History gives us different versions, depending on who teaches it, and, above all, where we study it. In the Spanish classrooms students learn that the date of the discovery of America is 1492, a date that cannot be forgotten, as the protagonist of this feat: Cristoforo Colombo (Christopher Columbus). In Italy, things are viewed from another perspective, without diminishing Columbus, but giving more credit to the Florentine Amerigo Vespucci, a figure that is instead ignored in Spain; Americans, however, know very well whom they owe their continent’s name.
The Vespucci were a Florentine historical family, who arrived in Peretola, today a suburban district of the city, and settled in the center of the city, in the Ognissanti area. They did the most popular jobs of that time: they were notaries, bankers and merchants. Part of the family had more success and fortune, that of Pietro Vespucci, Simone di Pietro Vespucci (the founder of the hospital “San Giovanni di Dio”) and Marco Vespucci, who will marry the beautiful and mythical Simonetta, muse of Sandro Botticelli’s paintings, of whom we will write in another article.
Our Amerigo descended from the other less fortunate branch of the Vespucci family. He inherited his name from his grandfather, and was the third of the five children of Nastagio and Lisa. His father Nastagio was a notary, but had several drinking problems, so Amerigo was educated by Giorgio Antonio, Nastagio’s younger brother, who made him study Latin, Mathematics, Geometry and Astronomy. Giorgio Antonio was a humanist and passionate of maps, friend of Marsilio Ficino and, thus, close to the Medici circle: this allowed Amerigo to take refuge with his uncle in the Villa del Trebbio during the plague of 1476. This villa was owned by the secondary branch of the Medici family, that of Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, where another uncle, Bernardo, worked as accountant. And Amerigo was always in connection with this side of the Medici family, becoming the right-hand man of Lorenzo, son of Pierfrancesco, called “il Popolano” (“of the people”); Amerigo took care of Lorenzo’s business and properties, and this brought him to Seville.
Since the mid- 15th century, Seville had been a growing city, where the Medici had one of their bank branches, led by the Florentine Giannotto Berardi. Amerigo was sent to Seville between 1491 and 1492 to work with Berardi, and here he radically changed his life, and never returned to Florence. Fate wanted Berardi to be one of the financial supporters of Cristoforo Colombo’s expedition (and of other affairs, as the slave trade, then widespread business among Florentines), and so Amerigo lived firsthand all the organization of the travels (especially the second one), and he was there when Colombo returned triumphantly from his first voyage, and after Berardi’s death, he became his executor. In 1496 the ships set sail under the command of Juan de Sasueta, where Berardi had invested a considerable amount of money, as well as Amerigo, who had joined his fellow citizen as partner, hoping to board the ship as well. Unfortunately the ships wrecked, and even if they did not suffer personal losses, the economic losses were enormous. For some years Amerigo’s traces disappeared: he had to recover from this financial crash, and according to some theories, he might have embarked on other journeys. We have news about him in 1499 again, when he went back to live in Seville, married to Maria Cerezo, and in the same year he made his first documented travel to America. On this first voyage, though its purpose was not clear, Amerigo embarked with Alonso de Ojeda and Juan de la Cosa, who already had previous experiences, especially the latter one who had been chief pilot in Colombo’s first expedition. Amerigo took note of every single detail, and became an expert of navigation and routes, helped by his previous studies in Florence. They reached the area of Guayana, Trinidad and Orinoco, and ventured into the Amazon, meeting many tribes. Everything he discovered, Amerigo reported in letters to his protector, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici. He described an area that he called “small Venice”, that in Spanish will become “Venezuela”. His fame grew within the Florentine community in Spain, and in Florence itself, as well as in Portugal. When Amerigo returned from his voyage, the Portuguese King assigned him another expedition that left in 1501: he arrived to San Salvador de Bahia, that he called “Ognissanti” in honor of the district and church of his family in Florence.
Still for the Portuguese Crown, Amerigo made another voyage in 1503-04: though this did not bring any significant result, it convinced the Florentine that these could not be the Indies, but a new land, a New World. Although Portugal and Spain were rivals in maritime affairs and in the expeditions, Amerigo did not seem to face any opposition when, after the second voyage and three years of service for the Portuguese King, he returned to Seville under the protection of the Spanish Crown.
In 1505 the “Lettera di Amerigo Vespucci delle isole nuovamente trovate in quattro suoi viaggi “ (“Letter of Amerigo Vespucci concerning the isles newly discovered on his four voyages”) is published in Florence. This tells about the four voyages of Amerigo, although it was not written directly by him, but by someone who knew the letters Amerigo had sent to the Medici and to Pier Soderini, the new “Gonfaloniere” (“Standard-bearer”, a post in the Florentine government) of the Republic of Florence, and friend of Giorgio Antonio Vespucci, later famous for the expulsion of the Medici’s main branch from the government, and their exile from the city. Some details in the writings are not accurate, however they describe Amerigo’s voyages well, so the writer knew his vicissitudes directly or through his letters. These are the travels described:
- 1497, voyage for the Spanish Crown: here he described the “Indian” they encountered, and some of their traditions, like the fact that they were always naked, or their cannibalism.. It was the Caribbean islands where they landed at, reaching Venezuela, that he describes as a small Venice. They return to Cadiz in 1498, circling Florida and Cuba, loaded with slaves destined to sale.
- 1499-1500, second voyage, wanted by the Spanish Monarchs: they arrive in Guyana, and Amerigo’s vessel ventures into the Amazon River, reaching Trinidad and Orinoco. Here he describes tall natives, who eat human flesh, and he also writes about their conflicts with Colombo’s colonizers in Antigua Island. They return after thirteen months, bringing pearls and other precious materials.
- 1501, third voyage, and first for the King of Portugal: they reach the Cape Verde Islands, arriving in Rio de Janeiro and Rio de la Plata. This trip is important, because Amerigo states for the first time that they had not found the Indies, but the New World (before the publication of these letters, the “Mundus Novus” had already been published, spreading the rumor that a Florentine had discovered e new continent). He describes population and people, as well as the new discovered animals, as primitive. Christians are killed and devoured by these savage cannibals.
- 1503-04, second expedition for the Portuguese Crown: he reaches Brazil and builds a fortress, as Colombo did in the Caribbean.
Amerigo then returns to Seville. The King Ferdinand II calls him together with Vicente Yabez Pinzòn, owner of “Nina” and “Pinta”, two of the ships used by Colombo, and entrusts them with a secret expedition to the Ocean, organized by the Casa de Contratación de Sevilla (an institution founded in Seville in 1503 for the control of trade between Spain and the “Spanish Indies”). Although the expedition was eventually canceled in 1506, Amerigo had earned respect and reputation, and this allowed him to continue working for the Casa de Contratación, until he was appointed “Piloto Mayor” in 1508, a post established in that moment, and that was in charge of overseeing routes and maps, as well as of instructing and controlling the new explorers who wanted to embark for the New World. The king’s daughter, Joanna of Castile (a.k.a. Joanna the Mad, mother of the future King-Emperor Charles), ratified this assignment to Vespucci.
Amerigo was the first to speak about a New World, but he never baptized it in his own honor. The name “America”, meaning “Land of Amerigo”, appeared the first time in the world map designed by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller in 1507; Waldseemüller belonged to a group of scholars and humanists who were based on Italian culture, from the medieval Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio, to the Renaissance humanists. These German scholars were convinced that it was Amerigo, and not Colombo, who had first set foot on the continent, and therefore the Florentine deserved all the credit of having recognized a new continent, while Colombo had always been convinced to have reached the Indies. Copies of this world map reached half Europe, except Italy and Spain, so that Amerigo died without knowing the final results and success of his explorations. Another credit attributed to Vespucci, compared to Colombo, is the fact that he studied and described scientifically the discovered lands and population, and not as the missionary that Colombo had been instead.
However, these conclusions of the Germans were not approved by all, and in particular some defenders of Cristoforo Colombo believed that Amerigo took the fame and credit of the Genoese. One of his greatest defenders against the Florentine was the Dominican friar Bartolomé de Las Casas, according to whom Colombo had been chosen by God for this mission, becoming therefore the “missionary” of the new lands. The Spaniards refused to use the name “America” for a long time, and two defender’s groups of either explorer were created, even though the protagonists had never been, and never felt, rivals. Although in Italy, and especially in Florence, the work of Amerigo Vespucci was always recognized, in the maps of Palazzo Vecchio, created between 1563 and 1589, neither the name “America”, nor “Amerigo” appeared on them, mentioning only Colombo and Magellan as the discoverers of the new continent. Was there a smear campaign against Amerigo Vespucci? Why? Let’s remember that these famous maps were designed by the Dominican friar Ignazio Danti (the new continent is called by Danti “The last known parts of the Western Indies”), and it seems that the Dominicans had a clear position on it. Nor should we rule out the fact that Amerigo was always protected by, and related to Lorenzo il “Popolano” , of the secondary branch of the Medici family, who at the time had not a good relationship with the main one due to envy, and this part of the family might have even participated in the exile of the cousins. The maps in Palazzo Vecchio were commissioned by Cosimo I Medici, who took over the government, becoming Duke of Florence: with him the Medici family will never again lose control of Florence, until the extinction of their dynasty. Is it possible that this had to do with the refusal of recognizing Amerigo Vespucci’s discoveries, since he had been protected by the “traitorous” branch of the family? Cosimo’s predecessor, in fact the first to become Duke, had been Alexander, killed by his cousin Lorenzino (therefore called “Lorenzaccio” after this crime), who, not coincidentally, was the grandchild of Lorenzo il Popolano. We can imagine many political interests between the different kings and kingdoms (Spain against Portugal), dukes and governors (Republic of Florence against the Medici family), and illustrious families. All this could have influenced history, or rather, the way it is passed on, and the way its protagonists are presented and studied in the different countries, according to different precepts.
Amerigo Vespucci spent the last years of his life in Seville with his wife, taking care of the nephew, and keeping his job as “Piloto Mayor”. He did not have children with Maria Cerezo, but an illegitimate daughter born in Florence before marriage is attributed to him, and she is mentioned in a letter; however, we don’t know anything about her or her mother, so her existence was actually a mystery.
In 1511 Amerigo wrote his testament, and he died in Seville on February 22, 1512, age 58. To the widow, heir of the Florentine, the Crown recognized a lifelong pension as an act of gratitude for the services provided by her husband. It is not clear where Amerigo was buried, there is no tomb or grave in his memory. He might have been buried in Seville, or, according to another theory, returned to his hometown, Florence, and buried in the family church, Ognissanti; however we cannot be certain.
Main information source: Bonciani, Mauro (2012) “Amerigo Vespucci, il fiorentino che inventò l’America”. Casa Editrice Le Lettere, Firenze