Amerigo Vespucci

(History of the World: The Renaissance)

Article abstract: The first European credited with persuading his contemporaries that what Christopher Columbus had discovered was a “New World,” Vespucci revolutionized geographic thinking when he argued that this region now bearing his name was a continent distinct from Asia.

Early Life

Amerigo Vespucci was the third son of a Florentine family of five children. His father, Stagio Vespucci, was a modestly prosperous notary and a member of a respected and learned clan that cultivated good relations with Florence’s intellectual and artistic elite. The fortunes of the family improved during Amerigo’s lifetime, and his father would twice occupy positions of fiscal responsibility in the Florentine government.

Unlike his older brothers, who attended the University of Pisa, Amerigo received his education at home under the tutelage of a paternal uncle, Giorgio Antonio, a Dominican friar. The youth became proficient in Latin and developed an interest in mathematics and geography, an interest which he was able to indulge in his tutor’s extensive library. In his uncle’s circle, Amerigo also became acquainted with the theories of Paolo Toscanelli dal Pozzo, a Florentine physician and cosmographer who first suggested the possibility of a westward voyage as an alternative route to the Orient, an idea that Columbus and others eventually borrowed.

The study of geography was considered useful for anyone interested in a career in commerce, the profession chosen for Amerigo by his parents. Travel was also considered suitable training for businessmen, and Amerigo accepted the first opportunity when another uncle, Guido Antonio Vespucci, a lawyer, invited the twenty-four-year-old to Paris. The elder Vespucci had been appointed Florentine ambassador to the court of Louix XI in 1478 and had asked his young relative to join him as his private secretary.

In 1482, two years after Amerigo’s return to Florence from France, his father died, making Amerigo responsible for the support of the family. The following year, Amerigo became manager of the household of one of the branches of the ruling Medici family, and he performed his task loyally for the next sixteen years. In this capacity, he traveled to Spain at least once to look after the financial interests of the Medicis. He was in Spain again toward the end of 1491 and settled permanently in the city of Seville, where he established financial relations with the city’s active Italian merchant community. He would eventually marry María Cerezo, a native of Seville. The couple had no children.

At the close of the fifteenth century, the port city of Seville was the hub of commercial activity and the center of overseas travel and exploration. The Portuguese had taken the lead in the search for a new route to India by reaching the Orient circumnavigating Africa. Confirmation of the accuracy of their vision came with news that Bartolomeu Dias’ expedition had reached the Cape of Good Hope (the southernmost tip of Africa) in 1488. The Spanish lagged behind their Portuguese neighbors until Columbus’ triumphant return from his first voyage. The Crown had paid Columbus’ expenses, and he was expected to search for yet another alternate route to the East. Following the theories of Toscanelli, Columbus sailed in 1492 and returned to Spain early the following year.

Columbus’ initial optimistic reports that he had found a new route to Asia ensured greater interest and opportunities for investment on the part of all who knew of his trip, and Vespucci would soon be involved in several of the many maritime enterprises that mushroomed in Seville in the wake of Columbus’ success. Vespucci, as a subaltern of the Italian merchant Giannetto Berardi, assisted Columbus in financing and outfitting a second voyage of discovery, which sailed in 1493. Berardi died before the provisioning of the fleet was complete, and Vespucci assumed the task. It is highly likely that Vespucci and Columbus had many opportunities to meet during this period and that the Florentine’s early interest in geography and cosmography was revived as a result of these contacts. The lure of the sea and the prospects of discovery would soon prove irresistible. By 1499, Vespucci had decided to change professions from businessman to explorer.

Life’s Work

Much controversy surrounds certain facts about Vespucci’s life between the years 1497 and 1499—the period immediately prior to his first generally acknowledged ocean voyage—especially because some of his biographers assert that he, not Columbus, was the first European to discover the American mainland along the coast of northern South America. In order for this assertion to be valid, Vespucci would have had to undertake this voyage before Columbus’ third—during which Columbus sailed along the coast of Venezuela—that is, before June, 1498. Vespucci was an inveterate letter writer. The most compelling evidence that he might have gone on this trip appears in a document of dubious authenticity attributed to Vespucci himself, the Lettera di Amerigo Vespucci delle isole nouvamente trovate in quattro suoi viaggi (c. 1505; The First Four Voyages of Amerigo Vespucci, 1885). This long letter is addressed to the head of the Florentine republic, the gonfalonier Piero Soderini. In this document, the author purports to have made four voyages overseas, the first of which, circa 1497, took him along the Caribbean coast of the American mainland—that is, to Venezuela, Central America, the Yucatán Peninsula, and the Gulf of Mexico, well in advance of Columbus. Since there is little independent evidence to corroborate information about this voyage, many scholars dismiss this episode as a fiction propagated by the letter, which could have been a forgery published by an overzealous and unscrupulous printer eager to cash in...

(The entire section is 2413 words.)