Amerigo Vespucci, Italian Explorer and Cartographer

Low angle view of a statue, Amerigo Vespucci, Florence, Italy
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Amerigo Vespucci (March 9, 1454–February 22, 1512) was an Italian explorer and cartographer. In the early 16th century, he showed that the New World was not part of Asia but was, in fact, its own distinct area. The Americas take their name from the Latin form of "Amerigo."

Fast Facts: Amerigo Vespucci

  • Known For: Vespucci's expeditions led him to the realization that the New World was distinct from Asia; the Americas were named after him.
  • Born: March 9, 1454 in Florence, Italy
  • Parents: Ser Nastagio Vespucci and Lisabetta Mini
  • Died: February 22, 1512 in Seville, Spain
  • Spouse: Maria Cerezo

Early Life

Amerigo Vespucci was born on March 9, 1454, to a prominent family in Florence, Italy. As a young man, he read widely and collected books and maps. He eventually began working for local bankers and was sent to Spain in 1492 to look after his employer's business interests.

While he was in Spain, Vespucci had the chance to meet Christopher Columbus, who had just returned from his voyage to America; the meeting increased Vespucci's interest in taking a journey across the Atlantic. He soon began working on ships, and he went on his first expedition in 1497. The Spanish ships passed through the West Indies, reached South America, and returned to Spain the following year. In 1499, Vespucci went on his second voyage, this time as an official navigator. The expedition reached the mouth of the Amazon River and explored the coast of South America. Vespucci was able to calculate how far west he had traveled by observing the conjunction of Mars and the moon.

The New World

On his third voyage in 1501, Vespucci sailed under the Portuguese flag. After leaving Lisbon, it took Vespucci 64 days to cross the Atlantic Ocean due to light winds. His ships followed the South American coast to within 400 miles of the southern tip, Tierra del Fuego. Along the way, the Portuguese sailors in charge of the voyage asked Vespucci to take over as commander.

While he was on this expedition, Vespucci wrote two letters to a friend in Europe. He described his travels and was the first to identify the New World of North and South America as a separate landmass from Asia. (Christopher Columbus mistakenly believed he had reached Asia.) In one letter, dated March (or April) 1503, Vespucci described the diversity of life on the new continent:

We knew that land to be a continent, and not an island, from its long beaches extending without trending round, the infinite number of inhabitants, the numerous tribes and peoples, the numerous kinds of wild animals unknown in our country, and many others never seen before by us, touching which it would take long to make reference.

In his writings, Vespucci also described the culture of the indigenous people, focusing on their diet, religion, and—what made these letters very popular—their sexual, marriage, and childbirth practices. The letters were published in many languages and were distributed across Europe (they sold much better than Columbus's own diaries). Vespucci's descriptions of the natives were vivid and frank:

They are people gentle and tractable, and all of both sexes go naked, not covering any part of their bodies, just as they came from their mothers’ wombs, and so they go until their deaths...They are of a free and good-looking expression of countenance, which they themselves destroy by boring the nostrils and lips, the nose and ears...They stop up these perforations with blue stones, bits of marble, of crystal, or very fine alabaster, also with very white bones and other things.

Vespucci also described the richness of the land, and hinted that the region could be easily exploited for its valuable raw materials, including gold and pearls:

The land is very fertile, abounding in many hills and valleys, and in large rivers, and is irrigated by very refreshing springs. It is covered with extensive and dense forests...No kind of metal has been found except gold, in which the country abounds, though we have brought none back in this our first navigation. The natives, however, assured us that there was an immense quantity of gold underground, and nothing was to be had from them for a price. Pearls abound, as I wrote to you.

Scholars are not certain whether or not Vespucci participated in a fourth voyage to the Americas in 1503. If he did, there is little record of it, and we can assume the expedition was not very successful. Nevertheless, Vespucci did assist in the planning of other voyages to the New World.

European colonization of this region accelerated in the years after Vespucci's voyages, resulting in settlements in Mexico, the West Indies, and South America. The Italian explorer's work played an important role in helping colonizers navigate the territory.

Death

Vespucci was named pilot major of Spain in 1508. He was proud of this accomplishments, writing that "I was more skillful than all the shipmates of the whole world." Vespucci's third voyage to the New World was his last, for he contracted malaria and died in Spain in 1512 at the age of 57.

Legacy

The German clergyman-scholar Martin Waldseemüller liked to make up names. He even created his own last name by combining the words for "wood," "lake," and "mill." Waldseemüller was working on a contemporary world map in 1507, based on the Greek geography of Ptolemy, and he had read of Vespucci's travels and knew that the New World was indeed two continents.

In honor of Vespucci's discovery of this portion of the world, Waldseemüller printed a wood block map (called "Carta Mariana") with the name "America" spread across the southern continent of the New World. Waldseemüller sold a thousand copies of the map across Europe.

Within a few years, Waldseemüller had changed his mind about the name for the New World—but it was too late. The name America had stuck. Gerardus Mercator's world map of 1538 was the first to include North America and South America. Vespucci's legacy lives on through the continents named in his honor.