9 March 2018

Amerigo Vespucci – explorer

Medici clerk who discovered a new world

Amerigo Vespucci began exploring as an observer at the invitation of the King of Portugal
Amerigo Vespucci began exploring as an observer
at the invitation of the King of Portugal 
Explorer and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci was born on this day in 1454 in Florence.

Vespucci was the first to discover the ‘new world’, which later came to be called the Americas, taking the Latin version of his first name.

He was the son of a notary in Florence and a cousin of the husband of the beautiful artist’s model, Simonetta Vespucci. He was educated by his uncle, Fra Giorgio Antonio Vespucci, a Dominican friar, and he was later hired as a clerk by the Medici family.

He acquired the favour of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, who sent him to the Medici office in Cadiz in Spain to investigate the managers, who were under suspicion.

Later, as the executor of an Italian merchant who had died in Seville, Vespucci fulfilled the deceased’s contract with Castile to provide 12 vessels to sail to the Indies. He then continued supplying provisions for expeditions to the Indies and was invited by the King of Portugal to participate as an observer on several voyages of exploration.

Although letters have been forged and fraudulent claims have been made about his discoveries, Vespucci is known to have taken an active part in at least two real voyages of exploration.

Vespucci's arrival in the 'new world', as imagined by the  Flemish engraver Theodor de Bry
Vespucci's arrival in the 'new world', as imagined by the
Flemish engraver Theodor de Bry 
In 1499, on a voyage intended to round the southern end of the African mainland into the Indian ocean, Vespucci is believed to have crossed the Atlantic, hitting land in what is now Guyana on the South American mainland, then sailed southwards, discovering the mouth of the Amazon river and seeing Trinidad and the Orinoco river, before returning to Spain.

In 1501, he was on a voyage which reached the coast of Brazil and sailed along the coast of South America to Rio di Janeiro’s bay. He wrote in a letter to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici that the land masses were ‘larger and different from the Asia described by Marco Polo and, therefore, must be a new world, a previously unknown fourth continent.’

In 1507, an author of a geography book, Martin Waldseemüller, suggested the name America, especially for the Brazilian part of the new world, in honour of the ‘illustrious man’ who discovered it. This is how the names for North America and South America originated.

Vespucci was made chief navigator of Spain in 1508 by King Ferdinand and was commissioned to start a school of navigation, where he developed a rudimentary method of determining longitude. He died in 1512 at his home in Seville, aged 57.

The church of San Salvatore di Ognissanti is the parish church of the Vespucci family
The church of San Salvatore di Ognissanti
is the parish church of the Vespucci family
Travel tip:

The parish church of the Vespucci family is the Church of All Saints - Chiesa di San Salvatore di Ognissanti - in Borgo Ognissanti, close to the Santa Maria Novella railway station. In the Vespucci Chapel, a fresco by Domenico Ghirlandaio depicts the Madonna della Misericordia protecting members of the Vespucci family. It is believed to show Amerigo Vespucci as a child among them. Vespucci later named a bay in Brazil, San Salvatore di Ognissanti, which is the origin of the name of the city of Salvador in Brazil.

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The statue of Amerigo Vespucci by the Ufizzi
The statue of Amerigo
Vespucci by the Ufizzi 
Travel tip:

The Uffizi Gallery in Florence has a posthumous portrait of Amerigo Vespucci, which has been attributed to Cristofano dell’Altissimo. Outside the gallery there is also a statue of Amerigo Vespucci. The Uffizi is one of the most important art galleries in the world and attracts so many visitors it is vital to book a ticket in advance to avoid a long wait. The complex of buildings that make up the gallery was designed by Giorgio Vasari as offices - uffizi - for the Medici family in 1560.

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