Giovanni Ramusio

Giovanni Battista Ramusio was born in the Italian town of Treviso in 1485. His father, Paolo Ramusio, was a magistrate in the important city-state of Venice, one of the leading commercial and maritime centers in the Mediterranean. In 1505, young Giovanni got a job as the personal secretary of Alvise Mocenigo, Venice's ambassador to France. The rest of Ramusio's long career would be in the service of Venice.

Besides diplomacy, Ramusio's other passion was geography. At the time, the standard textbook on the subject was Ptolemy's Geographia, an interesting and ancient treatise complete with a gazetteer section (a list of places giving information including location and major industries) and a series of maps. Ptolemy's original, created sometime in the 2nd century, had been updated over a thousand or so years, but 15th-century geographers were nervously starting to realize that Ptolemy's world view did not correspond with how the world really looked. The new land being "discovered" by European explorers was throwing many of Ptolemy's theories out the window.

Ramusio was lucky to be in Venice at the time, for the city had become the nerve center for information about expeditions to the New World. The government of Venice had a network of ambassadors and spies all over Europe, who doggedly tracked down any and all available truths, rumors or rumblings about those who had experienced the newly found lands to the west. These were written up into reports and letters that were regularly sent back to the Venetian senate. These documents were fascinating to men like Ramusio, who read them with great interest.

In a curious circle of interested geographers, texts of various explorers' travels were exchanged quickly. From like-minded friends all across Europe, Ramusio received details of Spanish, Portuguese and French explorers. Ramusio did very little traveling himself, but knew that the information contained in these reports would be useful or interesting to other researchers. Although he was evidently fluent in several languages, Ramusio began translating the documents into Italian, the most widely understood European language at the time.

In 1550, his work paid off when he published the first volume of Navigationi et Viaggi ("Navigations and Travels"), a collection of first-hand accounts of exploration, and the first work of its kind. Oddly enough, the third volume was published in 1556 (and featured works by Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo and Peter Martyr), before the second volume; a fire destroyed Ramusio's manuscript before it got to the printer and the publication of the second volume was delayed. It was finally published in 1559, two years after Ramusio died. Navigationi et Viaggi was translated into several languages and reprinted numerous times over the years, indications of how popular travel literature was to European readers, eager to learn all they could about the lands most would never visit. Even other compilers of these sorts of books, such as England's Richard Hakluyt, paid tribute to Ramusio's work.