars that Columbus had not reached India but had found a vast uncharted territory. Vespucci's accurate maps would eventually be used for further exploration of the Western hemisphere, setting the stage for Europe's colonization of the New World. Amerigo Vespucci was held in such high esteem that in 1507 the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller (1470-1521) named this new region "America" to honor Vespucci's achievements as a geographer.
RICHARD D. FITZGERALD
Vespucci, Amerigo (1454–1512)
Vespucci, Amerigo (1454–1512)
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