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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > V > Amerigo Vespucci

Amerigo Vespucci

A famous Italian navigator, born at Florence, 9 March, 1451; died at Seville, 22 February, 1512. He was the third son of Ser Nastagio, a notary of Florence, son of Amerigo Vespucci. His mother was Lisabetta, daughter of Ser Giovanni, son of Ser Andrea Mini; her mother was Maria, daughter of Simone, son of Francesco di Filicaia.

The date of Vespucci's birth, formerly much discussed, is now definitively established by the books of the Ufficio delle Tratte, preserved in the Reale Archivio di Stato of Florence, where the following passage is found: "Amerigo, son of Ser Nastagio, son of Ser Amerigo Vespucci, on the IX day of March MCCCCLI" (1452, common style). The mother of Amerigo's father was Nanna, daughter of Mestro Michele, of the Onesti of Pescia, and sister of Mestro Michele, the father of Nicolè and of Francesco, who resided in the magistrato supremo of the Priors in the Republic of Florence.

Vespucci received his first instruction from his uncle Giorgio Antonio, a Platonic philosopher who was a teacher of the greater part of the Florentine nobility. Amerigo cultivated the study of literature, including that of the Latin language, as is shown by a small autograph codex in the Biblioteca Ricardiana of Florence, entitled "Dettati da mettere in latino" at the end of which there is written the following: "This booklet was written by Amerigo Se Anastagio Vespucci." He also wrote a letter in Latin to his father, dated 19 October, 1476, in which he gives an account of his studies. Possibly Vespucci had relations with Toscanelli, who, as is known, died in 1482, two years after Amerigo left for Spain. Thereafter, Amerigo devoted himself to the study of physics, geometry, astronomy, and cosmography, in which sciences he made rapid progress.

After the death of his father, which occurred about the year 1483, Amerigo, perhaps on account of the unfortunate circumstances of his family, became steward in the house of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, with various charges that were multiplied in proportion as he acquired the confidence and the affection of the sons of Pierfrancesco, of whose rural and commercial interests he became superintendent, as appears from numerous letters written to him, which have recently been published. From 1478 to 1480 he was attached to the embassy at Paris, under his relative Guido Antonio Vespucci, ambassador of Florence to Louis XI of France. Accordingly, he wrote many reports to the Signoria, which are preserved in the Archivio di Stato at Florence. The sojourn of Vespucci at Paris, and that of Duke Rene of Lorraine at Florence, earlier, explain why Vespucci should have sent to Duke Rene a copy, in Latin, of the letter of the four voyages, written in Italian to the gondolfiere perpetuo Piero Soderini, and why one of the earliest editions of Vespucci's voyages (the third) should have been made at Paris in 1504. The offices that Vespucci held from the younger branch of the house of Medici explain why the former, between November of 1491 and February of 1492, joined, at Seville, Giannetto di Lorenzo Berardo Berardi, chief of a house, established at that city, which had close financial relations with the younger branch of the Medici, that is, with Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco and his son. Through his intelligence, he became one of the chief agents of that firm, which, later, had a leading part in fitting out the oceanic expeditions that led to the discovery of the New World.

The successful voyages of Christopher Columbus increased Vespucci's desire to take a part in the general European movement to seek a western passage to the Indies. Having obtained three ships from Ferdinand, King of Castille, Vespucci was able to undertake his first voyage. Accordingly, he set sail from Cadiz on 10 May, 1497, sailing toward the Fortunate Islands, and then laying his course towards the west. After twenty-seven or thirty-seven days, on 6 or 10 April, he touched the mainland (Guiana or Brazil?), and was well received by the inhabitants. In this first voyage he may have entered the Gulf of Mexico and coasted along a great portion of the United States, as far as the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Then he returned to Spain, and landed at Cadiz on 15 October, 1498. There is no other relation of this first voyage than that contained in the first letter of Amerigo Vespucci concerning the islands newly found in his four voyages, addressed to Piero Soderini, Gonfaloniere of Florence.

On 16 May, 1499, Vespucci sailed from Cadiz on his second voyage, with Alonzo de Ojeda and Juan de la Cosa. He directed his course to Cape Verde, crossed the Equator, and saw land, on the coast of Brazil, at 4° or 5° S., possibly near Aracati. From there, he coasted along the Guianas and the continent, from the Gulf of Paria to Maracaibo and Cape de la Vela; he discovered Cape St. Augustine and the River Amazon, and made notable observations of the sea currents, of the Southern Cross and other southern constellations. He returned to Spain in September, 1500. There two expeditions were undertaken in the service of Spain; the third and the fourth, in that of Portugal. In consequence of the long fatigues of his second voyage, Vespucci was taken ill of the quartan ague. When his health was re-established, he wrote an account of his voyage to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici.

On 14 May, 1501, he sailed from Lisbon to Cape Verde, and thence westward, until, on 1 January, 1502, he came to a gulf at 13° S., to which he gave the name of Bahia de Todos Santos, and upon the shores of which the city of Bahia now stands. From there he coasted along South America, as far as the Plata. On his return, he discovered the island of South Georgia, at 54° S., and 1200 miles east of Tierra del Fuego. He arrived at Lisbon on 7 September, 1502. On his fourth voyage, he sailed with Gonzal Coelho from Lisbon, on 10 June, 1503, touched land at the Cape Verde Islands, and bent his course towards the Bay of All Saints. At Cape Frio, having found great quantities of brazil-wood, he established an agency, exactly on the Tropic of Capricorn. Thereafter, he coasted along the continent, nearly to the Rio de la Plata, and then returned to Lisbon, where he arrived on 18 June, 1504. Vespucci made a fifth voyage with Juan de la Cosa, between May and December, 1505; they visited the Gulf of Darien, and sailed 200 miles up the Atrato River. During that voyage, they collected gold and pearls, and received information of there being a great abundance of those substances in that region. This voyage was repeated by the two navigators in 1507. Of these two expeditions, however, there is no special account by Vespucci. It should be added that, in 1506, Vespucci was busy in Spain, fitting out the expedition of Pinzón, which was abandoned in March, 1507.

The facts regarding the voyages of Vespucci are accepted as given in the above narrative by the majority of the authoritative biographers of that navigator; but the inexactness of the printed texts, the difficulty of identifying the names of places, used by Vespucci, with the modern ones, and the error of attributing sincerity to all assertions contained in official documents, especially in those relating to legal proceedings, have given rise to enormous confusion in all that relates to the voyages of Amerigo Vespucci, of which the chief base for future criticism will be the investigation of the apocryphal codices of the narratives of the voyages of Vespucci, written at the time when the authentic ones appeared. Vespucci was certainly held in high esteem in Spain, where he established himself after his voyages in the service of Portugal. In 1505, by a royal decree of 14 April of that year, he had received Spanish naturalization, and a decree of 6 August, 1508, named him piloto mayor de España, a title corresponding to the modern one of head of the admiralty, and which was borne by Vespucci until his death.

Amerigo Vespucci married Maria Cerezo, apparently in 1505. The only precise information concerning her is furnished by the royal decree of 28 March, 1512, according her a pension, on account of the satisfaction given by her husband as piloto mayor, which pension was confirmed by the decree of 16 November, 1523. On the other hand, a decree of 26 December, 1524, grants the remainder of her pension to her sister Catalina Cerezo; which proves that Maria died between the two latter dates, and that she left no children. With Amerigo Vespucci, however, was the son of his brother Antonio, Giovanni, who was born on 6 March, 1486, and who was named piloto mayor in 1512, upon the death of his predecessor and uncle, Amerigo. For information concerning him, see Harrisse, "The Discovery of North America" (1892), 744-5.

It is impossible to determine, here, the place of Amerigo Vespucci in the history of the discovery of the New World, in relation to those of Christopher Columbus, of Sebastian Cabot, and of the brothers Pinzón. First it is necessary to distinguish between the geographical, and the social, discovery of America. The former is due to the Icelanders, who established, on the eastern coast of Greenland, a colony that was maintained from the tenth to the fifteenth century, of the history of which a very good compendium is given by Fischer in "The Discoveries of the Norsemen in America" (London, 1902); in connection with this work there should be consulted the collection of documents concerning the relations of the Church of Rome with Greenland during these centuries, published by order of Leo XIII.

The discovery of America was due to the failure of the crusade against the Turks which was attempted by Pius II, and the success of which was frustrated by the rivalry and corruption of the states of Europe at that time. Europe then felt the necessity of going to the East by another way, of seeking the East by way of the West, a motto that became the flag of the navigators of that age. Paolo Toscanelli, whose sincerity of religious sentiment was not less than his great merit of scientific attainment (see the present writer's work on Toscanelli, I, 1894, in the "Raccolta Colombiana", part V), foresaw, before Portugal foresaw it, that the time had come for that country to take the place of Italy as the intermediary of the commerce between Europe and Asia, and therefore, as the starting-point of navigators and adventurers, seduced by the desire of being the executors of the great emprise. Columbus was the first to reach land to the west — one of the islands of the Bahamas — on 12 October, 1492, convinced that he had reached one of the islands of eastern Asia. He was followed by Vespucci, Cabot, and many others, each proposing to himself to reach the land of spices, that is, India.

We may not, here, enter into the very intricate question of which, of the three navigators named, was the first to tread the mainland of the New World. For that, it would be necessary to have before us the correct texts of all the fundamental documents concerning those navigators. As regards Columbus, the "Raccolta Colombiana", published by the Italian Government on the occasion of the fourth centenary of the discovery of America, is an exhaustive document. Very important, for all the history of the discovery of America, are the collection of Navarrete, the books and documents published by Harrisse, the Duchess of Alba, and many others. But as regards Vespucci, there are, at Florence, the apocryphal synchronous copies of all the accounts of his voyages, except the text that was used for the publication of the "Mundus novus", of which accounts, as will be seen further on, a correct edition is lacking.

The first editions of the documents relating to the voyages of Vespucci may be classified as follows:

The principal question turns, at once, upon the authenticity of the voyage and upon that of the publications A, Ba, Bb, Bc, Bd, Ca, and Cb. In general, a very erroneous confusion is made between two points: nearly every one admits the authenticity of the publications A and Ba, but many reject the authenticity of the first voyage, made by Vespucci in the years 1497 and 1498, and described in the publication Ba. Some, as Varuhagen and others, deny the authenticity of the texts Bb, Bc, and Bd, while others hold the contrary opinion with regard to one or another, or to all three, of these texts. Nearly all regard as inadmissible the fifth and the sixth voyages, narrated in the texts Ca and Cb.

For the various editions of the "Mundus novus", the publication of Sarnow and of Trubenbach is exhaustive, but there is no critical edition of any of the other texts, which were printed with many errors; while, as has been said, the apocryphal, though contemporary, texts of all of them are preserved at Florence. The present writer proposed the preparation of a critical edition of this kind, and the proposition was approved by three National Geographical Congresses of Italy, held at Florence (1898), at Milan (1901), and at Naples (1904), respectively, and by the International Congress of Americanists, held at Stuttgart, in August, 1904. Recently, a commission has been created at Florence, for the execution of that purpose, under the presidency of the Marchese Filippo Corsini, president of the Society of Geographical and Colonial Study resident at Florence; of this commission, Professor Attilo Mori, of the Military Geographical Institute, and the writer of this article are members. Until the publication in question appears, it will be useless to discuss the genuineness of the voyages of Vespucci, basing such discussion upon the incorrect texts that are now available--exception being made of the "Mundus novus", cited above. Those seeking further details in regard to these codices may consult Harrisse, "Biblioteca americana vetustissima" (1868), and "Additions" (1872). All the works of that author, whether bibliographical or historical, are the basis for any work on the discovery of America.

It is well known today that Vespucci was in no way responsible for the fact that his name, and not that of Columbus, was given to the New World, and therefore, that he certainly does not deserve the charge of theft that has been made against him by many; among them, the famous American publicist, Emerson, who was led into error by partisan writers. On the other hand, the affectionate correspondence between the two great navigators would suffice to disprove all unworthy accusations. The charge received some support from the efforts of a considerable portion of the clergy, throughout the world, to obtain the canonization of Columbus, which, however, was unsuccessful, when the merits of the case were examined, by order of Leo XIII, on the occasion of the fourth centenary of the discovery of America. At that time, the general outcry against Amerigo Vespucci was so great that the famous American statesman Blaine, upon the occasion of the exposition at Chicago, published a book under the title of "Columbus and Columbia," in order that it might not be contaminated by the unholy name of Vespucci.

It may be remarked that, at the time of the discovery of America, as is now clearly proven, the narratives of the voyages of Vespucci were more widely disseminated, by far, than were those of the voyages of Columbus, and that Florence was the chief centre for the diffusion of news on the discovery of the New World. To the close relations that existed between Gianfrancesco Pico, Duke della Mirandola, and Florence, and between Gian Francesco and the learned German, Matthew Ringmann, who, in 1504, edited one of the most important editions of the "Mundus novus", under the title of "De ora antartica per regem Portugalliae pridem inventa", and to the close relations between Ringmann and the geographer Martin Waldseemüller (Hylacomilus), is due the fact that when, in 1507, Waldseemuller published the celebrated work "Cosmographiae introductio", at Saint-Dié, in Lorraine, he gave the name of America to the New World, arguing that, since the three continents then known, Europe, Asia, and Africa, had names of women, it was proper to give the newly-discovered continent also the name of a woman, taking it from the baptismal name of the discoverer of the new continent, Vespucci.

Many attempts were made to name the New World Columbia, as justice seemed to demand, but all such efforts failed. The writer has tried to clear up these points and to prove the honesty of Vespucci; and his efforts have received the approbation of the Numismatic and Archaeological Society of New York; for, the latter, having resolved to strike, each year, a medal commemorative of some benefactor of America, decided that the first of these medals should be coined in honour of Amerigo Vespucci, and requested the writer to proposed the best portrait of the great navigator for reproduction. The Society accepted the writer's suggestion and gave the preference to the portrait of the Galleria degli Uffizi of Florence, which is generally considered to be the most genuine, but thought that they should take into account the great map of Waldseemuller, of 1507, on which there is a portrait of Amerigo Vespucci; and therefore, the medal was struck with the two portraits, one on either side.

Sources

In the following bibliography, we have deemed it useless to cite the general works upon America, and upon its discovery, which, although not concerning Vespucci specially, refer to him, as are those of ASENSIO, FISKE, GAFFAREL, HERRERA, HUGUES, HUMBOLDT, IRVING, PAYNE, ROBERTSON, ROSELLY DE LORGUES, TIRABOSCHI, WINDSOR, etc., for which the reader is referred to the articles AMERICA and COLUMBUS; we have, on the contrary, limited our citations to the works that have brought new facts to light, and are not, therefore, expositions of the opinions of their authors. For the bibliography of the various editions of the voyages of Vespucci and of the authors who wrote concerning them between the years 1492 and 1551, see HARRISSE, Biblioteca americana veiustissima (New York, 1866); IDEM, Additions (Paris, 1872); and for the same, but, to the present day, see FUMAGALLI, Bibliographia di Amerigo Vespucci in BANDINI, Vita di Amerigo Vespucci illustrata e commentata da Gustavo Uzielli (Florence, 1898), 104-28. Some may find it strange that certain authors are not cited, as, for example, Hugues, who has written numerous very learned works on Vespucci, totally devoid, however, of criticism; they are all cited in the Bibliografia of Fumagalli. Hugues and Varnhagen regard as apocryphal some narratives of voyages of Vespucci that are regarded by other writers as being the most authentic; and they base this view on the fact that the narratives in question were published two or three centuries after the death of Vespucci. By that reasoning, one should declare the commentary of Pietro Alighieri on the "Divine Comedy" to be apocryphal, for it was published five centuries after Dante's death. Hugues and Berchet, however, in accordance with that reasoning, have omitted some of the accounts of the voyages of Vespucci, contained in the "Raccolta Colombiana", part V, vol. II, and, like all students of Vespucci, except Sarnow and Trubenbach, they have entirely omitted any critical study of the texts of the narratives, accepting the current publications as they stand, without taking heed to compare them with the codices. RAMUSIO, Navigationi et viaggi, I (Venice, 1550-59); BANDINI, Vita e letters di Amerigo Vespucci (Florence, 1745); BARTOLOZZI, Ricerche istorico-critiche circa alle scoperte di Amerigo Vespucci (Florence, 1789); CANOVAI, Viaggi d'Amerigo Vespucci (Florence, 1817); BALDELLI-BONI, Il milione, I (Florence, 1827), p. liii-lix; NAVARRETE, Coleccion de los viages y descubrimientos, III (Madrid, 1825-37); HUMBOLDT, Examen critique de l'histoire du nouveau continent, XI (Paris, 1836-39), 157; SANTAREM, Recherches sur Americ Vespuce et ses voyages (Paris, 1842); AVEZAC, Les voyaes d'Americ Vespuce au compte de l'Espagne in Bulletin de la societe de geographie de Paris (1858); VARNHAGEN, Amerigo Vespucci, Son caractere, ses ecrits (meme les moins authentiques), sa vie et ses navigations (Lima, 1865); HARRISSE, Bibliotheca americana vetustissima. Additions (Paris, 1872), p. xxviii; IDEM, The Discovery of North America (London, 1892); TOSCANELLI, Notes et documents concernant les rapports entre l'Italie et l'Amerique (Florence, 1893); MARKHAM, Vespucci. The Letters and other Documents illustrative of his Career (London, 1894); HARRISSE, Americus Vespuccius (London, 1895); THATCHER, The Continent of America: its Discovery and its Baptism (New York, 1896); UZIELLI, Amerigo Vespucci davanti la critica storica in Atti del Congresso Geografico Italiano (Florence, 1898); BANDINI, Vita di Amerigo Vespucci, illustrata e commentata da Gustavo Uzielli (Florence, 1898); MASETTI BENCINI AND HOWARD SMITH, La vita di Amerigo Vespucci in Firenze (Florence, 1903); SARNOW AND TRUBENBACH, Mundus novus (Strasburg, 1903); FISCHER AND WIESER, The oldest Map with the name of America of the year 1507 and the Carta Marina of the year 1516 by M. Waldseemuller (Ilacomilus) (Innsbruck, 1903); Proceedings and Papers of the American Numismatic and Archaeological Society of New York City, 46th annual meeting (1904), 8-15.

About this page

APA citation. Uzielli, G. (1912). Amerigo Vespucci. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15384b.htm

MLA citation. Uzielli, Gustavo. "Amerigo Vespucci." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15384b.htm>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Thomas M. Barrett. Dedicated to the memory of Amerigo Vespucci.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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