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Amerigo Vespucci

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Amerigo Vespucci

Amerigo Vespucci
Statue outside the Uffizi, Florence.
Born March 9, 1454
Florence, Republic of Florence, in present-day Italy
Died February 22, 1512
Seville, Crown of Castile, in present-day Spain
Nationality Italian
Other names Américo Vespucio [es]
Americus Vespucius [la]
Américo Vespúcio [pt]
Alberigo Vespucci
Occupation Merchant, Explorer, Cartographer
Known for Demonstrating that the New World was not Asia but a previously unknown fourth continent.[a]

Amerigo Vespucci (Italian pronunciation: ; March 9, 1454 – February 22, 1512) was an Italian explorer, financier, navigator and cartographer who first demonstrated that Brazil and the West Indies did not represent Asia's eastern outskirts as initially conjectured from Columbus' voyages, but instead constituted an entirely separate landmass hitherto unknown to Afro-Eurasians. Colloquially referred to as the New World, this second super continent came to be termed "America", deriving its name from Americus, the Latin version of Vespucci's first name.[1][2]


The birthplace of Amerigo Vespucci.

Amerigo Vespucci was born and raised in Dominican friar of the monastery of San Marco in Florence.

While his elder brothers were sent to the [3] After these were delivered, Vespucci continued as a provision contractor for Indies expeditions, and is known to have secured beef supplies for at least one (if not two) of Columbus' voyages.[3]


At the invitation of king Manuel I of Portugal, Vespucci participated as observer in several voyages that explored the east coast of South America between 1499 and 1502. On the first of these voyages he was aboard the ship that discovered that South America extended much further south than previously thought.

The expeditions became widely known in Europe after two accounts attributed to Vespucci were published between 1502 and 1504. In 1507, Martin Waldseemüller produced a world map on which he named the new continent America after the feminine Latin version of Vespucci's first name, which is Americus. In an accompanying book, Waldseemüller published one of the Vespucci accounts, which led to criticism that Vespucci was trying to upset Christopher Columbus' glory. However, the rediscovery in the 18th century of other letters by Vespucci has led to the view that the early published accounts, notably the Soderini Letter, could be fabrications, not by Vespucci, but by others.

Historical role

In 1508 the position of chief of navigation of Spain (piloto mayor de Indias) was created for Vespucci, with the responsibility of planning navigation for voyages to the Indies.

Vespucci's first encounter with native Americans in Honduras, 1497 (De Bry's illustration, c.1592)

Two letters attributed to Vespucci were published during his lifetime. Mundus Novus (New World) was a Latin translation of a lost Italian letter sent from Lisbon to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici. It describes a voyage to South America in 1501–1502. Mundus Novus was published in late 1502 or early 1503 and soon reprinted and distributed in numerous European countries.[4] Lettera di Amerigo Vespucci delle isole nuovamente trovate in quattro suoi viaggi (Letter of Amerigo Vespucci concerning the isles newly discovered on his four voyages), known as Lettera al Soderini or just Lettera, was a letter in Italian addressed to Piero Soderini. Printed in 1504 or 1505, it claimed to be an account of four voyages to the Americas made by Vespucci between 1497 and 1504. A Latin translation was published by the German Martin Waldseemüller in 1507 in Cosmographiae Introductio, a book on cosmography and geography, as Quattuor Americi Vespucij navigationes (Four Voyages of Amerigo Vespucci).[4]

On March 22, 1508, King Ferdinand made Vespucci chief navigator of Spain at a huge salary[5] and commissioned him to found a school of navigation, in order to standardize and modernize navigation techniques used by Iberian sea captains then exploring the world. Vespucci even developed a rudimentary, but fairly accurate method of determining longitude (which only more accurate chronometers would later improve upon).

The first known depiction of cannibalism in the New World. Engraving by Johann Froschauer for an edition of Amerigo Vespucci's Mundus Novus, published in Augsburg in 1505.

In the 18th century three unpublished familiar letters from Vespucci to Lorenzo de' Medici were rediscovered. One describes a voyage made in 1499–1500 which corresponds with the second of the "four voyages". Another was written from Cape Verde in 1501 in the early part of the third of the four voyages, before crossing the Atlantic. The third letter was sent from Lisbon after the completion of that voyage.[4]

Some have suggested that Vespucci, in the two letters published in his lifetime, was exaggerating his role and constructed deliberate fabrications. However, many scholars now believe that the two letters were not written by him but were fabrications by others based in part on genuine letters by Vespucci. It was the publication and widespread circulation of the letters that might have led Waldseemüller to name the new continent America on his world map of 1507 in Lorraine. Vespucci used a Latinised form of his name, Americus Vespucius, in his Latin writings, which Waldseemüller used as a base for the new name, taking the feminine form America, according to the prevalent view (for other hypotheses, see the footnote in the introduction). The book accompanying the map stated: "I do not see what right any one would have to object to calling this part, after Americus who discovered it and who is a man of intelligence, Amerige, that is, the Land of Americus, or America: since both Europa and Asia got their names from women". It is possible that Vespucci was not aware that Waldseemüller had named the continent after him.[6]

The two disputed letters claim that Vespucci made four voyages to America, while at most two can be verified from other sources. At the moment there is a dispute between historians on when Vespucci visited the mainland the first time. Some historians like Germán Arciniegas and Gabriel Camargo Pérez think that his first voyage was made in June 1497 with the Spanish Pilot Juan de la Cosa.

Vespucci's real historical importance may well rest more in his letters, whether he wrote them all or not, than in his discoveries. From these letters, the European public learned about the newly discovered continents of the Americas for the first time; its existence became generally known throughout Europe within a few years of the letters' publication.


Portrait of Amerigo Vespucci as a child, part of the Madonna della Misericordia by Domenico Ghirlandaio at the Ognissanti church in Florence

The first and fourth voyages are disputed to have occurred, while the second and third are certain voyages.

First voyage

A letter published in 1504 purports to be an account by Vespucci, written to Soderini, of a lengthy visit to the New World, leaving Spain in May 1497 and returning in October 1498. However, modern scholars have doubted that this voyage took place, and consider this letter a forgery.[7] Whoever did write the letter makes several observations of native customs, including use of hammocks and sweat lodges.[8] The names of Amerigo Vespucci's ships were the San Antiago, Repertaga, Wegiz, and the Girmand.

Second voyage

About 1499–1500, Vespucci joined an expedition in the service of Spain, with Alonso de Ojeda (or Hojeda) as the fleet commander. The intention was to sail around the southern end of the African mainland into the Indian Ocean.[9] After hitting land at the coast of what is now Guyana, the two seem to have separated. Vespucci sailed southward, discovering the mouth of the Amazon River and reaching 6°S, before turning around and seeing Trinidad and the Orinoco River and returning to Spain by way of Hispaniola. The letter, to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, claims that Vespucci determined his longitude celestially [10] on August 23, 1499, while on this voyage. However, that claim may be fraudulent,[10] which could cast doubt on the letter's credibility.

Third voyage

Portrait of Vespucci which titles him "discoverer and conqueror of Brazilian land".

The last certain voyage of Vespucci was led by Gonçalo Coelho in 1501–1502 in the service of Portugal. Departing from Lisbon, the fleet sailed first to Cape Verde where they met two of Pedro Álvares Cabral's ships returning from India. In a letter from Cape Verde, Vespucci says that he hopes to visit the same lands that Álvares Cabral had explored, suggesting that the intention is to sail west to Asia, as on the 1499–1500 voyage.[9] On reaching the coast of Brazil, they sailed south along the coast of South America to Rio de Janeiro's bay. If his own account is to be believed, he reached the latitude of Patagonia before turning back, although this also seems doubtful, since his account does not mention the broad estuary of the Río de la Plata, which he must have seen if he had gotten that far south. Portuguese maps of South America, created after the voyage of Coelho and Vespucci, do not show any land south of present-day Cananéia at 25° S, so this may represent the southernmost extent of their voyages.

After the first half of the expedition, Vespucci mapped Ptolemy or Marco Polo and therefore, must be a New World, that is, a previously unknown fourth continent, after Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Fourth voyage

Vespucci's fourth voyage was another expedition for the Portuguese crown down the eastern coast of Brazil, that set out in May 1503 and returned to Portugal in June 1504. Like his alleged first voyage, Vespucci's last voyage in 1503–1504 is also disputed to have taken place.[12] The only source of information for the last voyage is the Letter to Soderini,[13] but as several modern scholars dispute Vespucci's authorship of the letter to Soderini, it is also sometimes doubted whether Vespucci undertook this trip.[b] However, Portuguese documents do confirm a voyage to Brazil was undertaken in 1503–04 by the captain Gonçalo Coelho, very likely the same captain of the 1501 mapping expedition (Vespucci's third voyage), and so it is quite possible that Vespucci went on board this one as well.[14] However, it is not independently confirmed Vespucci was aboard and there are some difficulties in the reported dates and details.

The letters caused controversy after Vespucci's death, especially among the supporters of Columbus who believed Columbus' priority for the discovery of America was being undermined, and seriously damaged Vespucci's reputation.[15]


Vespucci was a cousin of the husband of Simonetta Vespucci. He married Maria Cerezo. One of the very few references to Amerigo's wife is contained in a royal decree dated May 22, 1512 giving his widow, Maria Cerezo a lifetime pension of ten thousand marvedis per annum deducted from the salary of her husband's successor.[16]

Final years

Not long after his return to Spain, Vespucci became a Spanish citizen. On March 22, 1508 he was made the pilot major of Spain by Ferdinand II of Aragon in honor of his discoveries. Vespucci also ran a school for navigators. He died on February 22, 1512 at his home in Seville, Spain and was buried at Vespucci family burial place in Florence, Italy.[17][18]


a Europeans had long conceptualized the Afro-Eurasian landmass as divided into the same three continents known today: Europe, Asia, and Africa. Once cosmographers realized that the New World was not connected to the Old (but before its true geography was fully mapped), they considered the Americas to be a single, fourth continent.
b The question of the authenticity of Vespucci's authorship of the 1504 Mundus Novus and the 1505 Letter of Soderini, the only two texts published in Vespucci's lifetime, was famously raised by Magnaghi (1924). He proposed the Soderini letter was not written by Vespucci, but rather cobbled together by unscrupulous Florentine publishers, cutting and pasting together various accounts, some from Vespucci, others from elsewhere. Magnaghi was the first to propose that only the second and third voyages were true (as they are corroborated in Vespucci's other manuscript letters), while the first and fourth voyages (which are only found in the Soderini text) were fabricated by the publishers. The later (1937) discovery of a corrobotary Vespucci manuscript letter for the first voyage – the "Ridolfi fragment" (Formisiano, 1992: p.37-44) – means only the fourth voyage is really found in Soderini alone. The Magnaghi thesis has been a bitterly divisive factor in Vespucci scholarship. The Magnaghi thesis was accepted and popularized by Pohl (1944) but rejected by Arciniegas (1955), who posited all four voyages as truthful. Formisiano (1992) also rejects the Magnaghi thesis (although recognizing publishers probably fiddled with it), and declares all four voyages genuine, but in details (esp. the first) differing from Arciniegas. Fernández-Armesto (2007: p.128) declares the authenticity question "inconclusive", hypothesizes that the first voyage is probably just another version of the second, the third is unassailable, and the fourth probably true (but too mangled to be sure).

Further reading

  • Amerigo Vespucci (Charles Lester Edwards, Amerigo Vespucci) [2009] Viartis ISBN 978-1-906421-02-1


  1. ^ See e.g. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, Amerigo Vespucci; and Room, Adrian. 2004. Placenames of the world: origins and meanings of the names for over 5000 natural features, countries, capitals, territories, cities and historic sights: America believed to have derived their name from the feminized Latin version of his first name.
  2. ^ Rival explanations have been proposed (see Arciniegas, Germán. Amerigo and the New World: The Life & Times of Amerigo Vespucci. Translated by Harriet de Onís. New York: Octagon Books, 1978.) For example, some have speculated that the name's origin may lie with Richard Amerike [1], or with the region Amerrique in Nicaragua. None of these theories has been accepted in mainstream academia.
  3. ^ a b c d C.R. Markham (1894) "Introduction", in The Letters of Amerigo Vespucci and other documents illustrative of his career. London: Hakluyt.
  4. ^ a b c Formisano, Luciano (Ed.) (1992). Letters from a New World: Amerigo Vespucci's Discovery of America. New York: Marsilio. ISBN 0-941419-62-2. Pp. xix–xxvi.
  5. ^ Ober, p. 234
  6. ^ Ray, p.93
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ a b
  10. ^ a b on a rainy and stormy day with calm seas, stars could be identified near the horizon to judge latitude/longitude celestially. Although South America's continental shelf drops quickly into the deep ocean beyond the Orinoco River, the mouth is on the shelf, avoiding the ocean swells and waves which hinder visibility of stars near the horizon. Seamen who could navigate from Europe to America and back could chart stars on the horizon, especially for a cartographer like Vespucci.
  11. ^ Dekker, Elly (1990), Annals of Science, vol. 47, pp. 535–543.
  12. ^ Ray, p.91
  13. ^ Markham, pp.52–56
  14. ^ Fernández-Armesto (2007: p.168-69).
  15. ^ Ray, pp.96–97; Arciniegas (1955:p.16)
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^
  • Arciniegas, German (1955) Amerigo and the New World: The Life & Times of Amerigo Vespucci. New York: Knopf. 1955 English translation by Harriet de Onís. First edition published in Spanish in 1952 as Amerigo y el Nuevo Mundo, Mexico: Hermes.
  • Fernández-Armesto, Felipe (2007) Amerigo: The Man Who Gave his Name to America. New York: Random House.
  • Formisano, Luciano (1992) Letters from a New World: Amerigo Vespucci's Discovery of America. New York: Marsilio.
  • Magnaghi, Alberto (1924) Amerigo Vespucci: Studio critico, con speciale riguardo ad una nuova valutazione delle fonti e con documenti inediti tratti dal Codice Vaglienti, 2 vols, 1926 (2nd.) ed., Rome: Treves
  • Pohl, Frederick J. (1944) Amerigo Vespucci: Pilot Major. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Ober, Frederick A. (1907) Heroes of American History: Amerigo Vespucci New York: Harper & Brothers
  • Schulz, Norbert Amerigo Vespucci, Mundus Novus (mit Zweittexten). M.M.O., Verlag zur Förderung des Mittel- und Neulat (Vivarium (Series neolatina, Band II))) ISBN 978-3-9811144-2-3
  • Markham, Clements R. (1894) The Letters of Amerigo Vespucci, and Other Documents Illustrative of His Career. Hakluyt Society. (Reissued by Cambridge University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-108-01286-7)
  • Ray, Kurt (2003) Amerigo Vespucci: Italian Explorer of the Americas, The Rosen Publishing Group, 2003 ISBN 0823936155.

External links

  • Canaday, James A. The Life of Amerigo Vespucci
  • Works by Amerigo Vespucci at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about Amerigo Vespucci at Internet Archive
  • Vespucci, Amerigo. "Account of His First Voyage 1497 (Letter to Pier Soderini, Gonfalonier of the Republic of Florence)". Internet Modern History Sourcebook-Fordham University (U.S.)
  • Mason, Wyatt, 'I am America. (And So?)' The New York Times, December 12, 2007.
  • Martin Waldseemüller, Franz Wieser (Ritter von), Edward Burke (trans), The Cosmographiæ Introductio of Martin Waldseemüller in facsimile: followed by the Four voyages of Amerigo Vespucci, The United States Catholic Historical Society, 1908.
  • 1507 Waldseemüller Map from the US Library of Congress
  • TOPS Lecture at Library of Congress, Drs. France and Easton
  • World Digital Library presentation of the 1507 Waldseemüller Map in the Library of Congress. This is the only known surviving copy of the wall map edition of which it is believed 1,000 copies were printed. Four originals of the 1507 globe gore map are in existence in Germany, UK and US.
  • Online Galleries, History of Science Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries High resolution images of works by and/or portraits of Amerigo Vespucci in .jpg and .tiff format.
  • Soderini Letters in Venetia, 1550, fol.138-140.Primo Volume delle Nauigationi et Viaggi,Giovanni Battista Ramusio,
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