Amerigo Vespucci

1451 CE - 1512 CE

Spain and Portugal

Primary Goal:

He explored the lands opened up by Christopher Columbus.

Achievement:

He theorized that America was a separate continent and not part of Asia.


Amerigo Vespucci was born in the Italian city-state of Florence some time around 1451 or 1454. The Vespucci family was quite prominent in Florentine affairs; his grandfather (also named Amerigo) was a powerful politician with the city's ruling senate, and his father was a wealthy merchant and political insider. His uncle Georgio Antonio Vespucci was a leading scholar and churchman who would pass on to his young nephew a love for collecting books.

Little is known of Vespucci's youth. By the time Vespucci was in his early twenties, he had an enviable education in the works of Classical Greek and Latin writers. While his uncle Georgio steered Vespucci towards a scholarly life of writing and science, his father Nastagio was determined to make him a merchant. Vespucci's three brothers had typical enough jobs: Antonio was a notary in Florence, Girolamo was a soldier fighting the Turks in Hungary, while youngest brother Bernardo was a wool merchant. Nastagio would not abide a son who sat around reading books all day and gazing at stars all night. Vespucci was the only son Nastagio did not send to study at the University of Pisa; legend has it he was too afraid of forever losing Amerigo to a life of scholarship and cosmography.

In 1479, the city of Florence was in the grips of a political upheaval that made life difficult. Young Amerigo was sent off to Paris with his older cousin Guidantonio, who was the Florentine ambassador to France. Vespucci spent two years in France, acting as Guidantonio's secretary and assistant, learning the ways of diplomacy and how to act around kings and nobility. When Nastagio Vespucci died in 1482, it was his son Amerigo who took over the family's now struggling merchant house (the Florentine civil war had been bad for business). A year later, Amerigo Vespucci was made manager of the extremely powerful Medici merchant business.

The Medici family had ruled Florence since the 14th century, dominating the city's government, religious institutions and economy. They were also heavily involved in the European banking and merchant trades. Amerigo Vespucci apparently had quite a skill for turning a profit to have a powerful family such as the Medicis hire him. He was responsible for the proper handling of all business transactions for Lorenzo di Pier Francesco de Medici, then just 20 years old, and his younger brother Giovanni. Vespucci would remain Lorenzo's and Giovanni's financial manager for fifteen years, and through his sound business sense, both Vespucci and his patrons became quite wealthy. With money to spare, Vespucci indulged his love of science and geography by slowly acquiring an impressive collection of books and maps.

In 1491, Vespucci went to Spain to oversee the Medicis' business there. At the time, Spain was ruled by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who were busy fighting the remaining Moors and expelling Jewish merchants from the kingdom. With trade disrupted by war and a lack of qualified merchants, Spain was the perfect place for an enthusiastic man like Amerigo Vespucci to set up shop. As a merchant in Seville, Vespucci struck up an unofficial partnership with two other Italians, Donato Nicollini and Giannotto Berardi. Through Berardi, who specialized in outfitting ships, Vespucci made a number of contacts among mariners on the Seville riverfront.

Christopher Columbus, a fellow Italian and a favorite with the Spanish Crown, returned from "discovering" a new route to Asia in 1493. All of Spain was abuzz with what Columbus had apparently achieved: he had sailed west from Europe to India, land of jewels and spices. Men like Vespucci knew a fortune could be made if a merchant exploited this new route to the riches of the East. Before Columbus' voyage, Europeans were forced to pay extremely high prices charged by Greek and Arabic merchants for spices shipped overland from the Orient. The Portuguese had only just found a direct route by sea to India in 1488, when skilled mariner Bartolomeu Dias sailed around the tip of Africa into the Indian Ocean.

(The Europeans did not realize that Columbus hadn't actually reached India until the early 1500s. History credits Amerigo Vespucci with first theorizing that perhaps the land Columbus called India was actually a different, unknown continent altogether.)

When Berardi died in 1495, all his business in obtaining supplies for Spanish ships went to trusted Seville merchant Amerigo Vespucci. As Vespucci heard more and more from sailors returning from the New World, the more he wanted to sail there himself. In 1499, Vespucci managed to get himself assigned to an expedition headed back to the lands Columbus had discovered. Leading the operation was a young Spanish nobleman named Alonso de Ojeda, who had sailed with Columbus' second voyage and had his own ideas as to how best to find the westward sea route to India.