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Exploration and Discovery

Amerigo Vespucci: Merchant Adventurer

Amerigo Vespucci

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And What of Columbus?

Every American school child knows the story of Christopher Columbus. In 1492, he set out from Spain across the Atlantic in search of a sea route to India and China. Instead, he found a new world.

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Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512) grew up in the shadow of Renaissance humanism at the court of the powerful Medici family in Florence. He was born into a family of wealth and well-connected merchants and notaries, who enjoyed Medici patronage. His uncle, Georgio Antonio Vespucci, was a humanist scholar and teacher who played an important role in Amerigo's education. The adult Vespucci traveled to Seville as the Medici's agent, and it was here that he met Christopher Columbus. In addition to outfitting a fleet for the Spanish crown, Vespucci also outfitted the ships for Columbus' third voyage across the Atlantic in 1498.

In the early 15th century, the Portuguese crown began sponsoring expeditions into the Atlantic that gradually worked their way down the western coast of Africa. In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias (ca. 1450-1500) rounded the Cape of Good Hope at Africa's southern tip, proving that traveling eastward by sea was a viable route, later substantiated by Vasco da Gama (ca. 1460-1524), who commanded the first ships to sail directly from Europe to India.

An expeditor and entrepreneur whose yearning for adventure may have been inspired by Christopher Columbus, Vespucci became enamored of the idea of exploration. On the eve of the 16th century, he decided to leave his comfortable city life and take up the challenge of the high seas. He wrote:

"…I resolved to abandon trade, and to aspire to something more praiseworthy and enduring. So it came about that I arranged to go to see a portion of the world and its marvels."

In 1499 he joined the expedition of Alonso de Ojeda on behalf of Spain to further explore the new territory brought to European attention by Columbus. In 1501, Vespucci sailed to the new world again, this time for Portugal.

Numerous letters describing his adventures, both in manuscript and in print, which have been attributed to Vespucci or to his admirers, have been called into question by scholars. Of the four voyages published by the St. Dié humanists in Cosmographiae Introductio, modern scholars are convinced of the legitimacy of only one: that which he took with Alonso de Ojeda. However, it was his next voyage, which he undertook for Portugal, that was recounted in a letter of 1502 and published for the first time as Mundus Novus [New World] at Paris in 1503, with many subsequent editions. Mathias Ringman, one of the St. Dié scholars, published an edition of this text in 1505, De ora Antarctica per regem Portugallie pridem inventa, shortly before he joined the Gymnasium.

Despite the doubt cast by scholars on these various accounts and on the nature of Vespucci's achievements, it took real courage for Vespucci-who had no prior experience at sea and whose knowledge of navigation was entirely theoretical-to undertake the grand adventure of sailing out into uncharted seas.