James A. Canaday
THE LIFE OF AMERIGO VESPUCCI
The saying has been attributed to Bacon, "that the youth of a great man often furnishes data of more importance than any other portion of his life, in guiding posterity to a just estimate of his character" [C. Edwards Lester 57]. To get a true account of a man's life, one must start at the beginning. Something, such as the time period a person was born, where a person was born, and who a person was affected by; cannot be controlled. So, to get a good account of Amerigo Vespucci, we should start at the beginning of his life. Amerigo Vespucci was born on March 9, 1454, in Florence: the third child of Ser Nastagio Vespucci, notary of the Money-Changer's Guild, and of Lisa di Giovanni Mini [Wills xxxv]. The Vespucci family was considered one of the most cultured and respected families of aristocratic Florence [Pohl 14]. To illustrate the states of the Vespucci family, in 1472 Amerigo's father commissioned the famous Renaissance painter, Domenico Ghirlandajo, to paint a family group for the wall of a church built by a member of the Vespucci family in 1383 [Pohl 14].
Amerigo's uncle, Giorgio Antonio Vespucci, had a profound influence on the life of Amerigo [Pohl 15]. Giorgio was a canon, scholar, collector of manuscripts, and the owner of a library, which he gave to the Medici Family, who ruled Florence [Pohl 16]. About a year before Amerigo was born, Giorgio opened a school in his convent of San Marco for the sons of the principle nobles of Florence. As soon as Amerigo was of age to go to his uncle's school, he did [Lester 58]. Giorgio saw Amerigo as the man who would save the decimating fortune of the Vespucci family. Amerigo acquired a love for Virgil, Dante, and Petrarch, while he studied with his uncle; hence, Amerigo studied to perfect the language of scholars, Latin [Pohl 16]. Amerigo's uncle taught him in the physical sciences, especially in the teachings of Aristotle and Ptolemy, which included astronomy, cosmography, and geography; these fields would mold the career of Vespucci [Pohl 17-18].
However, Amerigo's father, Ser Nastagio, had plans for his son to enter the commercial life, upon a mercantile career, where he would save the family's fortune [Pohl 18]. Ser Nastagio kept Amerigo in Florentine (as opposed to sending him to the University of Pisa) with the likes of other uneducated men, like Leonardo da Vinci and Shakespeare [Pohl 18]. The most learned scholar of geography in Florence was Paolo Toscanelli (1397-1482). Messer Paolo was a director of the library of the San Marco monastery, which Amerigo's uncle owned; therefore, Amerigo and Toscanelli almost certainly had contact with each other [Pohl 25]. Toscanelli was the greatest cosmographer of his time; he was also an avid map collector and map maker [Pohl 23]. Toscanelli had aspirations of sailing west to the Indies; so, he was undoubtedly the man who would plant the idea in Amerigo to sail westward [Pohl 25].
Amerigo's father died in April of 1478, therefore, Amerigo was to be the chief money earner of the family [Pohl 27]. Great leaders in business, often became great leaders of the state; Amerigo was given a chance to show his business expertise when he became manager of the firm to the money of the Medici family, when at the time Lorenzo di Pier and Giovanni were in control [Pohl 27]. Amerigo was an agent of the Medici family for sixteen years; he struggled with affairs of trade, buying and selling, and safe transport of good; however, Amerigo accumulated a wealth of money [Pohl 28]. Amerigo had to carry the burden of several family members. They saw it as his duty because he was so well off; this lasted for the last nine years that he served with the Medici family, which was the final reason he would leave Italy for Spain [Pohl 29]. In 1491, Spain was the land of the greatest business opportunities, and foreign merchants, especially Florentine [Pohl 36]. Spain was split between Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, the Spanish Inquisition was in effect, and Spain was the focus of Europe to stop the French [Pohl 34]. In March of 1493, the talk of Spain was that Cristoforo Colon had reached the Indies by sailing west; he had beat the Potugese at their own game [Pohl 38].
In Spain, Amerigo acted as a merchant for the Medici family. Amerigo established many contacts in Spain; therefore, he needed to stay in Spain to conduct business for the Medici family [Pohl 36]. This is where the story of Amerigo Vespucci takes off. In Spain, Amerigo was in the midst of the Colon voyages, which he heard much about (as a merchant he probably invested in Colon's second voyage). Around 1489, Vespucci was told by Lorenzo di Pier Franesco to transfer the business of the Medici family to Gonzalo Berardi; Vespucci and Berardi would become close friends [Pohl 36].
Vespucci had become increasingly interested in the voyages of Columbus. After Colon's third voyage, which he had not yet discovered a passage to Asia; Vespucci felt it was time he should do some exploring himself [Pohl 47]. Amerigo had all the qualifications to be a sailor, such as his family connections, family tradition of sailing, his skill in trade, business, cosmography, mathematics, and astronomy [Pohl 48].
In May 1499, Vespucci was to set sail with Alonso de Hojeda. Amerigo went as an astronomer and "as a merchant" [Pohl 49]. Vespucci was given two ships, and the freedom to steer them where he wished as long as Hojeda gave his permission. However, Vespucci had other plans [Pohl 49]. Colon's ships sighted Brazil ion June 27, 1499; this would be the first view Europeans had ever had of Brazil [Pohl 52]. His ships had also sailed to the Amazon River. On this voyage, Vespucci studied the stars in order to find the south celestial pole. This voyage would insight a transformation in Vespucci from businessman to scholar. Vespucci thought he was close to finding a route westward to Asia; however, Vespucci's ships would sail back to Spain in June of 1500 because they were not seaworthy anymore [Encounters].
Once Amerigo returned to Spain from his first voyage with Hojeda, he wrote his first letter to Lorenzo di Pier Francisco de Medici [Pohl 82]. In this letter, he described his route across the Atlantic Ocean; Vespucci wrote about the animals he saw, and he wrote about the stars of the sky that he used to plot where he was. Vespucci wrote about the people he had encountered [Pohl 82]. He wrote that his men had docked on the island of Espanola, which Colon had discovered, here Vespucci made provisions for the ships. However, Vespucci says his men were getting tired from being at sea for over a year, so they set sail to return to Castile [Pohl 87]. When Vespucci arrived in Europe, he would soon find disappointment because the Portugese sailor Vasco da Gama had sailed around Africa, to the famous part of the East [Pohl 91]. Amerigo set to sail on another expedition for Spain; the Spanish government offered him three ships and supplies for another voyage [Pohl 98]. However, although the steps are unknown, Vespucci declined the offer of the Spanish king, which led him to the conclusion that the only way he could have a successful voyage would be to sail under the Portugese flag [Pohl 99]. Vespucci was given three Portugese ships and complete power over the ships [Pohl 101]. The Portugese ships were quicker, faster, stronger, and more trustworthy than Spain's [Pohl 104]. On May 31, 1501, Amerigo set sail to find the Strait of Catigara, which Ptolemy had thought led to Asia [Pohl 104]. However, Vespucci's voyage sailed along the coast of what is now South America; be sailed almost all the way to the tip southern tip of South America [Pohl 124].
This voyage would make Vespucci famous because he knew he was not in Asia or anywhere near Asia; Vespucci made a geographical discovery that would set him apart from any man in history [Pohl 125]. He had discovered a new continent [Pohl 125]. Vespucci was aware of the inconsistences between accepted notions of traditional geography. "He had discovered a new continent in the only way it was possible at that time to discover it, by extensive exploring coupled with well-grounded deductions in line with a remarkably near to accurate conception of the circumference of the Earth" [Pohl 138]. Vespucci took geography to a new level; he made it known that there was another ocean that had to be crossed to get to Asia [Pohl 139].
During this voyage, Vespucci's second, he wrote to Lorenzo Medici from Cape Verde. He wrote about the beauty of the country, and of the fruits and roots [Pohl 113]. He also wrote about the inhabitants of the land and how eager he was to find out the culture of the people he encountered. This prompted him to stay and study his surroundings for twenty-seven days [Pohl 114]. Upon Amerigo's return from his second voyage, he wrote another letter to Lorenzo [Pohl 114]. He wrote to Medici that he was sure that he had found a new land, and so the existence of a new continent was quietly announced. Vespucci told Lorenzo he knew it was a new continent because of the variety of inhabitants and the overall size. Vespucci said he knew this from the extent of its "coastline and the volume of its rivers" [Pohl 137].
The final voyage for Amerigo Vespucci was, for him, a disappointment. King Emmanuel of Portugal prepared another voyage under the command of Gonzalo Coelho; this did not make Vespucci happy [Lester 213]. The fleet was ready to set sail in May of 1503, and the main objective of this voyage was to discover the island of Maalaca [Lester 213]. Vespucci was thoroughly disgusted by the commander's tactics. During this voyage, Amerigo would sail to the coast of Brazil; however, this voyage was a disaster, so on June 18, 1504, Vespucci arrived back in Lisbon [Lester 213].
Vespucci would stay in Portugal until the end of 1504; then, he would return to Seville, Spain [Pohl 146]. Seville was better suited for his temperament; thus, he would remain in Spain for the rest of his life [Pohl 146].
Vespucci had visions of sailing again. However, these visions would be destroyed on March 27, 1508, when King Ferdinand named him "Pilot Major of Spain" [Pohl 184]. Vespucci was to teach all pilots of Spain in skills of navigation, cosmography, and he was to direct the construction of hydrographic charts, inspect navigational instruments and to investigate any navigation problems [Pohl 184]. In essence, Vespucci had control of all voyages under the Spanish flag. Amerigo found the young pilots hard to teach; they frustrated Amerigo. Another part of his duties as Pilot Major was map making; Amerigo was also in control of trade from Spain to the New World (Pohl 193). As Pilot Major of Spain, Vespucci inspired many expeditions to find a route to Asia by going around the southern end of what is now South America [Pohl 197].
Amerigo Vespucci would die in Seville on February 22, 1512 [Garry Wills 1]. However, the achievements of Amerigo Vespucci are numerous. Vespucci was the first European to reach the shores of Brazil, and the first to explore its coastline; he was the first on the coasts of Columbia, Uruguay, and Argentina [Pohl 196]. He discovered three of the world's largest rivers: the Amazon, the Pavia, and the Plata, and he explored an estimated 6,000 miles of coastline, which was more than anyone ever had [Pohl 196]. He was the first to record the existence of the equatorial current. He also was able to determine precise longitude using the lunar cycle. Most important, was that he realized that he had arrived at a new continent, that was not Asia (Pohl 197). The most controversial part of Amerigo Vespucci's life was not his fault. The controversy lies in how many voyages Amerigo actually made across the Atlantic. Some say he made four, while others say he made only three. I will supply you with the information I have. My own opinion is that Amerigo Vespucci made three voyages to the New World.
The controversy lies in two published letters; the first called the Mundus Novus (New World) and a letter supposedly written to Piero Soderini called The Four Voyages or "Lettera." Soderini was the chief magistrate of Florence after the Medici family fell from power.
Amerigo Vespucci's name has suffered from the alleged "Mundus Novus" and the "Lettera". After the death of Lorenzo di Pier Franesco Medici, his estate was taken apart by executives, and all of his possessions were read, including the letters written to Lorenzo by Vespucci [Pohl 147]. The letter, which told about the "New World", was so fascinating to the people of Florence that they thought it was necessary to distribute the news throughout Europe via the printing press [Pohl 148]. The data written in the "Mundus Novus," which was supposedly written to Lorenzo from Vespucci, is based partly on correct information, but in a confused form. It contains part of letters written in 1501 from Cape Verde and letters written in 1502 from Lisbon, which were addressed to Lorenzo. The "Mundus Novus" correctly pictures the new continent discovered by Amerigo. The "Mundus Novus" makes absurd assertions that Amerigo said, "I was more skilled then all the shipmasters of the whole world" [Pohl 149]. Whoever wrote the "Mundus Novus" did not know about the voyage Amerigo make with Spain because on one page the publication makes reference that this was a "first voyage", but on another page mentions there had been "two other voyages" [Pohl 149]. The most impossible portion of the "Mundus Novus" is called the "Jocundus Paragraph." Jocundus was the translator of the document. In this paragraph, the assertion is made that one could calculate where he was by using the positioning of the stars, which Vespucci did. However, whoever wrote the Mundus Novus does this to publish it as a means of " sacrilegious audacity" [Pohl 150]. The Jocundus paragraph was evidence that the idea was tremendously disturbing to traditional scholars [Pohl 150]. The main point of the paragraph is that the "astronomical portion challenged the fixed ideas of some of the philosophers" [Pohl 150].
The next "forgery" was written a month after the "Mundus Novus" in September 1504 [Pohl 150]. This forgery, called the Four Voyages or Soderini Letters, was reportedly written to Piero Soderini from Amerigo Vespucci [Pohl 150]. This forgery was made by a jealous Soderini who was upset that Amerigo had written letters to Lorenzo about the discovery of a new continent, and not to Soderini, the new chief magistrate of Florence [Pohl 151].
The "Four Voyages" was written on the assumption since Columbus needed four voyages across the Atlantic, Vespucci must have needed four voyages [Pohl 151]. The first voyage was said to have been in 1497, from Spain, which would have given Vespucci one year priority over Columbus, in that he was the first European to reach the new continent [Encounters]. The second voyage was in 1499, which was based on the actual voyage Vespucci sailed that year under the Spanish flag. The third voyage in 1501, was based on Vespucci's actual voyage under the Portugese flag. The fourth voyage was for Portugese in 1504. Amerigo would never have written the "Four Voyages" to Soderini considering that Amerigo's nephew, Giovanni, took part in a plot to kill Soderini, and the Vespucci family was not fond of Soderini [Pohl 152].
The first voyage in the letter to Soderini never took place because in May 1497, Amerigo was involved in activities as Gonzalo Berardi's successor after his death. In different texts of the "Four Voyages", a conflict is evident in the date Vespucci supposedly returned from his first voyage. One text says October 18, 1498, and another says October 1, 1499, and yet another says October 18, 1498 [Pohl 155]. If Vespucci would have sailed his so-called first journey in 1497, this would have given him one year precedence over Colon in that he had reached the new land first. At the time the "Four Voyages" were in circulation, Colon's son, Ferdinand, was involved in legal proceedings concerning his father's rights, and the attempt to overthrow his father's priority would have outraged Ferdinand [Pohl 157]. But, Ferdinand did not mention the issue because he must had known the document was a forgery. The early texts of the "Four Voyages" contain language errors, also some "words that were a corrupt bastard sort of Spanish-Italian. If Vespucci had written these, he would not have made such errors. The composers of the "Four Voyages" added a lot of outrageous details about the voyages of Vespucci to make the readers more curious, which made them purchase more copies [Pohl 154]. Vespucci's letters about the voyages to Lorenzo were dull and dispassionate [Pohl 154], The "Four Voyages" was never printed in Spain or Portugal because people there knew the true story, so it was published in Italy, France, the low countries, and Germany , where the story could be spread to the ignorant [Pohl 157].
The letters to Lorenzo di Pier Francisco Medici are certainly true. However, most historians see parts of the "Mundus Novus" as correct; however, Amerigo Vespucci did not write the "Mundus Novus", and parts are proven forgeries. The "Four Voyages" is definitely viewed as a forgery. The controversies concerning the life of Amerigo are not his fault, but the works of others. The life of Amerigo Vespucci was full of twists and turns, but all in all a very interesting one.
Cohen, Jonathen. "The Naming of America: Vespucci's Good Name." Encounters 7: 16-20.
Lester, C. Edwards. The Life and Voyages of Americus Vespucius. New York: New Amsterdam Publishing, 1903.
Pohl, Frederick. Amerigo Vespucci Pilot Major. New York: Octagon Books, Inc., 1966.
Wills, Garry. Foreward. Letters From A New World. Ed. Luciano Formisano. New York: Marsilio Publishers, 1992.