Amerigo Vespucci (born March 9, 1454; died Feb. 22, 1512) was an Italian explorer, financier, navigator and cartographer. Born in the Republic of Florence, he became a naturalized citizen of the Crown of Castile in 1505.
Vespucci first demonstrated, in about 1502, that Brazil and the West Indies did not represent Asia’s eastern outskirts, as initially believed during Columbus’ voyages, but instead constituted an entirely separate landmass unknown to people of the Old World. Colloquially referred to as the New World, it came to be termed “the Americas“, a name derived from Americus, the Latin version of Vespucci’s first name.
At the invitation of king Manuel I of Portugal, Vespucci participated as observer in several voyages that explored the east coast of South America between 1499 and 1502. On the first of these voyages he was aboard the ship that discovered that South America extended much further south than previously thought.
The expeditions became widely known in Europe after two accounts attributed to Vespucci were published between 1502 and 1504. In 1507, Martin Waldseemüller produced a world map on which he named the new continent America after the feminine Latin version of Vespucci’s first name. In an accompanying book, Waldseemüller published one of the Vespucci accounts, which led to criticism that Vespucci was trying to upset Christopher Columbus‘ glory. However, the rediscovery in the 18th century of other letters by Vespucci has led to the view that the early published accounts, notably the Soderini Letter, could be fabrications, not by Vespucci, but by others.
In 1508, the position of chief of navigation of Spain (piloto mayor de Indias) was created for Vespucci, with the responsibility of planning navigation for voyages to the Indies.
Two letters attributed to Vespucci were published during his lifetime. Mundus Novus (New World) was a Latin translation of a lost Italian letter sent from Lisbon to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici. It describes a voyage to South America in 1501–1502. Mundus Novus was published in late 1502 or early 1503 and soon reprinted and distributed in numerous European countries.
Lettera di Amerigo Vespucci delle isole nuovamente trovate in quattro suoi viaggi (Letter of Amerigo Vespucci concerning the isles newly discovered on his four voyages), known as Lettera al Soderini or just Lettera, was a letter in Italian addressed to Piero Soderini. Printed in 1504 or 1505, it claimed to be an account of four voyages to the Americas made by Vespucci between 1497 and 1504. A Latin translation was published by the German Martin Waldseemüller in 1507 in Cosmographiae Introductio, a book on cosmography and geography, as Quattuor Americi Vespucij navigationes (Four Voyages of Amerigo Vespucci).
On March 22, 1508, King Ferdinand made Vespucci chief navigator of Spain and commissioned him to found a school of navigation, in order to standardize and modernize navigation techniques used by Iberian sea captains then exploring the world. Vespucci even developed a rudimentary, but fairly accurate method of determining longitude (which only more accurate chronometers would later improve upon).
In the 18th century, three unpublished familiar letters from Vespucci to Lorenzo de’ Medici were rediscovered. One describes a voyage made in 1499–1500 which corresponds with the second of the “four voyages”. Another was written from Cape Verde in 1501 in the early part of the third of the four voyages, before crossing the Atlantic. The third letter was sent from Lisbon after the completion of that voyage.
Some have suggested that Vespucci, in the two letters published in his lifetime, was exaggerating his role and constructed deliberate fabrications. However, many scholars now believe that the two letters were not written by him but were fabrications by others based in part on genuine letters by Vespucci. It was the publication and widespread circulation of the letters that might have led Waldseemüller to name the new continent America on his world map of 1507 in Lorraine. The book accompanying the map stated: “I do not see what right any one would have to object to calling this part, after Americus who discovered it and who is a man of intelligence, Amerige, that is, the Land of Americus, or America: since both Europa and Asia got their names from women”. It is possible that Vespucci was not aware that Waldseemüller had named the continent after him.
The two disputed letters claim that Vespucci made four voyages to America, while at most two can be verified from other sources. At the moment, there is a dispute between historians on when Vespucci visited the mainland the first time. Some historians, like Germán Arciniegas and Gabriel Camargo Pérez, think that his first voyage was made in June 1497 with the Spanish pilot Juan de la Cosa.
Vespucci’s real historical importance may well rest more in his letters, whether he wrote them all or not, than in his discoveries. From these letters, the European public learned about the newly discovered continents of the Americas for the first time; their existence became generally known throughout Europe within a few years of the letters’ publication. In Vespucci’s words:
“…concerning my return from those new regions which we found and explored … we may rightly call a new world. Because our ancestors had no knowledge of them, and it will be a matter wholly new to all those who hear about them, for this transcends the view held by our ancients, inasmuch as most of them hold that there is no continent to the south beyond the equator, but only the sea which they named the Atlantic and if some of them did aver that a continent there was, they denied with abundant argument that it was a habitable land. But that this their opinion is false and utterly opposed to the truth … my last voyage has made manifest; for in those southern parts I have found a continent more densely peopled and abounding in animals than our Europe Asia or Africa, and, in addition, a climate milder and more delightful than in any other region known to us, as you shall learn in the following account.”