Amerigo Vespucci found it first, though not without controversy
By Jeanne Outlaw-Cannavo
The focal point of Italian Heritage Month has often been on Christopher Columbus and his “discovery” of America when he landed on the shores of several Caribbean islands over the course of several voyages. But Columbus did not have the good fortune of having the two large continents that now comprise the Americas named for him. That honor and distinction was bestowed upon another Italian, Amerigo Vespucci, who deserves to be recognized during this month that is meant to celebrate the many contributions which Italians have made to western civilization.
Amerigo Vespucci made four voyages during which he discovered a lot of the coastline and rivers of South, Central and North America. The first of his voyages has been disputed since he first described it, because it meant that Vespucci had reached the mainland of America before Christopher Columbus. Instead of naming the continent of America after Columbus, it came to be named America after Amerigo. Often out of resentment at the lessening of Columbus’ achievements, allegations have persisted for centuries that Amerigo or somebody else has either fabricated much of what was described of his voyages, or has been mistaken in what was written. **
Vespucci was thought to have been born in 1454 in Florence. He was a merchant and explorer-navigator who took part in early voyages to the New World starting about five years after Columbus landed in Hispaniola in 1492. Vespucci sailed between 1497 and 1504, leaving behind two series of documents of his voyages. The first consists of a letter written by Vespucci, perhaps to the magistrate of a medieval Italian republic, Piero Soderini, dated Sept. 4, 1504. The document, written in Italian while Vespucci was in Lisbon, was printed in Florence in 1505. There were also two Latin versions of this letter, printed under the titles of “Quattuor Americi navigationes” (“Four Voyages of Amerigo”) and “Mundus Novus,” or “Epistola Alberici de Novo Mundo.” The second set consists of three private letters addressed to Lorenzo and Giovanni di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, bankers and former employers of Vespucci.
Until the 1930s the documents of the first series were considered from the point of view of the order of the four voyages. Alberto Magnaghi, a lecturer and author at the University of Palermo from 1925 and the University of Turin from 1929, completed various studies on Italian navigators and refuted this notion after diligent examination of the documents.
Magnaghi’s theory was that these documents were to be regarded as the result of skillful manipulations, and the sole authentic papers would be the private letters, so that the verified voyages would be reduced to two. Magnaghi based his theory on the circumstances at the time when the letters had been translated.
These letters were largely transcribed in the Vaglienti codex by Pietro Vaglienti, a Pisan citizen who was a merchant and money-changer and sworn enemy of Venice that had been a proud opponent of the Republic of Pisa. Vaglienti was a money changer in Pisa on behalf of Lucrezia Tornabuoni, mother of Lorenzo the Magnificent. He also worked in Florence, at the bank of Benedetto Dei, which introduced him to the group that surrounded Amerigo Vespucci.
After the revolt of Pisa against the domination of Florence, Vaglienti was exiled for 10 years from his city of origin. He collected oral tales and letters on sea voyages, in years when great geographical discoveries changed economic and political balance in Europe. He left two manuscript books — a valuable contemporary collection of documents on the events that were changing the world with the transcription of Vespucci’s letters. The other manuscript was a chronicle of events, from 1497 to 1513, which were conserved in the Riccardiana Library in Florence. Magnaghi’s theory that the transcription was manipulated due to the political climate surrounding Vaglienti is fundamental for the evaluation of Vespucci’s work and has prompted fierce controversy; attempts to reconcile the two series of documents cannot generally be considered successful.
Nonetheless the voyage completed by Vespucci between May 1499 and June 1500 as navigator of the four ships sent from Spain under the command of Alonso de Ojeda is certainly authentic. Several other voyages in which Vespucci took part proved him to be an experienced navigator. Under Portuguese auspices he completed a second expedition, which set off from Lisbon on May 13, 1501. After a halt at the Cape Verde Islands, the expedition traveled southwestward and reached the coast of Brazil toward Cape St. Augustine. The remainder of the voyage is disputed, but Vespucci claimed to have continued southward, and he may have sighted (January 1502) Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro and then sailed as far as the Río de la Plata. This made him the first European to discover that estuary (Juan Díaz de Solís arrived there in 1516). The ships may have journeyed still farther south, along the coast of Patagonia (in present-day southern Argentina). The return route is unknown. Vespucci’s ships anchored at Lisbon on July 22, 1502.
The voyage of 1501–02 is of fundamental importance in the history of geographic discovery in that Vespucci himself, and scholars as well, became convinced that the newly discovered lands were not part of Asia but a “New World.” In 1507, Martin Waldseemüller reprinted “The First Four Voyages of Amerigo Vespucci,” preceded by a pamphlet of his own titled “Cosmographiae Introductio.” Waldseemüller suggested that the newly discovered world be named “ab Americo Inventore…quasi Americi terram sive Americam” (“from Amerigo the discoverer … as if it were the land of Americus or America”). The proposal is perpetuated in a large star chart of Waldseemüller’s in which the name America appears for the first time, although applied only to South America. The extension of the name to North America came later. On the upper part of the map, with the hemisphere comprising the Old World, appears the picture of Ptolemy; on the part of the map with the New World hemisphere is the picture of Vespucci. Thus, the name for the Americas became derived from his given name Amerigo.
In 1505 he was summoned to the court of Spain for a private consultation and was retained to work for the famous Casa de Contratación de las Indias (Commercial House for the Indies), which had been founded two years before at Seville. In 1508 he was appointed chief navigator, a post of great responsibility, which included the examination of the pilots’ and ships’ masters’ licenses for voyages. He also prepared official maps of newly discovered lands and their routes and was given the task of interpreting and coordinating all data that the captains were obliged to furnish. Vespucci, who had obtained Spanish citizenship, held this position until his death. His widow, Maria Cerezo, was granted a pension in recognition of her husband’s great services.
Despite some scholar’s musings that Vespucci, and others on his behalf, made deceptive claims, he was a genuine pioneer and a prosaic contributor to the descriptive literature which detailed the discovery and journeys of the New World. IAH
** Text from “The First Four Voyages of Amerigo Vespucci.”