Amerigo Vespucci’s Greatest Achievements and Voyages

Amerigo Vespucci – biography and achievements

Amerigo Vespucci, a Florence, Italy-born navigator, merchant, and explorer, was one of the most renowned European explorers of the late 15th and early 16th centuries. And did you know that the name of the Americas was obtained from Amerigo Vespucci’s name?

What impact did this Italian-born explorer have on the world of exploration and the New World? And what were some of his greatest discoveries?

Below, World History Edu takes a quick look at the life and major achievements of Amerigo Vespucci.

Quick facts about Amerigo Vespucci

Date of birth: c. 1454

Place of birth: Florence, Republic of Florence (present-day Italy)

Died: February 22, 1512

Place of death: Sevilla, Crown of Castile (present-day Spain)

Mother: Lisa di Giovanni Mini

Father: Nostagio Vespucci

Siblings: Antonio and Girolamo

Most famous for: His voyages to the New World; Lending his name to the name of “America”

Major achievements of Amerigo Vespucci

During his illustrious career in exploration and navigation, Amerigo Vespucci was able to accomplish a lot of outstanding things. Some of his major accomplishments are as follows:

A member of the delegation sent by influential Italian family Medici to visit the king of France

Amerigo Vespucci’s family had a cordial relation with the very influential Florentine family named the Medici family. Lorenzo de’ Medici, a member of the Medici family, was in effect the de facto ruler of Florence for many years.

To secure French support for Florence’s war with Naples, the Medici family in Florence sent a diplomatic delegation to France’s Louis XI (reign- 1461-1483), also known as “Louis the Prudent”. Vespucci was perhaps an attaché or private secretary of the delegation. Although the Louis did not want commit, Vespucci returned to Florence having gained a good deal of experience.

Amerigo Vespucci’s influences (from left to right): Strabo (c. 64 BC- c. 24 AD), Claudius Ptolemy (c. 100-170 AD), and Italian mathematician and cosmographer Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli (1398-1482).

Helped in the preparations for Columbus’s voyages to the New World

Proving himself a capable and well-educated man, Amerigo Vespucci gained the trust Medici family members such as Giovanni di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, who a former classmate of Amerigo.

Steadily, Vespucci came to be assigned to Giannotto Berardi to help in the preparations for Christopher Columbus’s third expeditions to the New World. He was also involved in preparing many other explorers for their voyages.

By the mid-1490s, he had risen to become the head of the Sevilla agency for Giovanni Medici.

Following the death of Giannotto Berardi in 1495, Vespucci was appointed the manager of the Medici Sevilla agency in Spain, where he helped organize a number of voyages for explorers, including Christopher Columbus. | Possible portrait of Lorenzo (1463-1503), by Sandro Botticelli

Vespucci popularized the discoveries made in the New World

His booklets in 1503 and 1505 about his voyages to the New World received critical acclaim across Europe. His reports helped to a large extent in making popular the discoveries that were made by European explorers at the time. They also boosted his reputation as a renowned navigator and explorer of the Age of Discovery (1400 to 1700 AD).

Amerigo Vespucci coined the term “New World” in 1503

Vespucci made popular the use of the term “New World” across Europe. | Sebastian Münster’s map of the New World, first published in 1540

In his 1503 letter – which was written to his friend and former employer Lorenzo di Pier Francesco de’ Medici – he used the term “New World” to refer to the Western Hemisphere that had become a popular destination for many European navigators and explorers. In the letter, which was later published in 1503 in Latin with the title Mundus Novus, Vespucci also makes mention of his voyage to Brazil in 1501-1502.

Vespucci strongly believed (and rightly so) that the Western Hemisphere lands discovered by navigators from Europe were not the edges of Asia, instead they were part of an entirely different continent. He came to that conclusion during his voyage to present-day Brazil in 1501. | Image: Amerigo Vespucci, Mundus Novus, Letter to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici in 1502/1503

Amerigo Vespucci’s letters

It is worth mentioning that there exist two series of documents on the various voyages (from 1497 to 1504) taken by Amerigo Vespucci. Those two documents are sometimes all that scholars have to understanding the voyages of Amerigo Vespucci to the New World.

The first document was a letter from Vespucci to Piero di Tommaso Soderini, the gonfalonier (an Italian magistrate). The letter, which was dated September 4, 1504, was written in Italian. Known as the Soderini letter, the document was published in Florence in 1505. It claims that Vespucci embarked upon four voyages in total. However, some modern historians and scholars have questioned the authorship and reliability of the letter. Regardless, the Soderini letter proved very useful when it came to naming the American continent. Also, two Latin versions of the letter appeared in works “Quattuor americi navigations” and “Mundus Novus”.

The second series of documents mentions two voyages by Amerigo Vespucci. The documents are made up of three private letters addressed to Vespucci’s former employer and patron Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici.

Amerigo Vespucci’s voyages (1497-1504)

Although still a subject of immense debate, Amerigo Vespucci’s first two voyages to the New World are alleged to have taken place in the late 1490s.

According to a 1504 letter he allegedly penned to a Florentine official named Piero di Tommaso Soderini, Vespucci first sailed to the New World on May 10, 1497. The voyage, which was licensed by the Crown of Castile, saw Vespucci act as a navigator. The voyage had Juan de la Cosa as the chief navigator, while Alonso de Ojeda served as the commander. The goal was to explore the area where Christopher Columbus had reported seeing pearls during his third voyage.

Because the Soderini letter is the only documentation that talks about this voyage, some scholars have opined that the Vespucci never made such voyages. They go on to state that the letter was most likely a forgery. | Image: Amerigo Vespucci’s second voyage depicted in the first known edition of his letter to Piero Soderini, published by Pietro Pacini in Florence c.1505

To this day, it remains a bit unclear as to the exact role of Vespucci during the voyage. It is possible that he served as a commercial representative of the financiers of the voyage. Some scholars state that he was a navigator on the expedition that saw four ships set sail from Spain in 1499.

The expedition first stopped in the Canary Islands and then sailed to South America. When they arrived at the coast of French Guyana or Surinam, Captain Ojeda split the expedition team into two and headed northwest to modern day Venezuela, while Vespucci team sailed south. Vespucci was part of the team that discovered the mouth of the Amazon River. They then went as far as Cape St. Augustine (latitude about 6° S) before making their way past Trinidad, seeing the mouth of the Orinoco River before heading to Haiti. After making a stop at the Spanish colony at Hispaniola in the West Indies, the team returned to Spain in June 1500.

Amerigo Vespucci’s second voyage of 1501-1502

Upon returning to Spain, Vespucci proposed a voyage to the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of the Ganges (present day Bay of Bengal), and Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka). Unfortunately, his proposal was turned down by the Spanish government. Not wanting to dwell too much on the rejection, Vespucci decided to go into the service of Portugal and embark upon his second voyage.

Vespucci’s 1501-1502 voyage was licensed and supported by Manuel I of Portugal. The pilot for the voyage was Portuguese explorer Gonçalo Coelho, who was tasked to investigate a landmass far to the west in the Atlantic Ocean. Portugal had wanted to determine the extent of Portuguese nobleman and navigator and explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral’s discovery which was far to the west in the Atlantic Ocean (near present-day Brazil). The voyage was intended to allow Porrtugal to claim the land to the east of the line established by the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494).

With a total of three ships, Vespucci sailed from Lisbon, Portugal on May 13, 1501. They went through the Cape Verde Islands for resupply before journeying southwestward. In August 1501, the expedition made it to the coast of Brazil and then proceeded to Cape St. Augustine. They continued southward, coming into contact with Guanabara Bay (Rio de Janeiro’s bay). The crew named the bay Rio de Janeiro because it was January 1, 1502.

By going as far as Rio de la Plata in January 1502, Vespucci and the crew became the first European to find the estuary. Before setting sail back home, they passed by the coast of Patagonia (in present-day southern Argentina).

His alleged third voyage (1503-1504)

Vespucci’s third voyage came under the auspices of his Portuguese employers in 1503. However, there are some scholars that claim that the Italian explorer never made such voyage.

Those who support his claims of his third voyage cite a letter he wrote to Soderini. In the letter, it was mentioned that Vespucci travelled to the east coast of Brazil. Not much detail is known about the voyage. It must be noted that the expedition did not do much to advance the knowledge at the time.

The name “America” was derived from Amerigo Vespucci’s name

Around 1000 AD, the Vikings, under the leadership of Norse explorer Leif Erikson, “discovered” the continent of America. Half a millennium later Christopher Columbus’ expeditions would introduce Europeans to many Caribbean and Central American islands.

And somehow, Amerigo Vespucci’s name is the name given to the continent. That was due to the work of German cartographers and humanists Martin Waldseemüller (c. 1470-1520) and Matthias Ringmann (1482-1511), who named those “discovered” land areas after the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci.

The word “America” appeared for the first time in 1507 in Waldseemüller and Ringmann’s pamphlet titled “Cosmographiae Introductio” (Introduction to Cosmography). After and a new world map drawn by Waldseemüller. The pamphlet also made its way into the Latin translation of the Soderini letter.

A thousand copies of the world map were printed with the title Universal Geography According to the Tradition of Ptolemy and the Contributions of Amerigo Vespucci and Others. | Image: Waldseemüller map from 1507 is the first map to include the name “America” and the first to depict the Americas as separate from Asia. The name initially applied only to South America, but it later extended to North and Central America. 

The name “America” was derived from the Latinized first name of Amerigo Vespucci. German cartographers and humanists Martin Waldseemüller (c. 1470-1520) and Matthias Ringmann (1482-1511) used named the continent in honor of the invaluable contributions made by Vespucci.

Waldseemüller (c. 1470-1520) was also the first to map South America as a continent separate from Asia, the first to produce a printed globe and the first to create a printed wall map of Europe. After the publication of Waldseemüller’s work in 1507, other cartographers followed suit, and by 1532 the name America was permanently affixed to the newly discovered continents.

It must be noted that the name “America” referred to only the South American continent, as the North and Central America had not yet been “discovered” by European explorers. In any case, the name came to be used synonymous with the New World, i.e. name of the western hemisphere of the world.

Naming of America

German humanist scholars and cosmographers Matthias Ringmann and Martin Waldseemüll’s 1507 book “Cosmographiae Introductio” (Introduction to Cosmography) included the Latin translation of the Soderini letter, a letter Vespucci wrote Soderini. Prior to the coming out of “Cosmographiae Introductio” (Introduction to Cosmography), Martin Waldseemuller had reprinted the “Quattuor Americi navigationes” (“Four Voyages of Amerigo”).

Distinguished consultant in the court of King Ferdinand of Spain

In 1508, he was appointed by the Crown of Castile to serve as the piloto mayor (master navigator) in the  Casa de Contratación (House of Trade) in Seville. Image: Statue of Vespucci outside the Uffizi in Florence, Italy

By 1505, Vespucci’s name had become known all across Europe, almost to the same reverence as fellow Italian explorer Christopher Columbus. Vespucci was invited by Ferdinand of Spain to serve the monarch on matters of navigation and exploration.

He was employed by Spain to facilitate exploration into the New World by prepare explorers for the voyages. Based in Seville, the very respected navigator and explorer was also tasked to working out western passage from Europe to India. Vespucci even got paid for his work, receiving an annual salary of about 50,000 maravedis and other allowances and benefits.

He also worked as the chief navigator for the Casa de Contratación de las Indias (Commercial House for the Indies), an agency founded in 1503 in Sevilla to not only train pilots and ship masters but to also issue out licenses to ship captains and navigators. Vespucci stayed in that position until his death in 1512.

Read More: 10 Greatest Explorers of All Time

Other notable accomplishments of Amerigo Vespucci

Amerigo Vespucci accomplishments

In addition to being one of the most famous pioneers of Atlantic exploration, Amerigo Vespucci’s discoveries helped expand our knowledge of the New World. The following are other notable accomplishments of the Florence-born explorer and navigator:

  • In April 1505, Amerigo Vespucci was made a citizen of Castile and León under the auspices of a royal proclamation.
  • From 1505 to 1512, he worked for the Spanish crown, prepared official map of newly found lands and routes. Those maps were meant for organizing and coordinating expeditions to the New World.

More Amerigo Vespucci facts

He grew up in middle-income family in Santa Lucia d’Ognissanti. | Image: – Portrait engraving of Vespucci by Crispijn van de Passe, which titles him discoverer and conqueror of Brazilian land

Here are 10 other notable facts about the Florentine navigator Amerigo Vespucci:

  1. It is widely held that Amerigo Vespucci was born on March 9, 1451. However, there have been some claims that put his birth year in 1454.
  2. While working in Seville as a business agent for the Medici family, he married a Spanish woman named Maria Cerezo. In Amerigo’s will, he describes her as the daughter of Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba.
  3. The meaning of his name Vespucci translates into “Home Ruler”.
  4. Amerigo Vespucci was the third son of Nostagio Vespucci, a notary worker in Florence, Italy, and Lisa di Giovanni Mini.
  5. He was named after his grandfather Amerigo Vespucci, who was an important member of the Florentine government (the Signoria).
  6. Amerigo Vespucci received his early education from his uncle Giorgio Antonio, a member of the Order of Preachers (also known as the Dominacan friar) in the monastery of San Marco. Giorgio was a renowned humanist scholar in Florence. Amerigo had the opportunity to learn a great deal of things from Giorgio, including Latin, rhetoric, and philosophy.
  7. His uncle also introduced him to works of classical Greek astronomers and geographers such as Strabo (c. 64 BC- c. 24 AD) and Claudius Ptolemy (c. 100-170 AD). Amerigo also derived a bit of influence from the works of Italian mathematician and cosmographer Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli (1398-1482).
  8. While working for the Medici family, he purchased a very expensive map drawn by Gabriel de Vallseca, a renowned cartographer.
  9. He embarked upon at least two expeditions to the New World; the first (1499-1500) was on behalf of Spain, while the second (1501-1502) was for his Portuguese employers.
  10. His critics accused him of taking credit for other people’s accomplishments. In some cases, it’s been said that other scholars erroneously appropriated works and discoveries of other explorers to him.

Bibliography

Ann Fitzpatrick Alper, Forgotten Voyager: The Story of Amerigo Vespucci (Minneapolis: Lerner Publishing Group, 1991)

Edwards, Charles Lester; Vespucci, Amerigo (2009). Amerigo Vespucci. Viartis

Fernández-Armesto, Felipe (2007). Amerigo: The Man Who Gave His Name to America. New York: Random House

Formisano, Luciano (1992). Letters from a New World: Amerigo Vespucci’s Discovery of America. New York: Marsilio

Lynn Hoogenboom, Amerigo Vespucci: A Primary Source Biography (New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2006)

Mundus Novus: Letter to Lorenzo Pietro Di Medici, by Amerigo Vespucci; translation by George Tyler Northrup, Princeton University Press; 1916.

M.H.Davidson (1997) Columbus Then and Now, a life re-examined. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, p. 417)

Ray, Kurt (2004). Amerigo Vespucci: Italian Explorer of the Americas. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group

Schulz, Norbert; Vespucci, Amerigo (2007). Amerigo Vespucci, Mundus Novus (mit Zweittexten). MMO-Verlag

Vigneras, Louis-André (1976). The Discovery of South America and the Andalusian Voyages. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

The Cosmographer Who Unknowingly Gave His Name to the Americas, by Mistake. Accessed on Nov 2, 2021

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