Infotaula de personaMcapdevila/vespucci
Portrait of Amerigo Vespucci.jpg
Statue outside the Uffizi, Florence.
Naixement9 de març de 1454
Florence, Republic of Florence, in present-day Italy
Mort22 de febrer de 1512(1512-02-22) (als 57 anys)
Seville, Crown of Castile, in present-day Spain
Dades personals
Altres nomsAmérico Vespucio [es]
Americus Vesputius [la]
Américo Vespúcio [pt]
Alberigo Vespucci
NacionalitatItalian, Florentine
Conegut perDemonstrating that the New World was not Asia but a previously-unknown fourth continent.[a]
OcupacióMerchant, Explorer, Cartographer
AmerigoVespucci Signature.png

Amerigo Vespucci (Plantilla:IPA-it) (Florence, March 9, 1454 – Seville, February 22, 1512)(NOTE 1) was an Italian explorer, merchant, navigator and cartographer, originally from Florence. He was the first piloto-mayor ("chief navigator") of Spain, from 1508 until his death in 1512.

Vespucci is credited as the author of a series of famous letters (written 1500-1505) describing four journeys he undertook to the Americas between 1496 and 1504 – two for the Crown of Castile, two for the Kingdom of Portugal. However, the veracity and authenticity of these letters, and the journeys they describe, has been doubted, and become an object of contention and controversy among historians for centuries. If true, the letters suggest Vespucci may very well have discovered the American mainland in 1497, before Christopher Columbus, and may have extensively explored the coasts of Central and North America several years before they were reached by any other known explorer of that age.

Two of Vespucci's letters, Mundus Novus (1504) and Letter to Soderini (1505), were a publishing sensation at the time, reprinted repeatedly throughout Europe in a few short years. Amerigo Vespucci was probably the first to unambiguously articulate the hypothesis that the lands discovered by European navigators to the west were not the edges of Asia, but an entirely new continent, a "New World" (Mundus Novus).

The Americas are generally believed to have derived their name from the feminized Latin version of his first name.[1] The term "America" made its first known appearance on a famous map by Martin Waldseemüller to accompany a 1507 edition of Vespucci's letters.[2]


Vespucci family homes in Peretola (top) and Florence (bottom)

The Vespucci were a patrician family ancestrally from Peretola, a small village in the northwestern outskirts of Florence. In the 13th century, part of the Vespucci family moved to the city of Florence proper, setting themselves up in the parish quarter of Santa Lucia di Ognissanti.[3] The Vespucci owned a string of houses along a stretch of the Borgo Ognissanti, and were the principal benefactors of the nearby church of Ognissanti (where they set up a magnificent family chapel) and the hospital of San Giovanni di Dio. The name "Vespucci" relates to wasps (vespa), and their coat of arms, showing several golden wasps on an azure bend in a field of gules, still adorns some buildings in that area.[4] The Vespucci of Florence probably made their initial fortune probably in wine or the woolen cloth industry, and subsequently shifted to silks, with banking and other commercial activities on the side. [5] Rich and influential, the Vespucci were heavily involved in the politics of the Republic of Florence, and held many high offices.[6](NOTE 1)

Amerigo Vespucci hailed from a poorer branch of the family that had remained behind (or returned to) Peretola. The patrician Vespucci family rode the coat-tails of the Medici rise to power in the Republic of Florence in the 1430s, and pulled their poorer relatives up with them. By the 1450s, Amerigo's grandfather (also named Amerigo) and his father (Nastagio) had moved up in the world, and were living alongside their richer relatives in the Ognissanti district of Florence proper.(NOTE 2)

Early lifeModifica

Coat of arms of the Vespucci

Amerigo Vespucci(NOTA 3), the future navigator, was the third of four sons of Ser Nastagio (Anastasio), a prominent public notary, and his younger wife Lisabetta Mini.[7][8] He was born in early March 1454, probably in the Vespucci hospital, and raised in their Florence townhouse, but frequently spent time during his childhood at their country home in Peretola.(NOTA 4)

Portrait of the 20-year-old Amerigo Vespucci (left) and his teacher, Giorgio Antonio Vespucci (right), detail of fresco Pietà by Domenico Ghirlandaio, in the Vespucci family chapel at the Ognissanti church in Florence (full fresco) (NOTA 7)

Amerigo Vespucci was educated by his uncle, Fra Giorgio Antonio Vespucci, a Dominican friar of San Marco in Florence and a noted Renaissance humanist. Under Giorgio Antonio's tutelage, Vespucci was introduced to the works of the ancient Classics, then flooding into Florence. Giorgio Antonio also introduced him to mathematics, astronomy and geography. Ptolemy's Geographia had been translated into Latin in Florence earlier in the century, Strabo's Geographica even more recently, and copies circulated among the Florentine humanists, most of them friends and acquaintances of Giorgio Antonio. He also a disciple of the contemporary Florentine polymath Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, and probably introduced Vesucci to his ideas.(Nota 5) One of Vespucci's fellow students under Giorgio Antonio was Piero Soderini, who would later rise to become "gonfaloniere for life", ruler of the Republic of Florence from 1502 to 1512, and the recipient of one of Vespucci's most famous and controversial letters.[8](NOTA 6)

Amerigo grew up during the height of the Florentine Renaissance, and the Vespucci family were well-acquainted with many of the great names of the day. Florentine artists Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio hailed from the neighborhood and were on intimate terms with the Vespucci family. Botticelli famously took Simonetta Vespucci, arguably the most beautiful woman in Florence (and of the exact same age as Amerigo), as the model for some of his most famous paintings.[9], while Ghirlandaio famously adorned the Vespucci chapel in the church of Ognissanti with portraits of various family members (including young Amerigo).[10](NOTA7) Leonardo da Vinci is reputed to have surreptitiously used Amerigo's grandfather, Amerigo Senior, as a model for a charcoal portrait of an old man.[11] Other associates and guests of the Vespucci around this time include Andrea del Verrocchio, Piero di Cosimo, Andrea Sansovino, Luigi Pulci and Angelo Poliziano.[12]

Mission to FranceModifica

Of the four brothers, the eldest Antonio was apparently their parents' favorite,[13], and was sent to the University of Pisa c.1476 to pursue a scholarly career.[14] The younger brothers, Girolamo, Amerigo and Bernardo, were left largely to their own devices – all three would eventually move abroad to seek out their fortunes.(NOTA 8)

Guidantonio Vespucci, detail from Domenico Ghirlandaio's Vocazione dei primi apostoli (c.1481-82)

Neglected by his parents, young Amerigo was picked up by his older distant cousin (sometimes referred to as an uncle) Guidantonio Vespucci, an accomplished Florentine lawywer and diplomat, who seemed to have looked upon Amerigo almost as an adopted son.[15](NOTA 9) In April 1478, another cousin, the spirited Piero (di Giuliano) Vespucci, was implicated in the Pazzi conspiracy to overthrow the ruling house of Medici in Florence.[16] Papal emissaries were roughly handled in the Medici reaction, provoking Pope Sixtus IV to place Florence under interdict and to rouse the rest of Italy in war against her. The Florentine strongman Lorenzo de' Medici dispatched Guidantonio Vespucci to Rome to present the Florentine case at the papal palace. It is believed Guidantonio took along the twenty-four year old Amerigo Vespucci on this mission as his private secretary. But the pope was intent on revenge and the Roman mission failed.

As soon as they returned to Florence, Guidantonio (with Amerigo in tow) was immediately dispatched as the Florentine ambassador to Paris to seek the assistance of King Louis XI of France. Guidantonio and Amerigo Vespucci set off for France, passing through Bologna and Milan along the way.[17] The Vespuccis stayed in Paris for the next two years, pleading the Florentine case in the French court, but the wary Louis XI promised only diplomatic support and evaded more active commitments. (NOTA10) Nonetheless, that was enough to isolate the pope in Italy and to bring the war to a quick end, a result favorable to Florence.

The Vespuccis returned to Florence in late 1480. Guidantonio went on to Rome to help finalize the peace treaty, but this time Amerigo stayed behind in Florence. His old father Nastagio fell ill around this time. The responsibility of taking care of him and helping him out with his notarial duties seems to have fallen upon Amerigo in the absence of his older brothers – the eldest Antonio was in Pisa, while the second brother Girolamo had gone abroad to seek out his fortune in the Levantine trade.[18] Amerigo's father finally died in April 1482, and Vespucci spent some time winding up his affairs.[19]

Now around thirty years old, Amerigo used this interlude to deepen his studies of mathematics, cosmography, and geography. Although concerete evidence is lacking, it is generally believed Amerigo had a few meetings with the Florentine cosmographer Toscanelli before the latter's death in 1482.[20]

Medici agentModifica

Vespucci's employer, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, il Popolano, as a young man.

Lack of formal higher education prevented Amerigo Vespucci from following his cousin's footsteps into a a legal or diplomatic career. Nonetheless, it was probably Guidantonio, through his high connections, who secured him his first steady job. Amerigo was hired as a clerk or commercial agent in the Florentine commercial house of Medici sometime before 1483. The Medici were headed by Lorenzo de' Medici ('il Magnifico'), although the glamorous Renaissance strongman had little talent for business and frittered away much of his fortune in politics and poor investments. Amerigo Vespucci soon acquired the favor and protection of his wealthier cousin, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici (il Popolano).

In September 1489, Lorenzo di Pierrancesco dispatched Amerigo Vespucci, along with Donato Niccolini, to Spain as confidential agents to look into the affairs of the Medici factor Tommaso Caponi in Cadiz, whose dealings were under suspicion.[21] Finding that matters were indeed out of order, Vespucci set about fulfilling Lorenzo's instructions to find another factor for the Medici business, to replace Caponi. It was in this search that Vespucci came across Gianetto Berardi, a Florentine expatriate in Seville, involved in the silk trade, with a good reputation and extensive commercial connections (including some involvement in the overseas African commerce of neighboring Portugal).(NOTA 11) After inquiring about him with other traders, Vespucci returned to Italy, to deliver his report to Lorenzo and recommend the transfer of the Medici account to Berardi.

Vespucci arrived in Piombino in November 1490. He paid a quick visit to the ruling Appiani family (the in-laws of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco) to deliver some Spanish gifts in Lorenzo's name. [22]. He proceeded on to Pisa, on Lorenzo's instructions, to take a look at the account books of the Medici branch in Pisa for more on the Caponi dealings.[23] He stayed there with his cousin Piero (di Bernardo) Vespucci, then serving as commander of the city's fortress.[24] Amerigo may have met, in Piero's company, some of the city's leading figures, including old acquiantances of Toscanelli, such as Piero Vaglienti. In a port city such as Pisa, he probably also encountered Italian merchants and navigators involved in the new boom in Portuguese discoveries.(NOTA12) It was probably at this time that Vespucci purchased the famous 1439 portolan chart of Gabriel de Vallseca for the considerable sum of 80 ducats from a local dealer.[25]

The 1439 chart of Gabriel de Vallseca, once owned by Amerigo Vespucci

Vespucci returned to Florence by 1491, and resumed his accounting duties for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco. But the sojourn in Seville and Pisa had opened his eyes to the new exciting opportunities unfolding overseas. Florence's future, by contrast, was looking dim - the fiery puritan preacher, Girolamo Savonarola, had recently emerged to launch a great populist crusade against the Medici, throwing the city into deep political consternation, and dividing Vespucci's own family as well - Giorgio Antonio lined up behind Savonarola, while Guidantonio led the opposition against him.[26] Of course, Vespucci was now hitched to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco - and the Popolano would be the ultimate beneficiary of the chaos. But at this point, nothing seemed certain. So when the opportunity arose later that year to return to Spain, Amerigo eagerly took it up. Vespucci left Italy in December 1491. He would not return.

Merchant in SevilleModifica

Possible portrait of Amerigo Vespucci, c.1480, by Sandro Botticelli. (location unknown)

Amerigo Vespucci was in Seville by January 1492, initially as a Medici agent again. But by the end of the year, he was already beginning to conduct business independently.(NOTE 13) It is believed he was in partnership, or at least a contracting trader, in the the business of his compatriot Gianetto Berardi.

The Genoese navigator Christopher Columbus, then living in the La Rábida Monastery, was among Berardi's close acquaintances, and it is almost certain that now (if not on his earlier 1489 trip) Amerigo Vespucci personally met Columbus, and that the two men struck up a friendship.[27] Vespucci's familiarity with the Florentine cosmographer Toscanelli (whether directly, or via his uncle Giorgio Antonio) probably attracted Columbus to Vespucci. He was probably one of the few people who might have agreed with Columbus's arguments about sailing west to reach Asia, as they were based on Toscanelli's calculations. It is possible Vespucci was instrumental in giving Berardi the confidence to trust and lend Columbus a substantial amount of the money he needed to outfit his famous expedition.(NOTE 14) Vespucci probably also made the acquaintance (via Berardi and Columbus, or on his own account) of several of the captains, pilots and sailors that would become involved in the Spanish expeditions to the West Indies, notably Vicente Yáñez Pinzón and Juan de la Cosa, who would play a significant role in Vespucci's future.[28]

The Columbus epedition set out on August 1492, stumbled upon the Americas and returned to Spain largely intact by April, 1493, proclaiming success in discovering the edges of Asia. Preparations immediately began for Columbus's second voyage, which set out that very September. Once again, Columbus had Berardi investment, who was now beginning to emerge as a major nautical outfitter and provisioner of Indies ships.(NOTE 15) It seems that Berardi counted on being a broker for the sale of indian slaves that Columbus dispatched back from Hispaniola, but the crown reacted with horror at this line of enterprise and forbade it. (NOTE 16)

In April, 1495, at the instigation of Bishop Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, the Crown of Castile broke their monopoly deal with Christopher Columbus and began handing out licenses to other navigators for the Indies.[29] Not missing a beat, Gianotto Berardi immediately secured a contract with the Castilian crown to outfit twelve 900-tonne naval vessels.[30] According to the contract, the first four ships were to be delivered in April, another four in June, and the final four in September. However, things did not turn out on schedule.[31] Apparently, the first four were delivered, and were used to take Juan Aguado on his expedition that left that August and arrived in Hispaniola in October. The next four were not yet ready in June. They were still not ready in December 1495, when Gianotto Berardi died rather suddenly, still heavily invested in the Indies. Amerigo Vespucci (a partner by now) became the executor of Berardi's affairs, and organized the fulfillment of the royal contract. Vespucci outfitted and delivered four ships, and was paid paid 10,000 maravedis by the Crown on January 12, 1496.[32] But these fared met with a storm and foundered off the coast of Cadiz, while being delivered in February. The last four ships of the Berardi contract, which had originally been scheduled for delivery in September 1495, may very well have been the four ships upon which Vespucci himself went on his first voyage over a year later, in the Spring of 1497.[33]

NOTAS (for part 1)Modifica

Note 1 - For a genealogical table of the Vespucci family, see Bandini (1745, 1898 ed: i) or Varnhagen (1865: Pt.2, p.48). See also Giorgetti (1893: p.13-15).

Vespucci family tree (partial)

(di Piero)
the patrician
(di Dolchebene) the first official
(di Michele)
(di Simone)
the sea-consul
(di Simone)
Aragonese badge
Ser Amerigo
(di Stagio) the grandfather
the tavernkeeper
the pauper
(di Lapo) the banker
the diplomat
SimoneSer Nastagio
the notary
Fra Giorgio Antonio
the scholar
(di Giuliano)
the galley captain
(di Bernardo)
port of Pisa
(di Guidantonio)
the cardinal
Ser Antonio
notary in Pisa
failed in the Levant
Amerigo Vespucci
the navigator
pauper in Hungary
Simonetta Vespucci
the beauty
(di Piero)
the husband
(di Antonio)
the necromancer
(di Antonio)
the pilot

The first Vespucci of the patrician branch known to achieve high office was a certain Vespuccio de Dolcobene in 1348. According to Bandini, the Vespucci went on to provide 25 Priori (representatives of the major guilds of Florence in the Signoria), three of which were elevated to the (temporary) high office of Gonfaloniere di giustizia; another 20 served as Gonfalonieri de compagnia (guild/neighborhood captains), and another 25 served as Buon'Uomini (neighborhood representatives in the city's Council of Twelve). [34] Among the notable Vespuccis of Florence were:

  • Simone (di Piero) Vespucci, who made his fortune in silk and really set the family up in the Ognissanti quarter, founded the hospital in 1388 and the family chapel shortly after. [35] Simone was part of the assembly in 1382, that crafted the restoration of the Balio political system of great burghers and the return of the great nobles (grandi) to the city, after the failure of the populist experiment of the Ciompi revolt (1378-82).[36]
  • Simone's son, Giovanni (di Simone) Vespucci, a Prior of the Signoria, commissioner of war with Lucca, member of the Council of Twelve and Preserver of the Laws in the 1440s. He came to loggerheads with the rising Medici, when he attempted to push through a series of reforms to curtail their power, and was briefly imprisoned twice.[37] This same Giovanni entered the service of Alfonso V of Aragon (also king of Sicily), and for his efforts was rewarded with estates in Nicastro (Calabria) and entitled to place an Aragonese flowers badge on his coat of arms.[38] This Giovanni is the father of the diplomat Guidantonio, who would later take Amerigo Vespucci under his wing.
  • Simone's other son, Piero (di Simone) Vespucci was a notable merchant, engaged in overseas trade in Flanders in the 1420s, his presence is recorded in Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp and Lisbon. He was appointed one of three "sea-consuls" (consoli del mari) of Florence, in charge of overseeing Florentine merchant communities abroad. Also served as inspector of the port of Pisa.[39] Piero's grandson, Piero (di Bernardo) would be one of Amerigo's closest friends.[40]
  • Giuliano (di Lapo) Vespucci, a wealthy banker, was also involved in overseas trade, and appointed sea-consul in 1447. He was appointed commissioner in the war against Naples in 1453, Florentine ambassador to Genoa (or Venice?) in 1459, and, in 1461, was the first Vespucci to serve a term as Gonfaloniere de giustizia.[41]
  • His son Piero (di Giuliano) Vespucci was a notable commander of Florentine galley fleets to Sicily, the Levant and the Barbary coast in the 1460s; served as ambassador to the Kings of Naples in the 1470s, for which he was knighted. An glamorous adventurer, Piero was a frequent competitor in Florentine tournaments.[42] Piero was involved in the Pazzi conspiracy of 1478 and banished for a spell.[43]. During his exile, he entered the service of Gian Galeazzo Sforza, Duke of Milan, and was appointed podestà of Milan in 1480, then commissioner of Tortona, and podestà of Alessandra in 1485, in the course of which he famously escaped a lynching.[44] He was restored in Florence soon afterwards, and made governor of Pistoia in 1494. Piero's son Marco (di Piero) Vespucci was the husband of Simonetta Vespucci and accompanied his father during his exile.

Note 2 - The careers of Amerigo Senior (Amerigo's grandfather) and Nastagio (father) are partially traceable in the documentary record (reproduced by Uzielli in the 1898 edition of Bandini: p.70-71; see also the supplementary notes from other documents by Uzielli (p.74). For an English summary, see Arciniegas (1955: p.41-44). The expression "Ser", frequently prefixing the names of his father and grandfather, is a Florentine honorific for a notary:

  • a tax return (castato) from 1427 reports three Vespucci brothers: Amerigo (Amerigo's grandfather), Giovanni (a pauper) and Niccolò (a tavernkeeper), living in Peretola. There is a hint of disgrace. (N.B. - these three brothers are the sons of Stagio, grandsons of Michele; according to Varnhagen's table (1865: p.48), Michele was the younger brother of both Piero (father of the patrician Simone di Piero) and Dolchebene (father of Vespucho, the first office holder)).
  • Amerigo Senior is reported in 1429 as the field secretary to the Florentine general Rinaldo degli Albizzi in a war against Volterra.
  • Amerigo Senior is recorded as a chancellor (cancelliere) of the Signoria of Florence, from 1434 to 1470. (N.B. - Cosimo de' Medici returned from exile and assumed power in 1434.)
  • in 1451 tax register, Amerigo senior has definitively moved to Florence and acquired a house in the Ognissanti district (adjoining the Vespucci hospital); he still owns the house in Peretola.
  • 1457 tax register reports Nastagio Vespucci (Amerigo's father) is living in a rented house in the Ognissanti district and working as a notary for the guild of furriers and skinners (Arte dei Vaiai e Pelliccai), the lowest-ranked of the seven major guilds of Florence (arti maggiore). His income is very meager, and merely taxed a nominal sum to allow him to show up in the republic's registers.
  • Records show Nastagio as a a notary for officials of the Monte delle Doti (the city's public dowry fund) in 1458.
  • Documents from 1459 and 1461 link Nastagio as a notary of the higher-ranked Florentine guild of bankers (Arte del cambio).
  • 1470 tax return shows Nastagio is now living in a house owned by the Bartolegi brothers (rent-free, to discharge a debt), adjoining that of his father Amerigo Senior and the Vespucci hospital. Nastagio reports being given the old house in Peretola by his father in 1464, where he allows his indigent uncle Giovanni and his family to continue living "on account of their poverty".
  • In April 1467 and 1473, Nastagio is listed as a proconsole in the Florentine guild of judges of notaries. (Arte dei giudici e notai) .
  • Records date the death of Amerigo Senior (grandfather) on July 5, 1471.
  • 1480 tax return, Nastagio is reported having finally bought a townhouse in Ognissanti (in 1474), and owning some real estate elsewhere, but preferring to live in rented quarters in the Vespucci complex (in a house owned by Guidoantonio Vespucci). He is identified as a notary of the guild of bankers (Cambio) and his sons on the same route (see note below). The Peretola house is still being let out to their poorer cousins (the sons of the indigent Giovanni), one of them being hired to run the Vespucci-owned vineyard in Brozzi.
  • Records show Nastagio (father) died April 28, 1482.

Note 3 - The spelling "Amerigo Vespucci" is how he signed himself, and is found on the title page of the 1505 Letter to Soderini (p.xi). Before standardization, there were Variant spellings of his name in old sources, e.g. Americo, Americus, Alberico, Albericus, Emeric, Morigo, Almerigo, and Vespuccio, Vespucius, Vesputius, Vespucii, Vespuchy, Vezpuche, de Espuche, Despuchi. See Harrisse (1866: p.56).

Note 4 - The date and place of Vespucci's birth is a little uncertain. His birthday is often reported as March 9, 1451 (e.g. Ober, 1907: p.1), which in Florentine old-style dating implies 1452 in modern dating (Giorgetti, 1893: p.13-14). Arciniegas (1955:p.27) and Fernández-Armesto (2008: p.14) contend Amerigo was most likely born in sometime in early March, 1454 (possibly with a twin who did not survive). He was almost certainly born in the Ognissanti district of the city of Florence proper, rather than in rural Peretola. (see note by Uzielli in 1898 edition of Bandini, p.68). For the inscription on the plaque placed in 1719 on his Florentine birthplace, see Goodrich (1874: p.114) or Ober (1907: p.3). On Amerigo's weekend trips to Peretola in his youth, see Arciniegas (1955:p.56).

Note 5 - A "humanist made flesh and blood", Giorgio Antonio Vespucci was Amerigo's direct uncle (Ser Nastagio's younger brother). Giorgio Antonio studied at the abbey of Settimo under Filippo di Ser Ugolino Pieruzzi, a bibliophile and close associate of Toscanelli. Giorgio Antonio was a friend of many other Florentine luminaries of the day, notably Zenobio Acciaiuoli, Marsilio Ficino and Angelo Poliziano. For more on his background and possible course of teaching, see Arciniegas (1955: pp.86-91; p.157) and Gentile (1992). During an outbreak of the plague in Florence in 1476, Giorgo Antonio took refuge in Mugello, at a country estate of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, bringing his students (Amerigo included) along with him. There is an early letter dated October 18, 1476, written in Mugello by Amerigo Vespucci to his father Nastagio (who stayed back in Florence) giving an account of the progress in his studies. For a copy see Varnhagen (1865: p.91), and for an English translation, Lester and Foster (p.62-63). See also Harrisse (1866: p.56).

Note 6 - Vespucci's letter to Soderini, dated September 1504, refers to Vespucci and Soderini studying together under his uncle Giorgio Antonio in Florence (Northup ed., p.2). Erroneously, Washington Irving (1928: p.172-75) interpreted the reference to "studying together" to be to René II, Duke of Lorraine, and that only a copy was sent to Soderini, rather than the other way around.

Note 7- There are no confirmed portraits of Amerigo Vespucci.

  • the only images composed in his lifetime were woodcuts inserted by publishers in editions of the Letter to Soderini. These, like the image of Vespucci drawn on the top of the 1507 Waldseemüller map ([2]), are all probably wholly imaginary.
  • Modern depictions and illustrations are largely conjectural. Artists often picking one of the various figures of the Vespucci family depicted in Domenico Ghirlandaio's frescoes in the Vespucci chapel at the Ognissanti church as possible candidates for his likeness. (Giorgio Vasari (1550: v.2, p.202) attests that Amerigo is depicted somewhere there). The Ognissanti church fresco was covered up by whitewash sometime in the 17th C., and remained hidden until it was recovered in 1898. Three figures from the top panel, Madonna de Misericordia ("Our Lady of Mercy"), are frequently believed to be Amerigo: the young teenage boy in the back (detail), the old bald man in the front (the basis of many statues and pictures), and the stern-looking man with the red turban on the left. The date of the fresco itself is uncertain (estimates center around 1472 or a little later), implying Amerigo was around twenty years old at the time, allowing historians to rule out the boy and the bald man (the presence of Simonetta, who is exactly Amerigo's age, helps date it). By default, this leaves the man in the red turban (e.g.). But it is more likely that Amerigo is the twenty-year-old-looking young man in red, represented in the lower panel, Pietà ("Lamentation"), on the left side of his uncle and teacher Giorgio Antonio. (See Arciniegas, 1955:p.79-82). (the bottom panel also has a very long-bearded man, another occasional choice to portray Vespucci)
  • Perhaps the most iconic image of Vespucci is the portrait of a balding man holding a map, with the label "Americus Vespucci". This is No.702 of the famous collection commissioned by Paolo Giovio in the 16th C., and currently at the Uffizi gallery in Florence. The author is officially unknown, although it was possibly painted (like many other portraits in the Giovo collection) by Cristofano dell'Altissimo on the basis of an unknown original. This portrait's existence, however, is not attested on any lists until 1568. It has nonetheless been reproduced many times and remains one of the most popular images of Vespucci (1568 Giovio portrait). A 1788 copy of this portrait was acquired by Thomas Jefferson, and currently hangs in Monticello. (entry at Monticello) Charles E. Lester, the American consul in Genoa in the 1840s, was given another copy of this portrait by the descendants of Vespucci, who mistakenly believed it was painted by Bronzino from a live Vespucci sitting (Lester & Foster, 1846: p.415ff) (the Lester copy is apparently held by the New York Public Library).
  • There is yet another portrait held at the Capidomonte Musuem in Naples, that was long misidentified as a portrait of a bearded Amerigo Vespucci by Parmigianino (see Adams et al. (1904: p.8). Scholars are now certain this is a portrait of Giovanni Battista Castaldi, not Vespucci, and that it was painted by Michelangelo Anselmi, not Parmiginiano (see entry at National Musem of current entry at Naples). The Biblioteca Nacional d'Austràlia has a 19th C. copy by an unknown artist of that Naples portrait, which it still labels "Portrait of Amerigo Vespucci" (copy, current entry] at NLA (accessed Jan 23, 2012)). This portrait has been the unfortunately and mistakenly used to illustrate some modern books of Vespucci. (e.g. the covers of Hoogenboom (2006), Fernández-Armesto (2008)).

Note 8 - In his tax declaration of 1480 (Uzielli in Bandini, 1898: p.71) Nastagio notes that his eldest son Antonio is already a government notary (al Palagio de Podestà), but the younger brothers are less fortunate: Girolamo is enrolled in the major guild of wool manufacturers (arte della lana), albeit still unemployed, while the youngest Bernardo is apprenticed to the same without pay. Frustrated, Girolamo left Florence later that same year to seek out his fortune in the Levantine trade - albeit without much luck there either. Girolamo was ruined by 1488, and entered the monastery of the Knights of St. John in Rhodes. Girolamo wrote several letters to Amerigo (not, it should be noted, to his eldest brother Antonio) from the east, revealing some bitterness at his fate. Translations of two of Girolamo's letters can be found in Arciniegas (1955), one dated 1480 (p.44-45), the other 1488 (p.46-47). The youngest brother Bernardo left Florence after his father's death (c.1482/83), and moved to Budapest in Hungary to seek his fortune, but found only odd jobs and lived in poverty, nearly a vagrant. Bernardo also wrote to Amerigo (translated in Arciniegas, p.49, p.50). Attracted by Girolamo Savonarola, Girolamo would eventually return to Florence and enter the Dominican cloister of San Marco, where he would die in 1525. (Arciniegas, 1955: p.48). Bernardo's fate is uncertain. See also Varnhagen (1865: p.89-90).

Note 9 - Guidantonio (di Giovanni) Vespucci, doctor of law, diplomat and advisor to Lorenzo the Magnificent, was a prominent figure in Florentine society. Guidantonio was the grandson of the patriarch Simone (di Piero) and thus a distant cousin of Amerigo. According to a 1480 tax record (see above), Amerigo's family lived in a rented house owned by Guidantonio, which is probably where their close familiarity arose. It is notable that when Girolamo and Bernardo wrote to Amerigo from abroad, they both urged Amerigo to recommend them to Guidantonio, suggesting Guidantonio was looked upon as a godfather to the neglected younger brood. After a series of notable diplomatic missions, Guidantonio was elected for a term as Gonfaloniere de giustizia in 1478. In the 1490s, he emerged was one of the leading opponents of Girolamo Savonarola. After the fall of Savonarola in 1498, Guidantonio was made captain of the silk guild (arte della setta).(Uzielli, in Bandini, p.75-76). His precocious son Giovanni (di Guidantonio) would serve as one of the most trusted papal legates of Pope Leo X (Giovanni de' Medici).

Note 10 - Vespucci's sojourn in Paris has led to much speculation about whom he met there. It is known that Amerigo Vespucci met Bernardo de' Bardi (of the Florenting banking Bardi family) in Paris. He may very well also have met his brother, Francesco de' Bardi (future husband of Briolanja Muniz, and thus brother-in-law of Christopher Columbus), who was also in Paris at the time, and (more speculatively) that perhaps he even met Bartholomew Columbus (Davidson, 1997: p.42).

Note 11 - Gianotto Berardi (sometimes spelled "Juanoto Birardo") may have been a related to the Bardi family (Ober, 1907:p.49-50). Berardi was a close friend of Christopher Columbus, then living nearby at Rabbida, and a future investor in his Indies expeditions. It is possible, although there is no evidence, that Vespucci and Columbus met for the first time during this trip (Arciniegas, 1955: p.170; Varela, 1988: p.48). Berardi had also been involved in the Portuguese expeditions he is reported in Lisbon in 1473 and trading slaves in Seville (probably from the new Portuguese slave post in Benin) in 1485. (Davidson, 1997: p.60) and held an account with the Lisbon Florentine Bartolomeo Marchionni (Fernández-Armesto (2008: p.86). It is possible Berardi first met Columbus in Lisbon &ndash it is reported by Bartolomé de Las Casas (1525: p.92) that Lorenzo Berardi (Gianotto's father) was the very man who delivered Toscanelli's famous 1474 letter to Columbus. (Varela, 1988: p.47). For more on Berardi, see Fernández-Armesto (2008: p.49-50) and Varela (1988: p.44ff).

Note 12 - Arciniegas (1955:p.183-84). In lull for over a decade, the Portuguese ventures had been revitalized in the 1480s by King John II of Portugal – the erection of São Jorge da Mina in 1482 was quickly followed by a boom in the Portuguese gold trade in Ghana and the slave trade in neighboring Benin. The voyages of Diogo Cão in 1483 and 1485 and, most recently, the breakthrough around the Cape of Good Hope by Bartolomeu Dias in 1488, promised to bear great fruit (Diffie and Winius, 1977). Italian commercial houses, such as the Florentine house Bartolomeo Marchionni, were involved, or trying to get involved, in the Portuguese enterprise. Gianotto Berardi already had some of the new Portuguese business come his way in Seville, and Vespucci's own older brother, Ser Antonio, would soon become a notary for many Florentine houses in their dealings with Portugal. (Arciniegas, p.172).

Note 13 - The last letter Amerigo wrote in Florence is dated November 10, 1491 (Fernández-Armesto, 2008: p.51). The first letter by Amerigo written from Spain (with Donato) is dated January 30, 1492. (Varnhagen, 1865: p.90; trans. in Ober, 1907: p.56 and Arciniegas, 1955:p.212). A further letter dated December 30, 1492, to Corradolo Stanga (in the State Archives at Mantua), signed "Ser. Amerigho Vespucci, merchante fiorentino in Sybilia", suggests that by this time, Vespucci had left Medici's employ and was trading on his own account, or with Berardi (Harrisse, 1895: p.9-10; Arciniegas, 1955: p.224).

Note 14 - Arciniegas (p.214-15; 219). It has been estimated that the outfitting cost (minus payroll) of Columbus's expedition was 2 million maravedis, of which Columbus raised a quarter of the cost (500,000) himself, principally by borrowing from his Italian friends and acquiantances. On his deathbed in 1495, Gianotto Berardo wrote that Columbus still owed him 180,000 maravedis - a debt that Vespucci would have to collect (Davidson, 1997: p.166). While this probably does not represent the exact share of Berardi's share of the financing of this particular expedition, it is suggestive of the significant volume of investment Berardi had undertaken in Columbus's enterprises, and Columbus's travails part of the reason for the poor state of the Berardi business at the time of his death. For more details, see Varela (1988: p.51-55). In a flight of fancy, Lester & Foster (1846: p.82ff), set out an imaginary conversation that might have occured between Columbus and Vespucci.

Note 15 - Navarrete (1829: p.315-16) reports a royal contract, dated May 1493, between the Castilian crown and Gianetto Berardi to outfit a 150-200t ship for Columbus's second trip, and a provisions contract of 20 to 30 quintals of hardtack (bizcocho). In a document dated July 10, 1494, the crown orders a payment of the substantial sum of 650,000 maravedis to Berardi, suggesting an immense amount of involvement in the Indies enterprise. A few days later (July 15, 1494) it issued instructions advising Bishop Fonseca to look up Berardi in Seville on matters of nautical outfitting for the Indies fleets. (Navarette, p.291-92). On a side note, alone among historians, Canovai (1817:p.123) suggested Vespucci joined the 1493 second voyage of Christopher Columbus as an apprentice navigator. This conjecture has been discarded since.

NOTE 16 - Arciniegas (1955:p.223) asserts that Columbus left four of the ten natives he brought back from his first trip to America with Berardi. Navarrete (1829: p.316-17) makes note that in June, 1495, Berardi had nine indian natives in his possession, but was forbidden by the crown from selling them. See also Fernández-Armesto (2008: p.50).


Title page of the first printed edition (1504-05) of Amerigo Vespucci's Letter to Piero Soderini, describing his four voyages to the New World.(NOTA 17)

There is no documentary record of Amerigo Vespucci's presence in Spain (or anywhere else) from April 1496 until February 1505.(NOTA 18) Nonetheless, there are a slew of letters by Vespucci himself where he claimed to have undertaken four separate voyages to the New World in that interval - the first two for the Crown of Castile in 1497-98 and 1499-1500, the last two for the Kingdom of Portugal in 1501-02 and 1503-04.

The veracity of Vespucci's claims has proven a headache for historians to resolve. There is a good deal of controversy over the authenticity of these letters, and a great degree of doubt whether Vespucci actually undertook all these expeditions (see the Vespucci controversy below). Paucity of documentary evidence, and Vespucci's unusual habit (in his letters) of withholding the names of the commanding captains or other persons on board has made it hard to follow up on his claims.

If Vespucci is telling the truth, the question remains as to why Amerigo Vespucci, already approaching fifty years of age, decided to abandon his commercial activities and contracting business in Seville to take to the sea. In his own account, Vespucci alludes to his commercial misfortunes, suggesting the affairs of the Berardi business he inherited were not in great shape. Exhausted by business setbacks, "I resolved to abandon trade, and to aspire to something more praisworthy and enduring" [45] Having heard of the "marvels" of the West Indies from returning crews and his friend Christopher Columbus, he decided to apply for positions on royal ships heading for the Indies. His family situation at the time is uncertain: at some point Vespucci married a certain Spanish woman named Maria Cerezo, but details as to when are elusive.(NOTA 18)

Vespucci is not exactly clear in what capacity he joined these voyages. According to one witness (Alonso de Ojeda), Vespucci was apparently hired for at least his second voyage of 1499-1500 as a maritime pilot-navigator, and may even have captained a ship or a squadron of that fleet. This was a position for which he had barely any qualifications, having hardly any prior experience at sea. But his career as a contractor may have given him access to high Castilian officials, such as Bishop Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, whom he may have impressed with his Classical learning and training in astronomy, geography and the mathematics essential for setting navigational courses - partly learned from his uncle Giorgio Antonio back in Florence, but much of it self-taught since. One possibility is that Vespucci may have initially been hired for his commercial expertise, or as an on-board royal factor, or that he was even a mere passenger, perhaps an investor looking after his investment, and was only later promoted to navigational roles after proving his skills on his first voyage. (NOTE 19)

First VoyageModifica

This is the most controversial of all four voyages. Amerigo Vespucci relates this voyage in only one place: a letter to Piero Soderini, written from Lisbon, and dated September, 1504. This letter was first published in Italian in 1505 (or 1506 at the latest). A popular Latin translation was published in 1507, appended to the volume, Cosmographiae Introductio, edited by Matthias Ringmann and accompanied by the famous "America" map of Martin Waldseemüller. (NOTA 20).

In the letter to Soderini, Amerigo Vespucci claims to have sailed on his first voyage in a royal expedition to the West Indies, ordered by King Ferdinand II of Castile, which set out in May 10, 1497. It returned seventeen months later, in October 15, 1498, allegedly discovering and exploring much of the mainland of the American continent in the process.(NOTA 21)

According to Vespucci, the royal expedition was composed of four ships under unnamed captains – suggested by later historians to have possibly been Vicente Yáñez Pinzón, Juan Díaz de Solís and/or Juan de la Cosa. (NOTA 22) Vespucci claims he had been asked by the crown "to go in this fleet and aid the discovery", so he was evidently not a captain himself, but in a subordinate, auxiliary position.[46] They set out from Cadiz on May 10, 1497 – that is, one month before Columbus finally managed to recover his monopoly privileges from the Crown of Castile (June, 1497) – so it would be still within the "open navigation" period, when royal licenses to sail to the West Indies were issued by Bishop Fonseca to any private party willing to outfit a ship at their own expense.(NOTA 23) Vespucci's references to King Ferdinand II of Aragon alone (rather than both the Catholic monarchs) suggests this particular fleet may have been organized not as an official crown-financed expedition, but rather out of Ferdinand II's personal pocket.[47]

Vespucci claims that the expedition went first to the Canary Islands. From there, it sailed almost straight west ("pel ponente pigliando una quarta di libeccio", west-by-south), and "after a passage of thirty-seven days, we reached a land which we judged to be continental".[48] If the dates are correct, that implies Vespucci's expedition is the first to have reached American mainland - preceding Christopher Columbus (August 1, 1498) by a full year, and perhaps even John Cabot (June 24, 1497) by a whisker.[49]

Where exactly Vespucci landed on his first voyage is unclear. The only locational names given in his letters is "Lariab" along the coast, and, a long way away, the island of "Ity", neither of which appear in known maps. It should be noted that the 1507 Latin edition, "Lariab" was mistranscribed as "Parias", which some historians interpreted as the Gulf of Paria, in the Orinoco delta, on the northern coast of South America, just around where Columbus would land a year later. As such, Vespucci's alleged landing seemed like a direct challenge to Columbus's claim of priority on that coast   and what so incensed Vespucci's early Spanish critics like La Casas and Navarrete. But the earlier Italian edition show it was clearly written "Lariab".(NOTA 24)

The Lariab vs. Parias spelling is just the opening shot of a controversy that has ranged for nearly five centuries. It is also a useful way to label at least two distinct and competing reconstructions of Vespucci's first voyage. What can be called the "L-reconstruction" (L for "Lariab"), first proposed by F.A. de Varnhagen (1858) (subsequently revised in Varnhagen (1865, 1869), and embraced by Fiske (1892), Levillier (1951), Arciniegas (1955) and others), accepts the veracity of the first voyage and that Vespucci's geographic indicators were largely correct. The L-reconstruction has the first voyage hitting the mainland at Honduras in Central America, and sailing a wide arc around the Gulf of Mexico and across the southern United States in 1497-98. The "P-reconstruction" (P for "Parias") supposes that Vespucci's geographic indicators are erroneous or false, and that the "first voyage" is merely a plagiarized or veiled account of Alonso de Ojeda's voyage of 1499-1500. The P-reconstruction thus supposes he hit the South American coast around the Guyanas, and sailed west along the Venezuelan coast, thereby possibly conflating the first and second journeys. The P-reconstruction was forwarded by Alexander von Humboldt (1842), and is frequently embraced (with variations) by several modern authors (e.g. Formisano, 1991; Fernandez-Armesto, 2008).


Landing point in Honduras on Vespucci's first voyage in 1497, using reported cooordinates(with Lisbon as meridian). It is in the environs of Trujillo, Colón

In the wider reconstruction ("L-reconstruction") of his first voyage, Vespucci sailed through the Caribbean Sea, weaving around to avoid the Columbus-owned islands, and made landfall on the bend of the Central American coast at the Gulf of Honduras.(NOTA 25) Vespucci reports coordinates at his landing point as 16° north of the equator and 75° west of the Canaries (although he probably meant 75° west of Lisbon, his usual reference meridian, thus placing the landing exactly on the northern coast of Honduras at 16° N, 85° O / 16°N,85°O / 16; -85, at Cape Camarón.(NOTA 26) Finding no anchorage at their first stop, they sailed a little further until they found "a tolerably safe place for the ships"[50] (suggestive of the inlet at Trujillo, Colón). (some estimates put the landing further south, e.g. one scholar suggests the landing should be read as 10° N, thus placing the landing on the coast of Costa Rica).(NOTA 27).

If the Letter to Soderini is true, that would mean that Vespucci's expedition was probably the first to touch the mainland of the American continent (one year before Columbus's third voyage finally touched South America), and certainly the first to reach Central America (Columbus would only reach Honduras, at exactly the same landing spot, on his later fourth voyage in 1502;(NOTA 28) significantly, early Spanish chroniclers claim the coast of Honduras had already been discovered and explored before Columbus's 1502 voyage.)(NOTA 29).

Why Honduras? Evidently, the Vespucci expedition did not know it was there. But the choice of latitude, 16° N, was not an accident. Columbus's second expedition in 1493-94 had explored the underside of the island of Cuba, and many concluded that such a long stretch suggested that Cuba was a mainland coast (not an island).[51] In other words, there was no point sailing to a latitude north of Cuba as they assumed that would hit a mainland mass and be prevented from continuing on west. But Columbus's second voyage had shown there was open water to the south of Cuba, they had seen no coast there to stop a ship from continuing west. So 16° N is approximately where the Spanish knew there was open water to the west of Columbus's furthest point (south of that latitude was unknown.) So 16° N was a natural latitude to sail along if they intended to go further west than Columbus, and reach China before he did.[52] It was probably with this in mind that the Spanish crown endorsed (and perhaps even ordered) the sailing directions of the 1497 expedition which Vespucci was on. As it happens - and this they could not have guessed - the mainland of Central America was in the way.

Vespucci's first encounter with native Americans in Honduras (De Bry illustration, c.1592) NOTA 30

Vespucci reported his encounter with the indigenous people of the area (probably ancestral to the modern Pech people) shortly after his landing in Honduras. He makes ample anthropological notes of the people and their customs, including their large loghouses, use of hammocks and sweat lodges, and their yuca-based diet.[53] Here, like in the rest of his accounts, Vespucci evinces a genuine curiosity about the indigenous peoples of the New World, that stands in contrast with Columbus's obsessive hunt for riches, the slaving mayhem of Hispaniola and the military exploits of the later conquistadors. Instead, Vespucci paints an early picture of the "noble savage", the human innocent in the state of nature - naked, bereft of stuffy civilized norms, envy, greed, materialism, commerce, money or property ("they live and are contended with what nature gives them"[54]), without overbearing masters, rulers, hierarchies or laws ("each is master of himself...they do not obey anybody; for they live in individual liberty"[55]), without churches and, a point he sheepishly underlines, without sexual taboos. ("they are not very jealous, and are libidinous beyond measure, and the women far more than the men"[56]). "I deem their manner of life to be Epicurean", Vespucci concludes.[57] Their only vice seems to be a penchant for cannibalism.[58] Vespucci disregards hints of gold[59], and even pokes fun at the wonder: "They asked us whence we came, and we gave them to understand that we came from heaven and that we were going to see the world; and they believed it." [60]

It has been said that it was precisely Vespucci's style of writing, the detached observer, filled with earnest detail about the New World, largely bereft of boastful individual feats of heroic glory or empty promises of future wealth, that made Vespucci's accounts a literary success in his day.[61] It thrilled the scientifically-minded Renaissance humanists, who found it hard to warm up to the howling spectacle of Hispaniola. It fueled the imagination of the common people of Europe, a Garden of Eden on earth, where people lived without masters, hardship or responsibility. Vespucci's accounts stoked widespread curiosity about this strange new land, in a way that mere reports of conquest or the route to Asian riches could not do.

Vespucci skirmish in "little Venice" (Veracruz/Tabasco) (De Bry, 1592).

From Honduras, Vespucci reported sailing on along the coast, without giving precise directions or distance, and saying only that he met many peoples along the way. In reconstructions, he is believed to have gone north along the Central American coast, swung around the Yucatan peninsula and into the bay of Campeche. He next reports reaching a harbor with a town with houses on piles he characterized as being "like Venice".(NOTA 31) Reconstructions believe this to be at the bottom of the bay, in the environs of Tabasco or southern Veracruz.[62] Here they engage in their first hostilities - the natives (prob. Totonac people[63], vassals of the Aztecs) paddled out on canoes, apparently to greet them, but there ensued an ambush (or a misunderstanding, that led to a skirmish). The Spaniards saw the canoe-warriors off with gunfire, and proceeded to disembark in the village. But the village was evacuated and so they decided to leave the area, taking a couple of captives with them.

Vespucci at Lairab (Tampico?). Note the roasting "dragons" (De Bry, 1592).

The ships sailed for another 80 leagues along the coast until they reached the large town of "Lariab" (or "Parias" in the Latin text), which Vespucci calculated to be around 23°N, just below the Tropic of Cancer.[64] Vespucci reports the area had many rivers, and that the people there spoke another language, wore rich plumage and were enemies of the people to the south. Recontructionists believe Lairab must be Tampico, on the Pánuco coast, inhabited at the time by the Mayan-speaking Huastec people, who were hostile to the Mexicans below them.[65] Seeing the Mexican prisoners from little Venice, the Huastec gave the Spaniards a warm reception, and invited them to visit some of their inland towns. A group of Spanish sailors (Vespucci among them) were taken by the Huastec as honored guests from town to town, as far as 18 leagues inland, before returning back to the coast. Upon their return, the Spaniards reciprocated and invited the natives to board and visit their ships (Vespucci relates some of the reaction to the strange European technology).[66] Among other curiosities, Vespucci reveals surprise (and a little disgust) at his encounter with the unfamiliar iguana ("a dragon without wings") which natives keep and eat.[67] Vespucci also reports seeing "lions and panthers" - cougars and ocelots? - but no horses or other domestic livestock.[68].

Helpful breakModifica

The next leg of the journey is complicated and highly controversial. In the text, upon leaving Lairab, Vespucci reports sailing 870 leagues along the coast "ever to the northwest" ("tutta via verso al maestrale")[69]. This is an enormous distance - 870 leagues northwest of Tampico would have him travelling overland all the way to Canada! Critics of Vespucci believe this proves that Vespucci was not in Mexico, but rather in South America - that is, sailing northwest along the vast northern coasts of Brazil, Guyanas and/or Venezuela (as he would in the second voyage on 1499-1500, suggesting this first voyage never happened but rather is a mere re-statement of the second voyage). But apologists for Vespucci believe the phrase "tutta via verso al maestrale" should be read "still towards the northwest" (the direction they had been sailing lately), and should be taken only to indicate the direction from which they set out from Lairab (Tampico), not the bearing they maintained for the entire 870 leagues. In the wide reconstruction, the started off sailing NW, but were soon forced to turn with the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and covered most of those 870 leagues of sailing east along the what is now the gulf coast of the southern United States, and then turned down until the southern tip of Florida.[70] Alas, Vespucci gives few details of this stretch, reporting only that they anchored frequently and some gold was bartered along the way. There is a letter by a certain Girolamo Vianello (written after Vespucci's return to Spain) that seems to independently corroborate this reconstruction, and even suggests that Vespucci might have sailed up the Mississippi River, to explore for a spell.(Note 32).

In the Spring of 1499 ("13 months" into the trip), Vespucci reports the expedition decided they had explored enough, and set about searching for a place to rest, repair, recaulk and repaint the ships before their Atlantic crossing.[71] Vespucci reports sailing into "best harbor in the world" for refitting. This location is uncertain. The widest reconstructionists believe Vespucci was at the tip of Florida in late April, and sailed north along the eastern US seaboard for around a month, reaching the "best harbor" in June.

The location of this "best harbor" is uncertain. Some scholars believe it could coincide with Cape Hatteras or the Chesapeake Bay[72]. More modest reconstructions locate this "best harbor" was probably in Florida, around Cape Canaveral.[73]

Vespucci raids the island of Ity(De Bry, 1592).

The expedition remained repairing at this "best harbor" for some 37 days, helped by the local indians. When preparing to depart, the natives asked the Spaniards if they could do something about a fierce tribe of cannibalistic raiders (Caribs?), who lived on an island called "Iti" ("Ity" in the Latin text) some 100 leagues away and attacked them periodically. Hatteras/Chesapeake reconstructionists believe "Ity" might refer to Bermuda (which might have been inhabited at the time, possibly as a Carib raiding station); Canaveral reconstructions suggest parhaps one of the Bahamas islands. They Spaniards agreed, and set off in the direction of the island, towards (or with the wind from) ENE.(NOTE 33)


this to be possible Cape Hatteras or the Chesapeake Bay.

22 prisoners Varnhagen (1865: p.101)

then sailed "northwest" (sic) for two days along the coast of Yucatan peninsula, swung around it and continued along the Mexican coast until reaching a bay with a town with houses on piles he characterized as being "like Venice" (Veracruz?). Some 80 leagues further along the coast, he came across another port on the latitude of the Tropic of Cancer, which can be read as "Parias", "Lariab" or "Cariah" (Tampico?), where they travelled 18 leagues inland, before returning to the ships. Vespucci continued on along the coast another 870 leagues along the Gulf of Mexico ("ever to the northwest" (sic)). (Note: according to the Vianello letter, it is possible that Vespucci came across the Mississippi river along the way, and climbed up it for a bit).<He then continued along the coast and reached what seems like the bottom tip of Florida at the end of April 1498. He then turned up the Atlantic coast of North America for some thirty days, reaching a port near a gulf in June ("best port in the world", Cape Hatteras or the Chesapeake Bay? Or even the Gulf of St. Lawrence?), where they relaxed for 37 days. They then set sail eastwards, passing by the island of "Iti" (Bermuda? Or Matha Ithik near Belle-Isle?), where they took some natives captive, before crossing back along the ocean. They arrived in Cadiz in October 1498, having brought back 222 slaves from the New World.[75] On the whole, a voyage of eighteen months.

Vespucci's account makes ample anthropological notes on the local peoples and native customs, including cannibalism, the use of hammocks and sweat lodges.[76] He evinces little interest in gold, and curiously notes: "They asked us whence we came, and we gave them to understand that we came from heaven and that we were going to see the world; and they believed it." [77] He also expresses some shock at the unfamiliar iguana ("a dragon without wings"), which the local people kept and ate.[78]

NOTAS (First Voyage)Modifica

NOTE 17 - Some historians (e.g. Markham, 1892, 1894), following Alexander von Humboldt (1837: vol. iv: p.268) and Harrisse (1866: p.57), claim there are documents that attest to Vespucci's continued presence in Seville until May 1498, preparing for Columbus's third voyage. That statement cites the authority of Spanish historian Juan Bautista Muñoz, whom (they claim) found documents to that effect in Libro de gastos de armadas, held in the archives of the Casa de Contratación in Seville. But there is, in fact, no such mention in Muñoz. Humboldt's citation of Muñoz's 1793 Historia Lib. VI,sec.20 turns up no such claim. There is a suggestive statement in Martín Fernández de Navarrete's Colección de los viages (vol. 3, p.317) which claims that after January 1496, "Vespuccio continued to attend to matters about the dispatch of the fleet from San Lucar" but it does not specifically mention that fleet was Columbus's or cite any documents. Varnhagen (1858:p.18-19) pillories Humboldt for misinterpreting and unjustifiably extending Navarrete's statement. Markham (1894: makes a similar mistake, claiming the Vespucci worked as a "beef contractor" in Spain from 1497 through 1498, and is duly taken to task by a now repentant Harrisse (1895:p.12-13), who goes on to conclusively state "that no entry, referring, directly or indirectly, to those dealings of Vespuccius, and of a date posterior to January 12th 1496, has ever been found in the archives of the Casa, and still less among the 127 volumes containing all the extracts and notes made by Muñoz, when, in 1779, Charles III commissioned him to write a history of America" (Harrisse, 1895: p.13-14). Nonetheless, Humboldt's mistaken statement seems to have been repeated and perpetuated uncorrected in later histories (e.g. Ober, 1907: p.81; Penrose, 1955: p.11).

NOTE 18 - Harrisse (1866: p.57). Fernández-Armesto (2008:p.51) speculates Maria Cerezo may have been an illegitimate daughter of the famous Spanish general Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba (El Gran Capitan)

NOTE 19 - For the variety of possible positions taken on his first voyage, see the summary in Harrisse (1866: p.58-59): Vespucci may have gone as a pilot, a mere trader, a merchant versed in cosmography, a discoverer designated by the crown, an astronomer of the expedition, or an investor looking after his investment.

NOTE 20 - The original 1505 Italian and 1507 Latin translation of the Letter to Soderini are reprinted side-by-side in Varnhagen (1865:p.33). See also the 1893 reprint of the fascimile of the (1505 edition, and its close English translation by M. Kerney ( 1885: p.3, 1893: p.3). The 1916 translation by Northup combines several original manuscript sources (Northup ed., p.1). This first voyage is alluded to (but not described) in two additional places. In his 1503 letter to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, after his third voyage (that would be published in Latin as Mundus Novus in 1505), Vespucci writes: "Hec fuerent notabiliora que viderim in hac mea ultima navigatione quam apellodiem tertium. Nam alij duo dies fuerunt due alie navigationes quas ex mandato Serenissimi Hispaniarum regis feci versus occidentem" (Varnhagen, 1865: p.25). In English translation, "These are the most notable things that I have seen in this my last navigation, or as I call it, the third voyage. For the other two voyages were made by order of the Most Serene King of Spain to the west" (Markham, 1894: p.51). The first voyage is also mentioned in the fragment of a manuscript letter to a friend ("Ridolfi fragment"; see Ridolfi, 1937)

NOTE 21 - Different editions of the Letter to Soderini give slightly different dates. The 1505 Italian edition says the left May 10, 1497 and returned October 15, 1498. The Latin edition says they left May 20, 1497 and returned October 15, 1499. (both can be read in Varnhagen, 1865: p.35; p.48). The one year discrepancy in the return of the Latin date is accounted for by the anomaly of Florentine official dating, which tends to throw things off by a year (see other examples in prior notes). Given that both letters state the voyage lasted seventeen or eighteen months (p.35), it is certain they returned in October 1498 - well in time to set out again on his second voyage in May 1499. As the Florentine year begins on March 25, it has been suggested the trip might perhaps have begun in March rather than May.(Bancroft, 1882: p.103).

NOTE 22 - Vicente Yáñez Pinzón and Juan Díaz de Solís are insinuated by Anghiera, Gomara and Oviedo (see note below). See also Varnhagen (1858: p.26-27); Kerney (1885: p.x-xi), Arciniegas (1955: p.160).

NOTE 23 - As noted earlier, the Crown of Castile broke the monopoly contract with Columbus in April 1495, and opened navigation to the West Indies to all private citizens. Among the conditions is that they must leave from the port of Cadiz (as Vespucci's ship did) under inspection of crown officers. The open licensing period ended in June 1497. As one historian notes, "All authorities agree that during this time such private voyages, or even clandestine expeditions, may have been and probably were made, of which no records have been preserved." (Bancroft, 1882: p.104).

NOTE 24 - See Letter to Soderini (fascimile ed. p.24). The two names - "Lairab" from the 1505 Italian edition and "Parias" from the 1507 Latin translation - are juxtaposed in Varnhagen (1865: p.46). Kerney (1894) opts for "Lariab", Northup (1916) opts for "Parias" in their translations. The island of "Iti" (1505) or "Ity" (1507) has sometimes been over-hopefully interpreted as "Haiti", but this is highly improbable. Note that the assumption that he landed at the Gulf of Paria opened the way for Navarrete to rubbish Vespucci's descriptions of native life as being "all wrong" for the Orinoco indians. But they are not wrong for the natives of the Honduras coast. See Bancroft (1882: p.106). It is indiative that the Huaztecs of the Panuco (where the alleged Lairab is located) to have a tendency to name places ending in -ab. (Bancroft, 1882; Fiske, 1892.2: p.43). A third possible name comes up in the depositions of (Varnhagen, 1858: p.15)

NOTE 25 - For the widest reconstruction, see Varnhagen (first attempt, 1858; final version, 1865: p.98), Bancroft (1882:p.102), Fiske (1892, v.2: p.54), and Arciniegas (1955: p.165). This is the reconstruction followed here. The more modest reconstruction implied by Harrisse (1883) shall be considered later. We shall occasionally consider the criticisms (Navarette, Markham, etc.) to this itinerary, and the alternative hypothesis that this first voyage is merely a reproduction of his second voyage (taken with Alonso de Ojeda in 1499-1500, to the South American coast.)

Note 26 - In the Letter to Soderini, Vespucci says "we found the north pole elevated 16 degrees above its horizon, and westward of the Canary Isles, as our instruments showed, 75 degrees" (Northup ed., p.4) But placing the meridian at the Canaries causes a little problem: La Gomera, his presumed Canary stop, is 17° W, so he is suggesting the location of the landing is 16° N, 92° O / 16°N,92°O / 16; -92, a bit inland. Vespucci may have misspoken. Elsewhere in the letter (e.g. p.3, p.44), Vespucci uses Lisbon as his reference longitude meridian and Lisbon is about 10°W. So 75 degrees west of Lisbon places the landing coordinates at 16° N, 85° O / 16°N,85°O / 16; -85, perfectly on the Honduras coast. Levillier (1951: p.18) proposes that 75 degrees should be read as 68 degees - exactly the same result if reading 75 degrees of the Lisbon meridian. See also Arciniegas (1955: p.165).

  • Vespucci also claimed the dead reckoning distance sailed was "1000 leagues" west of the Canaries. In 1497, Vespucci would likely have been using the Portuguese league customarily employed in the "regiment of the leagues" used for navigation both in Portugal and Spain at the time. That is, 17.5 (Portuguese) leagues to the degree and 4 (Italian) nautical miles to the league (thus 70 nautical miles to the degree) (Parry, 1974: p.149-50; Martínez, 1994: 33-34). The distance between the Canaries and Honduras is about 66 degrees, or 1,150 Portuguese leagues, so Vespucci's dead reckoning of 1000 leaves him a little short. If he had used the older Spanish modulus of 16.66 leagues per degree, that would bring him down to 1,100 leagues. Opponents use this shortfall to dismiss Vespucci's veracity, e.g. "he evidently quoted the dead recoking from Ojeda's voyage, and invented the latitude at random" (Markham, 1892: p.609). But Fiske (1892.2: [53]) argues the shortfall is unsurprising - dead-reckoning will be thrown off by the acceleration of the ship with the westward currents of Caribbean Sea. Moreover, latitude measurement (unlike longitude) were already quite precise by that time. It would be highly improbable for Vespucci to "randomly" guess 16°N and have it land with such precision on exactly the right spot.

NOTA 27 - Harrisse (quoted in Levillier 1951: p.18) follows a different resolution, proposing the latitude is a transcription error, and should be further south, at 10° N, thus placing it on the coast of Costa Rica. It is not clear which Harrisse article Levillier is referencing (1892?). Harisse (1883: p.110) seems to propose a different, more modest reconstruction of Vespucci's first voyage which has him crawl along the Central American coast only as far as the tip of Yucatan peninsula, then turning back to sea - implying that the island of "Ity" on the return could be Cuba or an island south of Cuba, like Jamaica.

NOTE 28 - This near-exact coincidence has fueled speculation that Columbus, on his fourth voyage in 1502, may have used the record of Vespucci's first voyage of 1497 to target his destination to Honduras. It is significant that Columbus headed south from there, rather than more naturally pressing west (as Vespucci had done). Some historians believe this reveals Columbus was well aware that there was no sea opening to the west, that it was all coast west and north of the Honduras landing point - as Vespucci's exploration would have already determined. (Varnhagen, 1865:p.97); Bancroft (1882: p.104-5). It is improbable that Vespucci got the landing coordinates from Columbus - as the Letter to Soderini was written in September, 1504, whereas Columbus only arrived back in Spain from his fourth voyage in November, 1504.

NOTA 29 - As noted earlier, the prospective captains of Vespucci's first voyage might have been Vicente Yáñez Pinzón and Juan Díaz de Solís. Several early Spanish chroniclers suggest Pinzón and Solís reached the "gulf of Higueras" (Gulf of Honduras, Central America), before Columbus's fourth voyage of 1502, e.g.

  • Peter Martyr d'Anghiera, (1511) De Orbe Novo, Dec. I, Lib. 10. (p.120) "Percurrisse quoque ferentur ea littora occidentalia Vicintins Agnes, de quo supra, & Joannes quidam Diaz Solisius Nebrissensis, multique alii quorum res nondum bene didici" ("This coast was also travelled by Vicent Yanez, of whom I have spoken above, and Juan Diaz Solis of Nebrissa, and several others, of which I have not good details")
  • Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo (1526) La historia general y natural de las Indias, 1526, Lib. XXI, ch.8 (vol. 2.1, p.140) "el golpho de Higueras, que algunos atribuyen al almirante primero don Chripstóbal Colom, diçiendo que él lo descubrió. Y no es assi; porque el golpho de Higueras lo descubrieron los pilotos Viçente Yañez Pinçon é Johan Diaz de Solis é Pedro de Ledesma con tres caravelas" ("the gulf of Higueras, which some attribute to the first admiral Christopher Columbus, saying that he discovered it. But it is not so; because the gulf of Higueras was discovered by the pilots Pinzon, Solis and Ledesma with three caravels")
  • Francisco López de Gómara (1552) Hispania Victrix, fol.28b "Descubrio Christoval Colon 370 leguas de costa, que ponen de rio grande de Higueras al Nombre de Dios, el ano de 1502; dicen algunos que tres anos antes lo avian andado Vicente Yanez Pinçon y Juan Diez de Solis, que fueron grandissimos descubridores". ("Christopher Columbus discovered 370 leagues of coast, from the great river of Higueras to Nombre de Dios, in the year 1502; some say that to here, three years earlier, travelled Vicente Yanez Pinzon and Juan Diaz de Solis, who were great discoverers")
  • In the testimonies of the Columbus lawsuit collected by Martín Fernández de Navarrete ('Colección de los viages, vol. 3, p.558. In his 1513 testimony, Pedro de Ledesma claimed that Vicente Yáñez Pinzón and Juan Díaz de Solís, on the order of his majesty, had arrived in the Guanajas (Bay of Honduras) and from there discovered the coast north of that up to 23{1|2}° N, to a place called "Chabaca" and "Pintigron". In his own testimony, however, Vicente Yáñez Pinzón says he and Juan Díaz de Solís, had indeed gone to Guanajas, but sailed east to the land of the "Chabaca and Pintigron" and went beyond to discover a great bay they called "Bahia de Navidad", and the hills of "Caria" and beyond. They both assert that Columbus had never been there, and knew nothing of this coast. Ledesma's measurements (23.5° N) is just beyond the Tropic of Cancer Vespucci mentioned, while "Caria" can possibly be a mistranscribed "Lariab" (progressively, Lariab = Cariah = Caria). (Varnhagen, 1858: p.15). However, Markham (1894:p.xxxiii-xxxiv) highlights the discrepancy between Ledesma's "north" and Pinzon's "east" and suggests that the former is a transcription error. Appealing to Anghiera (Dec.II.Lib.6, p.85-86), Markham claims that Pinzon and Solis sailed east ("towards the left hand") to the Gulf of Paria, and met two princes called Chiauccha and Pintiguanus. (Isn't "left hand" mean west? Were these the kings of Tampico? Although why did they assert "Columbus had never seen it"? Markham, following Harrisse, dates this expedition in 1508 ("the year before the trips of Nicuesa and Hojeda", 1509), not 1497.)
  • For a critism of the other sources, see Markham (1892: p.10-11; 1894: p.xxxii-iii). For a criticism of Markham, see Harisse (1895:p.11ff).

NOTA 30 - The scene here depicted by the Flemish artist Theodor de Bry (c.1592), is taken directly from Vespucci's account in Honduras Vespucci being offered native women as a token of hospitality, the dance around the sick man in the hammock, the burial of the dead with food at their head, are all described in the Letter to Soderini (Northup ed., p.10).

NOTA 31 - "fondata sopra lacqua come Venetia", Letter to Soderini (p.xx; Northup ed., p.12). Critics of Vespucci's first voyage, who dismiss this reconstruction and believe merely a restatement of the 1499 Ojeda voyage, argue this city "like Venice" is none other than one of the settlements around the Gulf of Venezuela (ergo its name, "little Venice"). However, villages built on piles over water were common throughout Central America, including the Mexican coast. (Bancroft, 1882:p.106) Fiske (1892.2: p.44) goes a little further in suggesting that it was Vespucci's "little Venice" label in Mexico that was "mistakenly" transplanted later to Venezuela when similar settlements were found there.

NOTE 32 - The Mississippi River is not mentioned in Vespucci's Letter to Soderini. But there is another letter by a certain Italian agent Girolamo Vianello, written from Burgos (Castile) to the Signoria of Venice, apparently referring to a voyage taken by Amerigo Vespucci. The date on the letter seems to be either 23 December 1498 (as read by Varnhagen) or 1506 (as read by Humboldt). Vianello speaks of the return of two ships under the command of "Zuan Biscaino" (Juan de la Cosa) and "Almerigo Fiorentino", which found land 200 leagues west of Hispaniola, and sailed a large coast for 600 leagues. Along the way they found the vast mouth of a river (40 leagues wide). They proceeded to sail up that river for some 150 leagues, seeing only some small islands with some piscatorial settlements, decided to turn back. On the coast, they proceeded another 600 leagues "to circumvent this land "(Florida?). The Vianello letter ends on a final note that the "Archbishop" (Fonseca?) intended to send these two captains out again with eight ships and 400 men (a reference of the Ojeda expedition?). (Varnhagen, 1858: p.29; Varnhagen, 1865: p.102; Humboldt, 1839: vol.5, p.157). Varnhagen reads this reference to as the Mississippi river, Humbolt as the Amazon river. As to Humboldt's proposed date, it is impossible that Vespucci set out in 1505/06 as he was known to be in Spain. Varnhagen suggests the "CCCCCVI" (506) should be read as "ICCCCIIC" (1498). He also notes that the reported distances are quite correct: Honduras is 200 leagues west of Hispaniola, the coast from Honduras to the Mississippi is about 600 leagues, and the final stretch of 600 leagues happens to be the approximate coastal distance between the Mississippi and Chesapeake bay (which also matches 870 leagues from Tampico, in the Soderini letter).

NOTE 33 - The identification of "Ity" has been one of the bigger headaches for wide Vespucci reconstructionists. It is uncertain when it was discovered. Older historians report the island of Bermuda was discovered accidentally by Juan de Bermúdez in 1522, but some recent historians date Bermudez's discovery possibly as early as 1505 (e.g. Suárez, 1991: p.61). The problems with Bermuda are threefold:

  • 1. It was uninhabited at the time Bermudez found it, but it need not always have been so. Lacking fresh water sources, Bermuda was not suitable for a permanent settlement, but it may have been enough for temporary settlements, in particular a seasonal Carib raiding station. It is possible the attack of Vespucci's fleet in 1497 put a permanent end to it, or the Caribs, having bigger problems with Spanish encroachment on their home-islands in the Antilles, quit the place and never returned. Or even that the report of the Vespucci fleet upon arrival in Spain lured European slave-traders to raid the island and depopulate it in a short time. Bancroft, 1822: p.100)
  • 2. Vespucci seems to say he sailed ENE to reach it,

"navigando septe giorni alle volta del mare pel vento infra greco & levante" (Letter to Soderini ( p.xxv). This is puzzling for the Chesapeake-Hatteras hypothesis as Bermuda island lies SE of the "best harbor". This led Varnhagen, in his first effort (1858: p.15) to even identify the "best harbor" as the Gulf of St. Lawrence and "Ity" as Belle-Isle! But in his second effort, on the basis of a suggestion from Humboldt (v.5, p.118), concluded that Vespucci meant they caught a wind from the ENE, rather than to ENE. Or perhaps this was simply a typographical error.

Second VoyageModifica

If the veracity of Vespucci's first voyage 1497-98 is controversial, there is a little more confidence that Vespucci joined the 1499 expedition of Alonso de Ojeda, organized by the Crown of Castile. Vespucci was apparently hired as a pilot-navigator, alongside Juan de la Cosa, for Ojeda's expedition. This was a position for which he had barely any qualifications, having hardly any prior experience at sea (if we discard his alleged first voyage of 1497-98). But his career as a contractor may have given him access and connections to high Castilian officials, such as Bishop Fonseca. One possibility is that Vespucci may have actually been primarily hired for his commercial expertise, but was given the rank of "pilot" as a harmless indulgence, after impressing officials with his smattering of Classical learning and training in mathematics and cosmography, whether learned from his uncle back in Florence, or taught himself since. (He certainly seems to have had an interest; it was probably around this time that Vespucci acquired the famous 1439 portolan chart of Gabriel de Vallseca for the considerable sum of 80 ducats).

Ojeda's expedition left Spain in May 1499, explored much of the mainland coast of Venezuela, and returned by February 1500.

Vespucci left Spain for Portugal in 1501, either on his own account or (as he claims) at the request of King Manuel I of Portugal.[8] In his letters, Vespucci claims to have participated in two expeditions for the Portuguese crown: the first (his third voyage) under an unnamed captain, which set out on a mission to map the coast of Brazil in March 1501 and returned in September, 1502; the other (his fourth voyage) was another expedition to Brazil, under Gonçalo Coelho, which set out in May, 1503 and returned in June or September 1504. There is no independent documentary evidence in the Portuguese archives mentioning the presence of Vespucci in Portugal throughout this period.[79] Nonetheless, Vespucci's participation on the 1501 mapping expedition (his third voyage) is not much doubted by historians, given that he produced at least three independent letters relating to it, although some still hold reservations about the fourth voyage.

Late CareerModifica

The next we hear of Amerigo Vespucci is in early 1505, when he had already left Portugal and was back in Seville, ostensibly at the request of King Ferdinand II of Aragon-Castile. Armed with a letter of introduction given to him on February 5, 1505 by Christopher Columbus, Vespucci left Seville and showed up in the Spanish court in Toro.[Note 4] At Ferdinand II's request, on April 11, Queen Joanna of Castile gave Vespucci a grant of 12,000 maravedis (in a document that describes him as a "resident of Seville" [80]). On April 24, 1505, Joanna issued a patent naturalizing Vespucci as a subject of the Crown of Castile, enabling him to hold public office.[81]

From May 1505 to August 1506, Amerigo Vespucci was at Palos de la Frontera and Moguer, preparing for an upcoming expedition with Vicente Yáñez Pinzón, with aim of finding a western sea passage to the Spice Islands. [Note 5] Vespucci, who had a large role in devising this expedition, was assigned to captain one of the vessels (La Medina) , but logistical problems delayed the estimated departure date to February 1507. During this period, he had a salary of 30,000 maravedis. The expedition was canceled on account of the death of King Philip I in September 1506.[82]

Amerigo Vespucci was summoned to court on November 26, 1507, and by a royal letter issued March 22, 1508, Vespucci was appointed to the newly-created position of piloto mayor (chief pilot) of the Indies, at the Casa de Contratación, with an annual salary of 50,000 maravedis (soon bumped up by another 25,000).[83] His official letter of appointment, outlining his duties and responsibilities, was issued later that year, on August 6, 1508. [84]. As pilot-major, Vespucci was responsible for supervising the training of pilot-navigators for the Indies, the provision of nautical instruments and charts, prescribing sailing instructions, and the maintenance of the Padrón Real, the secret master-map of the Casa, where all details of all explorations an new discoveries by Spanish captains were recorded, and upon which all Spanish nautical charts were based.

Amerigo Vespucci died on February 22, 1512 in Seville, survived by his wife Maria Cerezo (alternative accounts have him die a little later, in Terceira island, of the Azores in 1516 or 1518).[85] Vespucci was succeeded as piloto-mayor of Castile by Juan Díaz de Solís whose contract obliged him to pay Vespucci's widow an annual pension of 10,000 maravedis[86] His nephew, Giovanni Vespucci (son of Antonio) was nominated a pilot of Castile, with a salary of 20,000.[87]

Vespucci controversyModifica

If Amerigo Vespucci undertook the voyages reported in his letters, then he was one of the greater explorers of his time. It would make Vespucci the first European explorer of that era to reach the American mainland in 1497, just beating out both John Cabot (1497) and Christopher Columbus (1498). Depending on how his route is charted, it could make him the first to explore the coasts of Central and North America in 1497-98 years before anyone else - asserting priority in discovering Honduras (before Columbus, 1502), Yucatan (before Hernández de Córdoba, 1517), the Gulf of Mexico, Bay of Campeche and Tampico (before Juan de Grijalva 1518 or Hernán Cortés, 1519), the Gulf Coast of the United States and the Mississippi River (before Cabeza de Vaca, 1528 or Hernando de Soto, 1540), the Florida peninsula (before Juan Ponce de León, 1513), and possibly also Bermuda (before Juan de Bermúdez, 1505). He would also have technically been the first to circumnavigate Cuba (before Sebastián de Ocampo, 1508). His second journey would make him the first to discover Brazil in 1499, ahead of Vicente Yáñez Pinzón, Diego de Lepe and Pedro Álvares Cabral in 1500, and, on his third journey in 1501, might have reached the Rio de la Plata, well before the official discovery by Juan Díaz de Solís (1516).

By pipping out so many famous household names, and lending his own name to the entire continent, it is perhaps unsurprising that Amerigo Vespucci has come under very close and critical scrutiny by historians. Did he or didn't he? That question was first asked nearly five centuries ago, and the controversy still rages.

Those that believe that he didn't can be divided into roughly two camps - those that believe that Vespucci lied, and those that believe that others lied in his name. So we can separate the question of veracity - was Vespucci telling the truth? - from the question of authenticity - did Vespucci write the letters attributed to him? The first impugns Vespucci's character, the second exonerates him personally and lays the blame on forgers. There is still a third and more modestly critical camp, which asserts that while there may have been no outright intention to deceive in the letters, there is confusion and error, and that eager historians have read more into them, extrapolating greater claims on his behalf, than what is actually there.

On the other side, those who believe the four voyages claimed in the letters are true, have turned the question of honesty and accuracy around, accusing critics of distorting evidence and pedantic nitpicking, in order to deprive Vespucci of rightful recognition for his accomplishments. They suggest that the only reason Vespucci has come under such severe criticism, "the target of the heaviest barrage of vilification to blacken the name of any mortal"[88], is simply because his name is used for a continent. They suggest jealousy of that honor has made Vespucci a lightning rod for those who seek to advance the names of their own preferred heroes and icons.


Flemish print from 1589, suggesting that Columbus and Vepucci were equals, co-discoverers of America.

Until his death in 1512, Amerigo Vespucci's accounts of his four voyages, which were published and widely circulated certainly after 1505, were not disputed by anyone.

The Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas, writing his account of the Columbus era in the 1520s, was the first to raise the accusation that Vespucci had lied, that letters were littered with falsehoods, that Vespucci had sought to "injure" Christopher Columbus's reputation with claims of his own priority of discovery of the American mainland.[89] This accusation was repeated by later Spanish historians Antonio de Herrera (1601) [90], Juan Bautista Muñoz (1793) and Martín Fernández de Navarrete (1829). Their general allegation is that Vespucci was, at the most, a commercial clerk or factor aboard Alonso de Ojeda's ship, and that he conveniently waited for Columbus's death (in 1505) to publish his self-aggrandizing Letter to Soderini in a bid for fame and promotion and to steal Columbus's laurels. His entire accounts, they allege, are fabrications of Vespucci's imagination.

If Spanish historians were unkind, foreign writers were not any more well-disposed. Alexander von Humboldt (1837) argued that Vespucci's first and second voyages were just alternate descriptions of the same trip taken under Ojeda in 1499. The Marquis d'Avezac (1858) goes further, and doubts both the first and second voyages, suggesting that Vespucci's first voyage is in fact just a plagiarized account of Alonso de Ojeda's 1499 trajectory along the Venezuelan coast, and the second voyage was pinched from Vicente Yáñez Pinzón or Diego de Lepe's voyage of 1499-1500 along the northern Brazilian coast. The Portuguese Viscount of Santarem (1842) rejects practically all of Vespucci's works as fabrications, and in this is largely followed by Sir Clements Markham (1894), the president of the English Hakluyt Society, who only reluctantly concedes the possibility of his second voyage. Imbibing all this, the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, went on to grumble famously:

  A Viquidites hi ha citacions, dites populars i frases fetes relatives a [[Q:"Strange that America must bear the name of a thief. Amerigo Vespucci, the pickle-dealer at Seville, who went out in 1499 a subaltern with Hojeda, and whose highest naval rank was boatswain's mate in an expedition that never sailed, managed in this lying world to supplant Columbus and baptise half the world with his own dishonest name."[91]|Mcapdevila/vespucci]]

But Vespucci has had a few supporters as well. Angelo Maria Bandini (1745) endeavored to rescue Vespucci's reputation from his accusers. Francisco Adolfo de Varnhagen (1858, 1865), followed closely by John Fiske (1892), have argued strongly for the veracity of all four voyages. Washington Irving (1828), Henry Harrisse (1866, 1895) and Bancroft (1882) have remained roughly neutral. Among principal defenses of Vespucci's veracity are:

  • that the Letter to Soderini was published in 1505 and circulated widely, and that nobody disputed it before Las Casas in the 1520s - not even Ferdinand Columbus, who was always eager to defend his uncle's reputation, and was known to possess an annotated copy of Vespucci's book.
  • that the contemporary cartographic evidence - notably the Cantino planisphere of 1502, drafted before the Soderini letter was published - is supportive of the veracity of Vespucci's first three voyages. (While that does not prove Vespucci undertook the voyages himself, it does suggest that such voyages were taken by someone in the time frame that Vespucci said they were).
  • that the documentary record attesting to Vespucci's activities and presence in European cities disappears abruptly in 1496 and re-emerges only in 1505 is consistent with Vespucci spending most of that period sailing overseas, and correctly coincides with the timing of his four journeys.
  • that the rewards given by the Castilian crown to Vespucci, including the high post of pilot-major of the realm, when so many other notable navigators were available, suggests strongly that Vespucci had undertaken some major accomplishments and possessed significant navigational skill recognized by the Crown of Castile and his peers, and was not simply a "pickle-dealer" who lied his way to the top.

One of the more difficult tasks facing critics of Vespucci's veracity is the relative accuracy of details - not only the details of landscape and native life, but also his navigational observations, and the relative modesty of the letters, which lack the kind of self-promoting feats, exaggerations and wild fantasies normally found in imaginary travelogues. If Vespucci lied, then he was a very skilled and careful liar, who knew exactly where to curb his words to retain a tone of plausibility and credibility. Critics of Vespucci assert that many of these details could have been gathered simply by interviewing returning crews on the docks of Cadiz and Lisbon. The navigational details, which evince some skill, are nonetheless sparse, with many ommissions and many little errors, leading some critics to suggest that he merely gathered snippets by eavesdropping on conversations between real pilots and navigators.[92] However, defenders believe that some of these ommissions were deliberate - that Vespucci held many details back (as he repeatedly says) for his own projected book (never completed), or even that he was safeguarding them from dissemination, conscious of the policy of confidentiality expected by the crowns of Castile and Portugal.[93]


A separate but related issue is the matter of authenticity, i.e. whether Vespucci actually wrote the accounts ascribed to him. Varnhagen, Fiske and Harrisse, while accepting the two published works, nonetheless doubted the authenticity of the three known manuscript letters, and, as a result, these letters were excluded from the famous Raccolta Colombiana (1892). Uzielli (1899) protested their exclusion and went some way towards restoring the value of the manuscript letters.

In the 20th C., Roberto Magnaghi (1924) turned the authenticity question on its head. In a step that has since revolutionized Vespucci scholarship, Magnaghi declared that the three mansucript letters were indeed authentic, and that what was false was the two published works. The Mundus Novus and the Lettera al Soderini (in both its 1505 and 1507 incarnations), Magnaghi alleged, were forgeries crafted by others, who simply attached Vespucci's name to the title page.

The Magnaghi thesis thus suggests the second and third voyages were true (as only these are reported in the manuscript letters), but dismisses the first and fourth voyages as fabrications (as these are only reported in the published works). Unlike his predecessors, Magnaghi does not impugn Vespucci personally or question his veracity, commending him as a accomplished astronomer and navigator, but rather puts the blame fully on unscrupulous publishers. Magnaghi believes that after the death of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici in 1503, Florentine printers got their hands on disparate letters in his possession and, without Vespucci's permission, cobbled them together to make a quick buck in the travel literature market.

However, Magnaghi's thesis has several weak points. For starters, Vespucci was alive at the time of publication and allowed - or at least did not speak against - the two publications, which circulated quite widely.(NOTA: CIRCULATION, HARRISSE,pre-1525, [3], [4]). Moreover, the existence of these tracts, with their implicit claims of priority of discovery, did not prevent his appointment as pilot-major of Castile. (the counter-argument is that the appointment was secured by his patron, Bishop Fonseca, who was always eager to undermine and discredit Columbus, although there is no evidence the bishop ever made use of Vespucci's claim.) Ferdinand Columbus, who was eager to preserve his uncle's memory, had a copy of the 1507 Cosmographia Introductio, well-annotated, and never made a protest.[94] Nor do early chroniclers, like Peter Martyr d'Anghiera or Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, raise objections.[95].

Moreover, the pubished works were written in a barbarous Spanish-infused Italian, not the clean Italian of Florence, suggesting an Italian living for a long time in Spain, among Spaniards, someone like Vespucci, not someone Florentine printers would have at their fingertips.

Perhaps most damaging to the Magnaghi thesis was the discovery of the Fragmentaria, the fragment of a manuscript letter by Vespucci, found by Ridolfi (1937), which explicitly refers to four voyages, not two, as asserted in the published works. (in his reply, Magnaghi simply asserted that fragment was likely forged by the same forgers, a response which many scholars have found unsatisfactory.)[96]

Nonetheless, Magnaghi's thesis has found widespread support. For instance, Zweig (1942), Pohl (1944), Marcondes de Sousa (1949), Caraci (1951), Penrose (1955), Diffie and Winius (1973) and Fernández-Armesto (2008) accept Magnaghi's thesis of only two voyages. At the other extreme, Vignaud (1917), Revelli (1926), Levillier (1948, 1951, 1965), Almagià (1954) and Arciniegas (1955) have argued for the authenticity of all four voyages. For a recent survey on the state of the Vespucci debate, see Luzzana Caraci (1996).


  1. See e.g. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, Amerigo Vespucci; Room (2004: p.28).
  2. Zweig (1942:p.58-59); Arciniegas (1955: p.vii); Fernández-Armesto (2008: p.184).
  3. Bandini (1745 (1898): p.2)
  4. Arciniegas (1955: p.24). See the collection at Wikipedia Commons [1].
  5. Arciniegas (1955:p.4); Fernández-Armesto (2008: p.11)
  6. Arciniegas (1955: p.24-25)
  7. C.R. Markham (1894) "Introduction", in The Letters of Amerigo Vespucci and other documents illustrative of his career. London: Hakluyt.
  8. 8,0 8,1 8,2 Henry Harisse (1866) Bibliotheca Americana Vetustissima, pp.55-74
  9. Arciniegas (1955: p.30; p.70-77)
  10. Arciniegas (1955: p.78-80)
  11. Arciniegas (1955: p.60); Giorgio Vasari (1550: p.375).
  12. Arciniegas (1955: p.59-61)
  13. Arciniegas (1955: p.44)
  14. Arciniegas (1955: p.51)
  15. Arciniegas (1955:p.109)
  16. Arciniegas (1955:p.102-03)
  17. Uzielli (1893: p.23-26); Arciniegas (1955: p.113-132); Boyle (2008: p.52-53)
  18. Varnhagen (1865: p.90), Markham (1894: iv); Lester & Edwards (1846: p.71-72)
  19. Arciniegas (1955:p.134-35; 141-42). See the documents, dated April, 1482, in Giorgetti (1893), by which Ser Nastagio gives Amerigo power of attorney on his deathbed.
  20. Lester and Edwards (1846 p.67); Pohl (1966: p.25)
  21. Varnhagen (1865: p.90); Markham (1894: iv); Arciniegas (1955: p.163-64).
  22. Arciniegas (1955: p.170, p.175-76)
  23. Arciniegas (1955:p.188)
  24. Arciniegas (1955: p.180)
  25. Arciniegas (1955:p.186)
  26. Ariniegas (1955:p.193)
  27. Arciniegas (1955: p.170-72); Varela (1988: p.44ff.)
  28. Arciniegas (1955: p.218; 257)
  29. Navarette, 1825: v.2, p.165-69
  30. Navarrete, 1825: v.2, p.169; 1829: v.3 p.316
  31. Fiske (1892: p.83-85)
  32. Navarrete, 1829: p.317; Harrisse, 1866: p.57
  33. Fiske, 1892:p.85
  34. Bandini (1745 (1898) p.5); Varnhagen (1865: p.65)
  35. Bandini (p.3-5)
  36. Arciniegas (p.72)
  37. Arciniegas (p.58)
  38. Bandini (p.5).
  39. Arciniegas (p.58-59)
  40. Arciniegas (p.162)
  41. Bandini (p.5, Uzielli note, p.74); Arciniegas (p.59)
  42. Arciniegas, p.63-65
  43. Uzielli note in Bandini (p.75); Arciniegas (p.102-05)
  44. Gasparolo (1892); Uzielli (in Bandini, p.75); Arciniegas (1955: p.178-79)
  45. Letter to Soderini, (Northup ed., p.3)
  46. Letter to Soderini (Northup ed., p.3); see also Fiske (1892.2:p.34-35)
  47. Fiske, 1892: p.86n.
  48. Letter to Soderini (Northup ed., p.4)
  49. Harrisse (1866: p.59); Fiske (1892: p.89). However, Varnhagen (1869: p.5) estimates Vespucci made landfall in early July, a week or so after Cabot.
  50. Letter to Soderini (Northup ed., p.4)
  51. Fiske (1892.2: p.71-72)
  52. Fiske (1892.2: p.69)
  53. Letter to Soderini (Northup ed.) (pp.7-11)
  54. Letter to Soderini, (Northup ed., p.9)
  55. Letter to Soderini (Northup ed., p.6-7)
  56. Letter to Soderini, (Northup ed., p.8)
  57. Letter to Soderini, p.9
  58. Letter to Soderini (Northup ed., 11)
  59. Letter to Soderini (p.12)
  60. Letter to Soderini, (Northup ed., p.18)
  61. Zweig (1942: Ch.3)
  62. Varnhagen, (1865: p.95), Bancroft (1882:99), Fiske (1892.2: p.53) Arciniegas (1955:p.163)
  63. Varnhagen (1865:p.95)
  64. Letter to Soderini (1505, p. xiv; 1916 Northup ed., p.14, 18)
  65. Varnhagen, (1865:p.95), Fiske (1892.2: p.54), Bancroft (1882:p.99, p.106), Arciniegas (1955:p.163)
  66. Letter to Soderini, p.17
  67. Letter to Soderini (Northup ed., p.14-15)
  68. Letter to Soderini (p.17-18)
  69. Letter to Soderini (1505, p. xiv; 1916 Northup ed., p.18)
  70. Varnhagen, (1865:95-102), Fiske (1892.2: p.54), Bancroft (1882:99), Arciniegas (1955:p.163)
  71. Letter to Soderini (Nortup ed., p.18-19)
  72. Varnhagen (1865: p.98)
  73. Varnhagen (1869); Bancroft (1882: p.100)
  74. Bancroft (1882)
  75. Letter to Soderini (Northup ed., p.22); Arciniegas (1955: p.274) suggests such a large number is probably a typographicalerror, that Vespucci meant twenty-two.
  76. «Account of alleged 1497 voyage». [Consulta: 28 febrer 2010].
  77. Letter to Soderini, (Northup ed., p.18)
  78. Letter to Soderini (Northup ed., p.14-15)
  79. Santarem (1842; 1850: p.13)
  80. Document III in Navarrete, 1829: p.292
  81. Document IV in Navarrete, 1829: p.292; for an English translation, see Markham (1894: p.61).
  82. Navarrete (1829: p.322), Harrisse (1866: p.58)
  83. Document VII in Navarrete (1829: p.297; see also p.322-23); Harrisse (1866: p.58, 1892: p.742-44; 1895: p.20)
  84. Document IX in Navarrete (1829: p.299). For an English translation, see Markham (1894: p.63)
  85. Harrisse, 1866: p.58
  86. Navarrete (1825: v.i, p. cxxxix)
  87. Irving (1928: p.171)
  88. Arciniegas (1955: p.16).
  89. Bartolomé de las Casas, (c.1526-61), Historia de las Indias, on Vespucci, see Lib. 1, Ch. 140 (v.2, p. 268-74) and Chs. 164-169 (v.2,p.389-427). For an English translation of Casas's allegations,see Markham (1894: p.68)
  90. Herrera, (1601 e.g. p.127-28).
  91. Emerson, English Traits, p.86
  92. Gago Coutinho (1951-52)
  93. Levillier (1957); Roukema (1963).
  94. Irving, 1828: p.186; Johnson, 1894: p.276
  95. Levillier (1954: p.38)
  96. Magnaghi (1937). See the rejoinder by Ridolfi (1937) and Levillier (1955)


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