How Amerigo Vespucci Recognized A New World

by Debra Eve | @DebraEve

Amerigo Vespucci

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. ~Children’s rhyme

If you count historical success by named cities and districts, controversy and confused school children, Christopher Columbus has the edge.

But if you liken it in square miles, late bloomer Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512) wins by two continents.

Why aren’t the Americas named for Columbus?

Because Vespucci took a leap of imagination and recognized the obvious.

Venus and Mundus Novus

Amerigo Vespucci was born in Florence to a noble family. His Uncle Georgio Antonio, a Dominican friar, gave him an outstanding education in Greek, Latin, astronomy, cosmography, mathematics and natural philosophy. Amerigo also acquired advanced navigation skills, surprising since Florence is landlocked. But then, most towns in Italy lie less than 50 miles from the sea, and trade equaled wealth.

Amerigo Vespucci's cousin

Amerigo’s cousin Simonetta in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus

After Amerigo completed his studies, his Uncle Guido Antonio, ambassador to the court of Louis XI, took him to Paris and taught him diplomacy. One of Amerigo’s distant cousins, Simonetta Vespucci, was a Renaissance supermodel and Botticelli’s muse.

But in 1483, Amerigo’s father died and the family fell on hard times. Amerigo entered the Medici household as a steward.

(The Medici were unofficial rulers of Florence and most of Italy, only rivaled by the Borgias, anti-heroes of Showtime’s TV series.)

Amerigo rose through the Medici ranks. He oversaw their  banking operations in Seville and directed a firm that outfitted seafaring expeditions. He supplied the third and fourth voyages of Christopher Columbus and the two became good friends.

I imagine Amerigo in his “office” overlooking the port at Seville, watching the ships come and go, come and go, returning with gold, spices and exotic foods. Logging goods, comparing destinations, assuring his investors got their cut.

Amerigo Vespucci's Seville

Amerigo Vespucci’s Seville

Only to realize, over time, that ships from the east brought back familiar exotic items—cinnamon and pepper, ebony, sugar and silk.

But Columbus’s ships carried bizarre fare—potatoes, tomatoes and corn, chili peppers, cocoa and coffee beans to boil into noxious brews.

By 1499, at age 45, Amerigo decided that Columbus had certainly not found a route to India. He obtained three ships from King Ferdinand of Spain and made at least two voyages to South America over the next few years.

As Amerigo sailed down the coast of Brazil, he knew, from years of navigation study, they were too far to the south to be in India. He wrote a letter to his friend and backer, Lorenzo de Medici, declaring the continent a Mundus Novus (“New World”).

Lorenzo published the letter, which became a sensation. The idea of a New World ignited the popular imagination. (Good job, Lorenzo, drive up those stock shares.)

But it placed Amerigo at odds with his old friend Columbus, who still maintained that the lands were part of Asia.

How America Got Her Name

Martin Waldseemuller, a German mapmaker, championed Amerigo’s Mundus Novus. In 1507, he produced a large 12-panel wall map in which a new continent named America appeared for the first time. He wrote:

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…that is, the Land of Americus, or America: since both Europa and Asia got their names from women.

Americus is the Latin version of Amerigo. Waldseemuller used the feminine because in ancient Greece and Rome, female deities traditionally protected places. Somehow the name caught on survived the centuries, despite a few attempts to change it.

King Ferdinand created a new position for Amerigo, Pilot Major (pilato mayor) of Spain. Amerigo trained up the next generation of explorers and encouraged scientific advances in navigation. He discovered a new system for computing longitude and calculated the earth’s circumference within 50 miles.

Despite their differences, he  and Columbus stayed friends to the end. But Columbus died a bitter man, locked in a legal battle with Spain for the right to rule his “discoveries” and receive 10% of their profits.

Amerigo, however, explored for the sake of knowledge, recognized a New World and let it be. He found love and married a Spanish woman, Maria Cerezo, at age 51. They had no children, so perhaps she too was older. He died seven years later, esteemed by his wife, his navigation students and the King of Spain.

Was that partly because he pursued his earth-shattering idea at age 45, after years of study, hard work and observation, in other words, after acquiring some wisdom?

I like to think so.

Epilogue

In 2003, by the Library of Congress purchased the only known copy of Waldseemuller’s map for $10 million. UNESCO  inscribed it in their Memory of the World Register, the first document in the United States to be so honored.

Other tales exist about how America got her name, including one with Welshman Richard Ameryck. You can read them here.

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Leave a Comment

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

florence fois

Debra Eve, you already know how much I cherish this sight and the marvelous stories you bring to your readers. You have a special place in my heart for honoring those so many have forgotten and correcting so much of the misinformation about others. Hail to you my dear one, to my paesan, and to the courageous explorers who traveled across the seas like the Vikings to find new worlds for all of us to enjoy :)

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Debra Eve

Thanks, Florence! Your heartfelt words mean so much. You’ve got Italian roots too? My great-grandparents are from around Naples, so I have a special love for the country (and food)!

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David Stevens

Hi Debra,
Fascinating!…..pursue your dreams
Thankyou &
be good to yourself
David

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Debra Eve

Thanks, David! It was another fun one to write.

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David Goldman

Glad to see another post. I love history and learned a few new things about Amreigo Vespucci.

Keep them coming please.

David Goldman

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Debra Eve

I’m was happy that a late bloomer got some amazing credit (even it was a bit serendipitous). Thanks for stopping by, David!

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Karen McFarland

Ooh Debra, I like this post. And the background of Amerigo Vespucci. I did know that America was named after Amerigo (I liked history in school, but that was a long time ago. It’s a miracle, I remembered! LOL) but I didn’t know about his family or his connection to the Medici family.

Awesome Debra! I could never quite figure out what was up with Columbus. I mean, why do people celebrate Columbus Day when it was Amerigo that found the continent? Hmmm. :)

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Debra Eve

Thanks, Karen. Amerigo seems like a much for likable fellow than Columbus, in my opinion. So I was happy to find he was a late-blooming explorer (the best kind)!

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Pat O'Dea Rosen

Thanks for the information about Amerigo–and a great read.

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Debra Eve

Thanks for stopping by, Pat. Glad you enjoyed it!

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Prudence MacLeod

Wow, this is great. I’d never heard this before and had always wondered how these lands got their name. Actually, if we go by who discovered them, shouldn’t they still be called Vinland? tee hee I love it that he was well into his forties when he decided to follow the dream.

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Debra Eve

Thanks, Prudence! I’d vote for United States of Vinland, being a bit of a wino myself :)

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Michael Walden

Hi Debra!

Wonderful post. I’ve always been fascinated by the Medicis and anyone associated with them. We should be thankful to them for many of the ancient texts we have come to know and love!

I’ve been a bit out of sorts lately. Always happens during the holiday season. I’m working on material for my Tarot series but it’s very difficult right now. Once the holidays have passed I’ll make my usual rebound :)

Much love!

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Debra Eve

I’m looking forward to your tarot series, Michael, but totally understand the need to hibernate through the holidays. I’ve not kept with things up either, but am learning to just let it be until the right time (embracing my laterbloomerdom!). Take care and peaceful Solstice.

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Michael Walden

Thank you, and to you and yours as well :) The more I think about the Tarot series the more complex it gets. There are many things I had planned on leaving out, Qabalah being a major one, but I can’t. It’s so ingrained in my thinking when it comes to Tarot there’s just no way to present my thoughts without it.

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Aishah Bowron

I enjoy this article very much. I find Amerigo Vespucci a much better explorer than Christopher Columbus !.

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Debra Eve

Me too, Aishah! He seems like a nicer all-around guy who really possessed the true spirit of adventure.

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Jean

How can anyone “discover” a place that has been inhabited for thousands of years by other people? This is like stumbling upon a new neighborhood, “discovering” someone else’s house, moving in, renaming it and claiming it as your own. Then killing the owners when they come back to “your” new house. Sorry, not buying this story.

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