For all of 2012, which has been declared Vespucci Year in Florence, events, exhibitions and conferences will commemorate the Florentine explorer. With this debut article, TF will be publishing a monthly column focused on Vespucci and U.S.-Italy relations for the rest of the year.
In seeking answers about the past, the one thing historians thrive on is controversy. And the life of navigator Amerigo Vespucci, after whom North and South America were named, is nothing if not controversial. Hailed by some as a hero and cosmographical genius, others portrayed him as a fake and liar. American maritime historian Samuel Eliot Morison (1887-1976), for instance, dismissed him as a ‘minor player’ in the age of exploration, and poet and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) went even further to deplore that America should ‘wear the name of a thief.’ He maintained Vespucci was merely a ‘pickle-dealer at Seville…whose highest naval rank was boatswain’s mate in an expedition that never sailed’ and who had ‘managed in this lying world to supplant Columbus, and baptize half the earth with his own dishonest name.’ Damning words, indeed. But is there any truth in them?
A Florentine born in Ognissanti on March 9, 1454, Amerigo Vespucci belonged to a well-connected family. The son of a notary, he received a good education. However, faced with financial difficulties when his father died in 1483, Vespucci turned for help to the powerful merchant banking and money-lending Medici clan. In fact, Botticelli reproduced an image of the face of Simonetta Vespucci, Amerigo’s distant cousin’s beautiful wife, who was reputed to have been the lover of Giuliano de’ Medici, for his Venus. Thanks to the patronage of Lorenzo di Pier Francesco de’ Medici (1463-1503), Vespucci became his steward and factotum about town.
In 1491, suspicious of those running the family’s business in Spain, Lorenzo di Pier Francesco sent Vespucci, then 40 years old, to the boom town of Seville to take over the branch office there. On instructions, he also entered into a ship chandlery business with fellow Florentine Gianetto Berardi, who had made the bulk of his money in slave trading and later invested heavily in Christopher Columbus’s transatlantic voyages. Thus, Vespucci caught the exploration ‘bug,’ wanting his share of fame and fortune like his role model, Columbus, although both men lost money in the end.
Nonetheless, Vespucci did manage to become famous based on letters he wrote to his patrons about his voyages. The first collection, Mundus Novus (‘New World’), which was written to Lorenzo di Pier Francesco and published in 1504, became an overnight sensation. It far outsold Columbus’s far more prosaic account, with vivid descriptions of wild adventures, cannibals and the exotic sexuality of the natives he encountered in distant, previously unknown lands.
This was soon followed by a second publication, Quattuor Americi Vesputi Navigationes (‘Four Voyages of Amerigo Vespucci’) printed in 1505. In his letters, especially one to Piero Soderini, an old classmate and gonfaloniere of Florence, he described the four voyages (in 1497, 1499, 1501 and 1503) he purportedly had made. Today, many historians are convinced that some of the letters were forgeries and that, based on evidence, Vespucci never made the 1497 or 1503 journeys.
In 1499, Vespucci did, however, join the four-ship expedition of Alonso de Hojeda, who had been with Columbus on his second voyage. They explored much of the northeastern coast of South America and stopped in Trinidad and Guyana. Taking two of the ships, Vespucci separated from Alonso and continued south as far as the estuary of the Amazon River, thereby revealing much of the Brazilian coast. But the voyage was not profitable.
The King of Portugal financed Vespucci’s second three-ship expedition in 1501. Again, he sailed to South America, discovering the mouth of the La Plata River and Patagonia. Once back in Portugal, deluded by the king’s failure to bestow on him the glory and wealth he expected, Vespucci returned to Spain. There lauded as a modern-day Ptolemy, in 1508, he was nominated Pilot Major of Spain.
A year earlier, the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller published his woodcut map of the world engraved on 12 blocks, together with Cosmographiae Introductio, an introduction to cosmography (see below). On the map, he referred to the newly discovered lands as ‘America,’ in Vespucci’s honour, truly believing all he had read in the Soderini letter. But by the time Waldseemüller revised his work in 1514, realising his mistake, it was too late: the name had stuck.
February 22, 2012, marks the 500th anniversary of Vespucci’s death at 58, in Seville, from a bout of the malaria contracted on his travels. Whilst doubts may still remain about the greatness of the achievements of this ‘pickle-dealer,’ it cannot be denied that, unlike Columbus, who died still convinced that he had reached Asia, Vespucci knew that, by arriving on the shores of what are now called North and South America, he had found the New World.
In May 2003, the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, purchased the only surviving copy of the 1,000 printed originals of Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 world map, the first to outline all the continents of the world. This is also the first known document on which the name “America! appears, the first known map that depicts the separate Western Hemisphere an the first known map that shows the Pacific Ocean as a separate body of water. You can find more information about it at www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/0309/maps.html.