Amerigo Vespucci - Frederick Ober - ebook

Amerigo Vespucci ebook

Frederick Ober



Cradled in the valley of the Arno, its noble architecture fitly supplementing its numerous natural charms, lies the Tuscan city of Florence, the birthplace of immortal Dante, the early home of Michael Angelo, the seat of the Florentine Medici, the scene of Savonarola's triumphs and his tragic end. Fame has come to many sons of Florence, as poets, statesmen, sculptors, painters, travellers; but perhaps none has achieved a distinction so unique, apart, and high as the subject of this volume, after whom the continents of the western hemisphere were named. Amerigo Vespucci was born in Florence, March 9, 1451, just one hundred and fifty years after Dante was banished from the city in which both first saw the light. The Vespucci family had then resided in that city more than two hundred years, having come from Peretola, a little town adjacent, where the name was highly regarded, as attached to the most respected of the Italian nobility. Following the custom of that nobility, during the period of unrest in Italy, the Vespuccis established themselves in a stately mansion near one of the city gates, which is known as the Porta del Prato. Thus they were within touch of the gay society of Florence, and could enjoy its advantages, while at the same time in a position, in the event of an uprising, to flee to their estates and stronghold in the country.

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Frederick Ober


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Copyright © 2016 by Frederick Ober

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CRADLED IN THE VALLEY of the Arno, its noble architecture fitly supplementing its numerous natural charms, lies the Tuscan city of Florence, the birthplace of immortal Dante, the early home of Michael Angelo, the seat of the Florentine Medici, the scene of Savonarola’s triumphs and his tragic end. Fame has come to many sons of Florence, as poets, statesmen, sculptors, painters, travellers; but perhaps none has achieveda distinction so unique, apart, and high as the subject of this volume, after whom the continents of the western hemisphere were named.

Amerigo Vespucci was born in Florence, March 9, 1451, just one hundred and fifty years after Dante was banished from the city in which both first saw the light. The Vespucci family had then resided in that city more than two hundred years, having come from Peretola, a little town adjacent, where the name was highly regarded, as attached to the most respected of the Italian nobility. Following the custom of that nobility, during the period of unrest in Italy, the Vespuccis established themselves in a stately mansion near one of the city gates, which is known as the Porta del Prato. Thus they were within touch of the gay society of Florence, and could enjoy its advantages, while at the same time in a position, in the event of an uprising, to flee to their estates and stronghold in the country.

While the house in which Christopher Columbus was born remains unidentified, and the year of his birth undecided, no such ambiguity attaches to the place and year of Vespucci’s nativity. Above the doorwayof the mansion which “for centuries before the discovery of America was the dwelling-place of the ancestors of Amerigo Vespucci, and his own birthplace,” a marble tablet was placed, in the second decade of the eighteenth century, bearing the following inscription:

“ToAmerico Vespuccio,a noble Florentine,

Who, by the discovery ofAmerica,

Rendered his own and his Country’s name illustrious,

[As]theAmplifier of the World.

Upon this ancient mansion of theVespucci,

Inhabited by so great a man,

The holy fathers of Saint John of God

Have placed this Tablet, sacred to his memory.


At that time, about midway between the date of Vespucci’s death and the present, the evidence was strong and continuous as to the residence in that building (which was then used as a hospital) of the family whose name it commemorates. Here was born, in 1451, the third son of Anastasio and Elizabetta Vespucci, whose name, whether rightly or not, was to be bestowed upon a part of the world at that time unknown.

The Vespuccis were then aristocrats, with a long and boasted lineage, but without greatwealth to support their pretensions. They were relatively poor; they were proud; but they were not ashamed to engage in trade. Some of their ancestors had filled the highest offices within the gift of the state, such aspriorisandgonfalonieres, or magistrates and chief magistrates, while the first of the Vespuccis known to have borne the prænomen Amerigo was a secretary of the republic in 1336.

It is incontestable that Amerigo Vespucci was well-born, and in his youth received the advantages of an education more thorough than was usually enjoyed by the sons of families which had “the respectability of wealth acquired in trade,” and even the prestige of noble connections. No argument is needed to show that the position of a Florentine merchant was perfectly compatible with great respectability, for the Medici themselves, with the history of whose house that of Florence is bound up most intimately, were merchant princes. The vast wealth they acquired in their mercantile operations in various parts of Europe enabled them to pose as patrons of art and literature, and supported their pretensions to sovereign power. The Florentine Medici attained togreatest eminence during the latter half of the century in which Amerigo Vespucci was born, and he was acquainted both with Cosimo, that “Pater Patriæ, who began the glorious epoch of the family,” and with “Lorenzo the Magnificent,” who died in 1492.

The Florentines, in fact, were known as great European traders or merchants as early as the eleventh century, while their bankers and capitalists not only controlled the financial affairs of several states, or nations, but exerted a powerful influence in the realm of statesmanship and diplomacy. The little wealth the Vespucci enjoyed at the time of Amerigo’s advent was derived from an ancestor of the century previous, who, besides providing endowments for churches and hospitals, left a large fortune to his heirs. His monument may be seen within the chapel built by himself and his wife, and it bears this inscription, in old Gothic characters: “The tomb of Simone Piero Vespucci, a merchant, and of his children and descendants, and of his wife, who caused this chapel to be erected and decorated—for the salvation of her soul. Anno Dom. 1383.”

The immediate ancestors, then, of AmerigoVespucci were highly respectable, and they were honorable, having held many positions of trust, with credit to themselves and profit to the state. At the time of Amerigo’s birth his father, Anastasio Vespucci, was secretary of the Signori, or senate of the republic; an uncle, Juliano, was Florentine ambassador at Genoa; and a cousin, Piero Vespucci, so ably commanded a fleet of galleys despatched against the corsairs of the Barbary coast that he was sent as ambassador to the King of Naples, by whom he was specially honored.

Another member of the family, one Guido Antonio, became locally famous as an expounder of the law and a diplomat. Respecting him an epitaph was composed, the last two lines of which might, if applied to Amerigo, have seemed almost prophetic:

“Here liesGuido Antonio,in this sepulchre—

He who should live forever,

Or else never have seen the light.“

This epitaph was written of the lawyer, who departed unknown and unwept by the world, while his then obscure kinsman, Amerigo, subsequently achieved a fame that filled the four quarters of the earth.

The youth of Amerigo is enshrouded inthe obscurity which envelops that of the average boy in whatever age, for no one divined that he would become great or famous, and hence he was not provided with a biographer. This is unfortunate, of course, but we must console ourselves with the thought that he was not unusually precocious, and probably said little that would be considered worth preserving. It happened that after he became world-large in importance, tales and traditions respecting his earliest years crept out in abundance; but these may well be looked upon with suspicion. We know scarcely more than that his early years were happy, for he had a loving mother, and a father wise enough to direct him in the way he should travel.

It does not always follow that the course the father prescribes is the best one in the end, for sometimes a boy develops in unsurmised directions; and this was the case with Amerigo Vespucci. The fortunes of the family being on the wane, he was selected as the one to retrieve them, and of four sons was the only one who did not receive a college education. The other three were sent to the University of Pisa, whence they returned with their “honors” thick upon them, and soonlapsed into obscurity, from which they never emerged. That is, they never “made a mark” in the world; save one brother, Girolamo, who made a pilgrimage to Palestine, where he lived nine years, suffered much, and lost what little fortune he carried with him.

He may have thought, perhaps, in after years, that if he had not belonged to a family containing the world-famed navigator his exploits would have brought him reputation; but it is more probable that if he had not written a letter to his younger brother, Amerigo, the world would never have heard from him at all. However, he was the first traveller in the family, and with his university education he should have produced a good account of his adventures; but if he ever did so it has not been preserved from oblivion.

Amerigo was not given a college education, but something—as it eventuated—vastly better. His father had a brother, a man of erudition for his time, who had studied for the Church. This learned uncle, Georgio Antonio Vespucci, was then a Dominican friar, respected in Florence for his piety and for his learning. About the year1450, or not long before Amerigo was born, he opened a school for the sons of nobles, and in the garb of a monk pursued the calling of the preceptor. His fame was such that the school was always full, yet when his brother’s child, Amerigo, desired to attend, having arrived at the age for receiving the rudiments of an education, he was greeted cordially and given a place in one of the lower classes. It may be imagined that he would have been favored by his uncle; but such seems not to have been the case, for the worthy friar was a disciplinarian first of all. He had ever in mind, however, the kind of education desired by his brother for Amerigo, which was to be commercial, and grounded him well in mathematics, languages, cosmography, and astronomy. His curriculum even embraced, it is said, statesmanship and the finesse of diplomacy, for the merchants of Vespucci’s days were, like the Venetian consuls, “very important factors in developing friendly international relations.”

There was then a great rivalry between Venice, Florence, Genoa, and Pisa for the control of trading-posts in the Levant, which carried with them the vast commerce of the Orient, then conducted by way of the Mediterranean,the Black, and the Caspian seas, and overland by caravans with India and China. At the time our hero was growing into manhood, in the latter half of the fifteenth century, Florence, “under the brilliant leadership of the Medici and other shrewd merchant princes, gained control of strategic trading-posts in all parts of the [then known] world, and secured a practical monopoly in the trade through Armenia and Rhodes.... It was from banking, however, that Florence derived most of her wealth. For some time her bankers controlled the financial markets of the world. Most of the great loans made by sovereigns during this period, for carrying on wars or for other purposes, were made through the agency of Florentine bankers. Even Venetian merchants were glad to appeal to her banks for loans. In the fifteenth century Florence had eighty great banking-houses, many of which had branches in every part of the world.”

It is evident, therefore, that the sagacious Anastasio Vespucci had mapped out a great career for the son whom he had chosen to recreate the fortunes of his house. He was tobe a banker, a diplomat; eventually he might attain, like the greatest of the Medici, to the station and dignities of a merchant prince. To this end the worthy Georgio Antonio ever strove, and as he found his nephew a tractable and studious pupil, he congratulated himself and his family that in Amerigo they had the individual who was to restore the prestige of their ancient name.

But alas! the sequel proved that Friar Georgio was too ambitious, and had overshot the mark. In his desire to turn out a finished product, a scholar that should be a credit to his school and an ornament to his family, he not only inculcated the essentials for a commercial education, but, as has already been mentioned, led his eager follower into the wider fields of astronomy and cosmography. All he knew—and that included all the ancients knew—of these abstruse sciences he imparted to Amerigo, and in the end, so far as we can judge, the young man became more proficient in them than any other person of his age and time. So it eventuated that those studies, which were intended merely as subsidiary to the more serious pursuit, became the prime factors in shaping his career. They were his stepping-stonesto greatness, as were his mercantile transactions; but, anticipating somewhat the events of his later life, we shall find that they did not conduce to the acquisition of wealth.

“In Florence,” says the author previously quoted, “more than in any other Italian city during the Middle Ages, was displayed the direct influence of commerce upon the developments of all the finer elements of material and immaterial civilization. She was the Athens of Italy, and her art, literature, and science was the brightest gleam of intellectual light that was seen in Europe during that age. It was from Florence, more than from any other source, that came the awakening influence known as the Renaissance.”

This truth we see exemplified in the formative period of Amerigo Vespucci’s life, for, in order to become qualified to adorn the high position of a prince of commerce, he was as carefully trained as if to fill a prelate’s chair or grasp the helm of state. So reluctant was his uncle, the good old monk Georgio, to relinquish his talented nephew to the world, that we find them in company as late as 1471, as attested by this letter, written in Latin by Amerigo to his father, in October of that year:

“To the Excellent and Honorable Signor Anastasio Vespucci.

“Honored Father,—Do not wonder that I have not written to you within the last few days. I thought that my uncle would have satisfied you concerning me, and in his absence I scarcely dare to address you in the Latin tongue, blushing even at my deficiencies in my own language. I have, besides, been industriously occupied of late in studying the rules of Latin composition, and will show you my book on my return. Whatever else I have accomplished, and how I have conducted myself, you will have been able to learn from my uncle, whose return I ardently desire, that, under his and your own joint directions, I may follow with greater facility both my studies and your kind precepts.

“George Antonio, three or four days ago, gave a number of letters to you to a good priest, Signor Nerotto, to which he desires your answer. There is nothing else that is new to relate, unless that we all desire greatly to return to the city. The day of our return is not yet fixed, but soon will be, unless the pestilence should increase and occasion greater alarm, which may God avert!

“He, George Antonio, commends to your consideration a poor and wretched neighbor of his, whose only reliance and means are in our house, concerning which he addresses you in full. He asks you, therefore, that you would attend to his affairs, so that they may suffer as little as possible in his absence.

“Farewell, then, honored father. Salute all the family in my behalf, and commend me to my mother and all my elder relatives.

“Your son, with due obedience,

“Amerigo Vespucci.”

The cause of Amerigo’s absence from Florence was, it is said, the terrible plague which swept over that city and for a time paralyzed its activities. All who were able fled to the country, and, Friar Georgio’s school having been broken up by the scattering of his pupils, he and Amerigo retired to their family estate, at or near Peretola, there to await the subsidence of the epidemic.



FLORENCE, IN VESPUCCI’S DAY, was the home of genius, of culture, and of art. Amerigo, doubtless, was acquainted with some of her sons whose fame, like his own, has endured to the present day, and will last for all time. The great Michael Angelo, who was born at or near Florence in 1475, and whose patron was Lorenzo the Magnificent, was his contemporary, although the artist and sculptor survived the discoverer more than fifty years. Savonarola, who came to Florence in 1482, was just a year the junior of Amerigo, and is said to have been an intimate friend of his uncle, who, like himself, belonged to the Dominican order. The young man may not have been touched by Buonarroti’s art, nor have been moved by Savonarola’s preaching, but, like the former, he possessed an artistic temperament,and, like the latter, he was an enthusiast.

The man, however, who, next to his uncle, shaped Amerigo’s career and turned him from trade to exploration, was a learned Florentine named Toscanelli. If you have followed the fortunes of Christopher Columbus, reader, you have seen this name before, for it was Toscanelli who, in the year 1474, sent a letter and a chart to the so-called discoverer of America, which confirmed him in the impression that a route to India lay westward from Europe across the “Sea of Darkness.”

It is not known just when Amerigo first met “Paul the Physicist,” as Toscanelli was called in Florence; but it may have been in youth or early manhood, for aside from the fact that “all the world” knew and reverenced the famoussavant, there was the inclination arising from a mutual interest in cosmography and astronomy. Toscanelli was the foremost scientist of his age, and as he was born in 1397, at the time Amerigo met him he must have been a venerable man. He lived, however, until the year 1482, and as the younger man was in Florence during the first forty years of his life, and the last thirty of Toscanelli’s, it is more than probablethat their intercourse was long and friendly.

It is known, at least, that they were acquainted at the time the learned doctor wrote Columbus, in 1474, and it does not require a stretch of the imagination to fancy them together, and wondering what effect that letter would have upon a man who entertained views similar to their own. Columbus, it is thought, had then been pondering several years over the possible discovery of land, presumably the eastern coast of India, by sailing westward. “It was in the year 1474,” writes a modern historian, “that he had some correspondence with the Italian savant, Toscanelli, regarding this discovery of land. A belief in such a discovery was a natural corollary to the object which Prince Henry of Portugal had in view by circumnavigating Africa, in order to find a way to the countries of which Marco Polo had given golden accounts. It was, in brief, to substitute for the tedious indirection of the African route a direct western passage—a belief in the practicability of which was drawn from a confidence in the sphericity of the earth.”

Later in life Columbus seems to have forgotten his indebtedness to Toscanelli, and “grew to imagine that he had been independent of the influences of his time,” ascribing his great discovery to the inspiration of one chosen to accomplish the prophecy of Isaiah. But the venerable Florentine had pondered the problem many years before Columbus thought of it. “Some Italian writers even go to the extent of asserting that the idea of a western passage to India originated with Toscanelli, before it entered the mind of Columbus; and it is highly probable that this was the case.”

There is this in favor of Toscanelli: He was a learned man, while Columbus was comparatively ignorant. He was then advanced in years, and had given the greater portion of his life to the consideration of just such questions, having had his attention called to them by reading the travels of Marco Polo and comparing the information therein contained with that derived from Eastern merchants who had traded for many years in the Orient. He was not a sailor, nor a corsair—though Columbus had been both, and had followed the sea for years—but he was an astronomer, and he knewmore of the starry heavens, as well as of the earth beneath them, than any other scientist alive. “It was Toscanelli who erected the famous solstitial gnomon at the cathedral of Florence.” For his learning he was honored, when but thirty years of age, with the curatorship of the great Florentine library, and for nearly sixty years thereafter he passed his days amid books, charts, maps, and globes.

As a speculative philosopher, he had arrived at a correct conclusion respecting the sphericity of the earth, and, with all the generosity of a humanitarian, he freely communicated his ideas to others. Columbus would have excluded every other human being from participating in his thoughts, and arrogated to himself alone the right to navigate westerly. This was the difference between the broad-minded philosopher and the narrow-minded sailor who by accident had stumbled upon a theory. The philosopher said, “It belongs to the world!” The ignorant sailor cried, “It is mine!”

Toscanelli advanced the theory, but it was Columbus who put it to the test, and reaped all the rewards, as well as suffered for the mistakes. For mistakes there were,and the chief error lay in supposing the country “discovered” by Columbus pertained to the Indies. He died in that belief, and also Toscanelli, who passed away ten years before the first voyage made to that land, subsequently known as America. In one sense, perhaps, the Florentine doctor was the means of that first voyage of Columbus having been accomplished, for the chart he sent him made the distance between Europe and the western country seem so short that it was undertaken with less reluctance, and persisted in more stubbornly, than it might otherwise have been. But this was a mistake in detail only, and not in theory. A line was projected from about the latitude of Lisbon, on the western coast of Europe, to the “great city of Quinsai,” as described by Marco Polo, on the opposite shores of Asia. This line was divided into twenty-six spaces, of two hundred and fifty miles each, making the total distance between the two points sixty-five hundred miles, which Toscanelli supposed to be one-third of the earth’s circumference.

In short, Toscanelli calculated the distance, made a conjectural chart embodying the results of his readings of Aristotle, Strabo,and Ptolemy, of his conversations during many years with Oriental travellers, and his own observations. He sent this chart to Columbus; the latter adopted it as his guide, and by means of it, faulty as it was, achieved his great “discovery.” Whose, then, is the merit of this achievement? Does it not belong as much to Toscanelli as to Columbus?

To whomsoever the credit may be given—whether to the man who conceived the idea, or to him who developed it, and whether or not Columbus intentionally appropriated the honor and glory exclusively—by the irony of fate, there stood a man at Toscanelli’s elbow, as it were, when he wrote to the Genoese, who was destined to rob him of his great discovery’s richest reward. This man was Amerigo Vespucci, after whom—though unsuggested by him and unknown to him—the continents of America were named, by strangers, before Christopher Columbus had lain a year in his grave!

It is not at all improbable that Vespucci was aware of the correspondence between Toscanelli and Columbus, as he was then acquainted with the former, and at the age of twenty-three was intensely interested in the pursuits of the learned physician. Nextto Toscanelli, in fact, he was probably the best-informed man then living in Florence as to the studies to which his friend had devoted the better part of his life, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that he saw the letters before they were sent to Columbus.

But this is a trivial matter compared with the importance of these letters, in a consideration of the effect they produced upon the mind of Columbus, for, if they did not suggest to him the idea of voyaging westerly to discover the Indies, they certainly confirmed him in the opinion that such a voyage could be successfully made. By a strange freak of fate these letters were preserved in theLife of Columbus, written by his son Fernando, and there can be no question of their authenticity. They breathe the spirit of benevolence for which Toscanelli was noted, and indicate the greatness of the man—a greatness decidedly in contrast to the mean and petty nature of his correspondent, who would have perished sooner than allow information so precious to escape from him to the world.

Toscanelli’s first letter was written in Florence, June 25, 1474, and is as follows:

“To Christopher Columbus, Paul the Physicist wishes health.

“I perceive your noble and earnest desire to sail to those parts where the spice is produced, and therefore, in answer to a letter of yours, I send you another letter which, some days since, I wrote to a friend of mine, a servant of the King of Portugal before the wars of Castile, in answer to another that he wrote me by his highness’s order, upon this same account. And I also send you another sea-chart, like the one I sent to him, which will satisfy your demands. This is a copy of the letter:

“‘To Ferdinand Martinez, Canon of Lisbon, Paul the Physicist wishes health.

“‘I am very glad to hear of the familiarity you enjoy with your most serene and magnificent king, and though I have very often discoursed concerning the short way there is from hence to the Indies, where the spice is produced, by sea (which I look upon to be shorter than that you take by the coast of Guinea), yet you now tell me that his highness would have me make out and demonstrate it, so that it may be understood and put in practice.

“‘Therefore, though I could better show it to him with a globe in my hand, and make him sensible of the figure of the world, yet I have resolved, to make it more easy and intelligible, to show the way on a chart, such as is used in navigation, and therefore I send one to his majesty, made and drawn with my own hand, wherein is set down the utmost bounds of the earth, from Ireland in the west to the farthest parts of Guinea, with all the islands that lie in the way; opposite to which western coast is described the beginning of the Indies, with the islands and places whither you may go, and how far you may bend from the North Pole towards the Equinoctial, and for how long a time—that is, how many leagues you may sail before you come to those places most fruitful in spices, jewels, and precious stones.

“‘Do not wonder if I term that country where the spice grows, West, that product being generally ascribed to the East, because those who sail westward will always find those countries in the west, and those who travel by land eastward will always find those countries in the east! The straight lines that lie lengthways in the chart show the distance there is from west to east; the others, which cross them, show the distance from north to south. I have also marked down in the chart several places in India where ships might put in, upon any storms or contrary winds, or other unforeseen accident.

“‘Moreover, to give you full information of all those places which you are very desirous to know about, you must understand that none but traders live and reside in all those islands, and that there is as great a number of ships and seafaring people, with merchandise, as in any other part of the world, particularly in a most noble port called Zaitun, where there are every year a hundred large ships of pepper loaded and unloaded, besides many other ships that take in other spices. This country is mighty populous, and there are many provinces and kingdoms, and innumerable cities, under the dominion of a prince called the Grand Khan, which name signifies king of kings, who for the most part resides in the province of Cathay. His predecessors were very desirous to have commerce and be in amity with Christians, and two hundred years since sent ambassadors to the Pope, desiring him to send them many learned men and doctors, to teach them our faith; but by reason of some obstacles the ambassadors met with they returned back, without coming to Rome. Besides, there came an ambassador to Pope Eugenius IV., who told him of the great friendship there was between those princes and their people, and the Christians. I discoursed with him a long while upon the several matters of the grandeur of their royal structures, and of the greatness, length, and breadth of their rivers, and he told me many wonderful things of the multitude of towns and cities along the banks of the rivers, upon a single one of which there were two hundred cities, with marble bridges of great length and breadth, adorned with numerous pillars.

“‘This country deserves as well as any other to be discovered; and there may not only be great profit made there, and many things of value found, but also gold, silver, many sorts of precious stones, and spices in abundance, which are not brought into our ports. And it is certain that many wise men, philosophers, astrologers, and other persons skilled in all arts and very ingenious, govern that mighty province and command their armies. From Lisbon directly westward there are in the chart twenty-six spaces, each of which contains two hundred and fifty miles, to the most noble and vast city of Quinsai, which is one hundred miles in compass—that is, thirty-five leagues. In it there are ten marble bridges. The name signifies a heavenly city, of which wonderful things are reported, as to the ingenuity of the people, the buildings, and the revenues.

“‘This space above mentioned is almost the third part of the globe. The city is in the province of Mangi, bordering on that of Cathay, where the king for the most part resides. From the island of Antilla, which you call the Island of the Seven Cities, and whereof you have some knowledge, to the most noble island of Cipango are ten spaces, which make two thousand five hundred miles. This island abounds in gold, pearls, and precious stones; and, you must understand, they cover their temples and palaces with plates of pure gold; so that, for want of knowing the way, all these things are concealed and hidden—and yet may be gone to with safety.

“‘Much more might be said; but having told you what is most material, and you being wise and judicious, I am satisfied there is nothing of it but what you understand, and therefore will not be more prolix. Thus much may serve to satisfy your curiosity, it being as much as the shortness of time and my business would permit me to say. So, I remain most ready to satisfy and serve his Highness to the utmost, in all the commands he shall lay upon me.’”

A second communication followed the reply of Columbus, in which Toscanelli wrote:

“I received your letters with the things you sent me, which I take as a great favor, and commend your noble and ardent desire of sailing from east to west, as it is marked out in the chart I sent you