Famous Italians born today – Amerigo Vespucci, born March 9th 1454

If Amerigo Vespucci isn’t a name that you’re particularly familiar with, let me enlighten you with 12 fascinating facts about the man who gave his name to, not just one, but two continents!

Statue of Amerigo Vespucci outside the Uffizi Museum, Florence (Photo credit : Wikipedia)

Statue of Amerigo Vespucci outside the Uffizi Museum, Florence (Photo credit : Wikipedia)

  1. Vespucci was an explorer in the early 1500s, working for the Spanish royal family. Nothing too unusual in that you might think, everyone was at it in those days!
  1. Vespucci is best known for having both North and South America named after him – now that’s a bit more impressive!
  1. Amerigo wasn’t arrogant enough to name them himself though, despite yearning to be famous, and in fact he didn’t “discover” North America at all!
  1. Amerigo originally set out to find a western route to Asia but instead, over a number of voyages, found Rio de Janeiro, the Amazon River, Patagonia, South Georgia and Venezuala. You might say he failed in his original mission to find a route to Asia but what he found was much more significant.
  1. In fact Amerigo was the first person to realise that North and South America were actually distinct continents previously unknown to Europeans, Africans and Asians. Prior to this explorers including Columbus, assumed that the New World (the name Vespucci gave to South America) and the West Indies, or Caribbean, were part of Asia. In fact Columbus never ceased to believe he’d discovered the eastern outskirts of Asia.
"Universalis cosmographia" map showing the new world of America by Martin Waldseemüller. ( Full map name : Universalis cosmographia secundum Ptholomæi traditionem et Americi Vespucii aliorv. que lustrationes.)

“Universalis cosmographia” map showing the new world of America by Martin Waldseemüller. ( Full map name : Universalis cosmographia secundum Ptholomæi traditionem et Americi Vespucii aliorv. que lustrationes.)

  1. In 1507 a mapmaker called Martin Waldseemüler proposed that the newly “discovered” Brazil be labeled America, the feminine version of Amerigo, to honour the explorer. Later maps expanded the definition and size of South America, even giving Vespucci credit for land to the north that his contemporary Cristofo Columbus had “discovered”.
  1. Vespucci was a bit of a late starter and was well into his 40s before he decided to become an explorer. After a conversation with Columbus in Seville Amerigo was tempted by the fame and vast amounts of money floating round European courts as countries raced to colonise as much land and wealth as possible.
Amerigo Vespuccio encounters Native Americans in Honduras (illustration by De Bry, c.1592)

Amerigo Vespuccio encounters Native Americans in Honduras (illustration by De Bry, c.1592)

  1. Vespucci invented a rudimentary, but fairly accurate method of measuring longitude – the geographic coordinate that marks the east-west position of a place on the Earth’s surface. Chronometers would go on to improve upon the accuracy of Vespuccio’s efforts but only years later.
  1. Vespucci was a legendary letter writer documenting his voyages in detail. Its claimed he wanted to be famous for his achievements and two of his letters were published as books during his lifetime. You could say he was one of the original travel bloggers although not all of us want to be famous!
  1. Before becoming a famous explorer, Amerigo was employed as a clerk to the infamous Medici’s, the powerful ruling family of Florence.
  1. Over his lifetime Vespucci worked as a banker, a merchant, a clerk and finally as a cartographer, navigator and explorer.
  1. Amerigo Vespucci, converted to Spanish citizenship in the early 1500s and died of malaria in Seville, Spain a few years later on February 22, 1512. He was just a month shy of 58 years old.

So there you have it! America is named after an Italian who didn’t even discover it! Who knew! Happy birthday Amerigo all the same!

Note : Obviously we now know that Columbus and Vespucci were beaten to the Americas by the Native Americans and other groups who had been there for centuries! There’s also strong evidence that the Vikings and even the Chinese got there before them so for the purpose of this post I’ve used speech marks around “discovered” and other similar words as I don’t want to offend.

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2 Responses to Famous Italians born today – Amerigo Vespucci, born March 9th 1454

  1. suggs69 says:

    Interesting article. I wonder why he considered them two distinct continents when even now there isn’t a specific worldwide standard (Spain and Italy teach five continents – according to a couple of articles I read). Funny how in those days Martin Waldseemüler must have had better maps/influence/followers for the name to stick.

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