Amerigo Vespucci
by Frederick A. Ober
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[Transcriber's Note: Every effort has been made to replicate this text as faithfully as possible, including obsolete and variant spellings and other inconsistencies. Text that has been changed to correct an obvious error by the publisher is noted at the end of this ebook.]







Copyright, 1907, by HARPER & BROTHERS.

All rights reserved.

Published February, 1907.



























XVIth CENTURY. Vespucci's letters to Soderini and L. P. F. de' Medici, reproduced in this volume.

XVIIth CENTURY. Herrera, in his Historia General (etc.), Madrid, 1601; "probably followed Las Casas, whose MSS. he had."

XVIIIth CENTURY. Dandini, A. M., Vita e Lettere di Amerigo Vespucci, Florence, 1745.

Canovai, Stanislac, Elogia di Amerigo Vespucci, 1778.

XIXth CENTURY. Navarrete, M. F. de, Noticias Exactas de Americo Vespucio, contained in his Coleccion, Madrid, 1825-1837.

Humboldt, Alexander von, Examen Critique de l'Histoire de la Geographie de Nouveau Continent, Paris, 1836-1839.

Lester, C. Edwards, The Life and Voyages of Americus Vespucius, New York, 1846; reprinted, in de luxe edition, New York, 1903.

Varnhagen, F. A., Baron de Porto Seguro, Amerigo Vespucci, son Caractere, ses Ecrits (etc.), Lima, 1865; Vienna, 1874. A collection of monographs called by Fiske "the only intelligent modern treatise on the life and voyages of this navigator."

Fiske, John, The Discovery of America, Boston, 1899; contains an exhaustive critical examination of Vespucci's voyages to which the reader should refer for more extended information.





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.

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 doorway of 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:

"To AMERICO VESPUCCIO, a noble Florentine, Who, by the discovery of AMERICA, Rendered his own and his Country's name illustrious, [As] the AMPLIFIER OF THE WORLD. Upon this ancient mansion of the VESPUCCI, Inhabited by so great a man, The holy fathers of Saint John of God Have placed this Tablet, sacred to his memory. A.D. 1719."

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 great wealth 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 as prioris and gonfalonieres, or magistrates and chief magistrates, while the first of the Vespuccis known to have borne the praenomen 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 to greatest eminence during the latter half of the century in which Amerigo Vespucci was born, and he was acquainted both with Cosimo, that "Pater Patriae, 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 Amerigo Vespucci 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 lies GUIDO 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 in the 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 soon lapsed 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 year 1450, 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."[2]

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 to be 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-stones to 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."[3]

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.


[1] This name is variously spelled, as, for example: Albericus, Alberico, Almerigo, Americo, Americus, Amerigo; Despuche, Vespuche, Vespuchy, Vespuccio, Vespucius, Vespucci. The best writers use either the Italian, Amerigo Vespucci, or the Latinized, Americus Vespucius, with good authority for both.

[2] From the General History of Commerce, by W. C. Webster, Ph.D.

[3] This letter was discovered by Signor Bandini, author of the Vita e Lettre di Amerigo Vespucci, 1745, in the Strozzi Library. Harrisse says, "This, and two or three signatures added to receipts, which were brought to light by Navarrete, constitute the only autographs of Vespucius known."

In the original paper he uses the Latin form, Vespucius; but in a letter written in 1508, when he was pilot-major of Spain, he signs himself "Amerigo Vespucci."




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 famous savant, 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 probable that 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."[4]

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 knew more 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. Next to 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 the Life 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, which would demonstrate itself better in the form of a globe. I am glad it is well understood, and that the voyage laid down is not only possible, but certain, honorable, very advantageous, and most glorious among all Christians. You cannot be perfect in the knowledge of it but by experience and practice, as I have had in great measure, and by the solid and true information of worthy and wise men, who are come from those parts to this court of Rome, and from merchants who have traded long in those parts and who are persons of good reputation. So that, when the said voyage is performed, it will be to powerful kingdoms, and to most noble cities and provinces, rich, and abounding in all things we stand in need of, particularly all sorts of spice in great quantities, and stores of jewels. This will, moreover, be grateful to those kings and princes who are very desirous to converse and trade with Christians, or else have communication with the wise and ingenious men in these parts, as well in point of religion as in all sciences, because of the extraordinary account they have of the kingdoms and government of these parts. For which reasons, and many more that might be alleged, I do not at all wonder that you, who have a great heart, and all the Portuguese nation, which has ever had notable men in all undertakings, be eagerly bent upon performing this voyage."

In these letters we have outlined by Toscanelli the very voyage that Columbus took in 1492, eighteen years after he had received this precious information. In his journal of that voyage he makes mention of "the islands marked on the chart"; he was constantly seeking the island of Atlantis, and hoped eventually to arrive at the great and noble city of Quinsai, as well as at Cipango and Cathay. As for the "Grand Khan"—of whom he had been informed by Toscanelli, who obtained his information from Marco Polo's works—he not only sent an embassy in search of him, when in Cuba, but was looking for him throughout all his voyages.

It is well known that Columbus was not aware that he had really discovered a new world, but to the end of his days believed he had merely arrived at the eastern coast of India. So persistent was he in this belief that he falsified documents, and forced his crew to swear to what they did not know—namely, that Cuba was a continent, and not an island! He believed he had arrived at Cipango, when he heard the Indian word, cibao, on the coast of Hispaniola; and he says, in a letter written to Luis Santangel in 1493, "In Espanola there are gold-mines, and thence to terra firma, as well as thence to the Grand Khan, everything is on a splendid scale." Also, "When I arrived at Juana [Cuba], I followed the coast to the westward, and found it so extensive that I considered it must be a continent and a province of Cathay!"

Columbus, it has been said by some investigators, was a man of one idea—and that idea not his own! "It is impossible," says Washington Irving, in his Life of Columbus—which is, throughout, an elegant but labored apology for its hero—"to determine the precise time when Columbus first conceived the design of seeking a western route to India. It is certain, however, that he meditated it as early as the year 1474, though as yet it lay crude and unmatured in his mind."

The year 1474, as we know, was that in which Toscanelli sent him the letter and the chart. In that letter the route to India was laid down, and on that chart it was made clear to any seafaring man how Cathay might be reached, by merely sailing westward! By setting his helm, and persisting in a westerly course, any one might reach the coast that was supposed to lie opposite to Europe and Africa. Columbus did that, according to directions received from Toscanelli eighteen years before. He did nothing more, and he reached, not the coast of India, but the outlying islands of a new world since called America.

The idea, then, which Columbus claimed as exclusively his own was conveyed to him by Toscanelli—or, at least, it so appears—and Toscanelli obtained it from the ancients. For, says one having authority, "Eratosthenes, accepting the spherical theory, had advanced the identical notion which nearly seventeen hundred years later impelled Columbus to his voyage. He held the known world to span one-third of the circuit of the globe, as Strabo did at a later day, leaving an unknown two-thirds of sea; and if it were not that the vast extent of the Atlantic Sea rendered it impossible, one might even sail from the coast of Spain to that of India, along the same parallel."

And again: "An important element in the problem was the statement of Marco Polo regarding a large island, which he called Cipango, and which he represented as lying in the ocean off the eastern coast of Asia. This carried the eastern verge of the Asiatic world farther than the ancients had known, and, on the spherical theory, brought land nearer westward from Europe than could earlier have been supposed.... Humboldt has pointed out that neither Christopher Columbus nor his son Ferdinand mentions Marco Polo; still, we know that the former had read his book."[5]


[4] Justin Winsor, in The Narrative and Critical History of America.

[5] Narrative and Critical History of America.




Books of any sort were few and precious during the youthful period of Amerigo Vespucci's life, for the art of printing by the use of movable type was invented about the time he was born, and most of the great discoverers, including himself and Columbus, were to pass away before the printing-press was introduced into America.[6]

In the library of Paul the Physicist, however, the ardent scholar, Vespucci, must have seen many manuscripts which he was permitted to read, and among them, doubtless, the account of Marco Polo's wonderful journeys. It is thought that Toscanelli may have possessed, indeed, one of the first copies of Marco Polo ever printed, as it issued from a German press in 1477; or at least of the second edition, which appeared in 1481, the year before he died. A copy of the first Latin edition was once owned by Fernando Columbus, and has marginal marks ascribed to his father. This edition was printed in 1485, the year in which Hernando Cortes was born, and when Vespucci was thirty-four years old. Another Latin edition was brought out in 1490, an Italian in 1496, and a Portuguese in 1502, followed by many others.

Marco Polo, the Venetian, exercised a strong and lasting influence upon the minds of Toscanelli, Columbus, Vespucci, and, through them, upon others, although he died in the first quarter of the century in which the first-named of this distinguished triad was born. All these had this birthright in common: they were Italians; and, moreover, it was in Genoa, the reputed birthplace of Columbus, that Marco Polo's adventures were first shaped into coherent narrative and given to the world.

These adventures have been stigmatized as romances; but surely nothing could be more romantic than the manner in which they came to be published, finally, after existing many years in the crude form of notes and journals made by the traveller during his journeyings. In the year 1298, three years after he had returned from his wanderings and settled down in Venice, Polo was called upon to assist in the defence of Curzola, during the hostilities which existed between his own republic and that of Genoa. To oppose the Genoese admiral, Doria, who had invaded their seas with seventy galleys, the Venetians fitted out a fleet under Andrea Dandolo, and a great battle was fought off the island of Curzola. Marco Polo commanded a galley of his own, and fought with valor; but, in common with the commanders of more than eighty Venetian vessels, he was defeated, the Genoese winning an overwhelming victory.

Taken as a prisoner to Genoa, he was cast into prison, where he remained immured for a year. That was the year in which his wonderful travels were woven into a story, for the entertainment of the young Genoese nobility, who, when they learned that the famous Marco Polo was a prisoner, flocked to his cell to see and converse with him. Yielding to their solicitations, he sent to Venice for his notes of travel, and during the days of his captivity dictated an account of his experiences to a fellow-captive, one Rusticiano, of Pisa.

The delighted young nobles devoured his wonderful story with avidity, and they could scarcely wait its unfolding from day to day, for it was to them a veritable tale of the Arabian Nights. From the Italian, in which the traveller dictated his story, it was translated into Latin and French, and scattered over Europe for others to enjoy. Thus Marco Polo acquired fame through the misfortune which befell him when fighting for Venice, and long before printing was invented his name became almost a household word in Europe. As one who, though indirectly, stimulated by his Oriental researches the first great ventures into the Occident, Marco Polo deserves a monument, or, at least, should not be omitted from a memorial group that contains such famous Italians as Columbus, Vespucci, Toscanelli, and Verrazano. Admittedly, he deserves a chapter in this biography, and we cannot do better, perhaps, than glance at his history.

If Marco had been consulted in the choice of his immediate ancestry, he could not have done better than fortune served him in the person of his father, Nicolo Polo, who was a nobleman and a merchant of Venice. He was a traveller prior to the birth of his son, for just previous to that event, which occurred nearly two hundred years before Amerigo Vespucci was born, he and his brother set out for Constantinople. Thence they went into Armenia, and around the south coast of the Caspian Sea to Bokhara, where they met some Persian envoys who were bound for Cathay, or China, and who persuaded them to go along.

At Peking, it is supposed, they met the great and powerful Kublai Khan, Emperor of the Mongols, and Tartars, who received them kindly and at whose court they remained a year. They were the first Europeans he had ever seen, and such was his interest in their stories of strange peoples and governments that he commissioned them as envoys to the pope, giving them letters in which he expressed his desire that Europeans learned in the arts and sciences should be sent for the instruction of his people. Then they were reluctantly dismissed, with gifts of gold and spices, and after many perilous adventures finally reached their home in Venice. They had been gone almost ten years, and when Nicolo Polo first saw his son, on his return to Venice, Marco was a youth at school, well advanced in his studies.

Two years later, when Marco was about twelve, the three Polos set out on their return to Cathay, accompanied by two friars, who were "endowed with ample powers and privileges, the authority to ordain priests and bishops, and to grant absolution in all cases, as fully as if the pope were personally present." They took with them rich presents for the khan, including a bottle of precious oil from the holy sepulchre in Jerusalem, which was supposed to possess miraculous virtues. The journey was commenced in or about the year 1271, but, owing to innumerable and vexatious delays on the way, the Polos did not reach the court of the grand khan until the spring of 1275. They were more than three years in making the journey, but in spite of difficulties and dangers these remarkable men persisted until the object of their travels was accomplished. The friars had become alarmed at the prospect of peril to themselves, and early in the undertaking beat a retreat to Acre, so the three Venetians alone arrived at Chambalu, and delivered to the grand khan the letters and presents from the pope. They were received with extreme cordiality by the khan, who was especially pleased with young Marco, and accepted the presents with delight, the holy oil from Jerusalem being reverently cherished.

Marco was introduced to the khan by Nicolo, as "your majesty's servant and my son"; but had he been a son of the ruler himself he could not have received greater honors than were bestowed upon him by the emperor. Having a natural aptitude for acquiring languages, he soon could read and write four different dialects, and being possessed of great intelligence and shrewdness withal, he was sent by the khan on important missions to various parts of his kingdom. He acquitted himself so well on these embassies, some of which required his absence from the capital for many months, and he brought back such interesting accounts of the people he met and their customs, that he was constantly employed.

In this manner he acquired, during many years of service in high positions, a most intimate acquaintance with the khan's dominions, and became immensely rich. His father and uncle shared wealth and honors with him, for they likewise were congenially employed; but the time came at last when their desire to revisit Venice became too strong to resist. They craved the khan's permission to depart; but when the old monarch heard their request he flew into a passion, declaring that he would never allow them to go. They should remain with him and become the richest men in the world.

Marco was sent off on another mission, this time by sea, and, discovering that there was direct communication between Cathay and the Indies, he entreated the khan to allow the Polos to go on a voyage, promising faithfully that they would return after a short stay with their friends in Venice. The old khan gave his consent reluctantly, overwhelming them with gifts at their departure, among other things giving them a tablet of gold, on which were engraved his orders to all the subjects in his vast dominions to provide guides, escorts, pilots—every convenience for their voyage and journey—without cost. He also authorized them to serve as his ambassadors to the pope and other European potentates, presented them with many precious stones, including rubies of great value, and money enough to defray their expenses for at least two years. From all this it will be seen that the grand khan was a very munificent prince, whose deeds must have made a lasting impression upon the minds of the generation in which he lived.

Fourteen large vessels were contained in the fleet he furnished the Polos, for with them was embarked, with a train of ambassadors, a noble maiden of Cathay who was to become the bride of a "king of the Indies" known as Argon. The voyage was so protracted that the king had died before she reached her destination, and whose bride she became was never known to the Polos, though they faithfully acquitted themselves of their charge, and then continued on towards the frontiers of Persia. Two years had been consumed in voyaging to Java, Sumatra, and along the coast of southern India. Three more elapsed before they finally reached their native city, in 1295, after an absence of nearly twenty-five years. Nobody in Venice knew them then, except by name, for Niccolo and his brother were advanced in age, and Marco had grown from a boy to manhood, while in their dress and manners they were more like Tartars than Venetians, and had almost completely lost their native speech.

Many of their former friends and relations were dead, and the survivors were at first inclined to denounce them as impostors, until the fertile imagination of Marco hit upon an expedient. They were invited to a magnificent banquet, at which the three Polos appeared arrayed in robes of crimson velvet, which, after their guests had arrived, they threw off and gave to their attendants. Then, after the last course was served, they produced from their queer Tartarian garments, which they ripped open for the purpose, precious gems by the handful, and displayed them to the astonished guests as their credentials.

They were promptly received into the best Venetian society, Maffei, the uncle, being appointed a magistrate, and Niccolo, the father, espousing a beautiful young lady. Such Polos as still bear the name—if there are any—must have descended from the children born of this second marriage, for though Marco himself took a wife, several years later, he left no male children to inherit the vast wealth that gave him the title, in Venice, of "Marco Millioni."

It was about three years after his return to Venice that Marco fell into the hands of the Genoese, and a little later that, as narrated, he wrote the story of his travels. His books abound in romantic adventures, and many, probably, that are fabulous; but that it stamped itself upon the times in which he lived and those of succeeding generations, has been shown already. Nearly two hundred years after the story was written, we find the Spaniards seeking the great island of Cipango, of which the following is Marco Polo's description:

"This is a very large island, fifteen hundred miles from the continent [of Asia]. The people are fair, handsome, and of agreeable manners. They are idolaters, and live quite separate from all other nations. Gold is very abundant, and no man being allowed to export it, while no merchant goes thence to the main-land, the people accumulate a vast amount. But I, Marco Polo, will give you a wonderful account of a very large palace all covered with that metal, as our churches are with lead. The pavements of its court, the halls, windows, and every other part, have it laid on two inches thick, so that the riches of this palace are incalculable. Here are also pearls, large and of equal value with the white, with many other precious stones.

"Kublai, on hearing of this amazing wealth, desired to conquer the island, and sent two of his barons with a very large fleet containing warriors, both horsemen and on foot. They sailed from Zaitun and Quinsai, reached the isle, landed, and took possession of the plain and of a number of houses; but they were unable to take any city or castle, when a sad misadventure occurred. A storm threatened and some of the troops were embarked; but about thirty thousand were left upon a small and barren island by the sailing of the ships. The sovereign and the people of the larger island rejoiced greatly when they saw the host thus scattered and many of them cast upon the islet. As soon as the sea calmed they assembled a great number of ships, sailed thither and landed, hoping to capture all those refugees. But when the latter saw that their enemies had disembarked, leaving the vessels unguarded, they skilfully retreated to another quarter and continued moving about till they reached the ships, when they went aboard without any opposition. They then sailed direct for the principal island, where they hoisted its own standards and ensigns.

"On seeing these, the people believed their own countrymen had returned, and allowed them to enter the city. Finding it defended only by old men, the Tartars soon drove them out, retaining the women as slaves. When the king and his warriors saw themselves thus deceived and their city captured, they were like to die of grief; but they assembled other ships, and invested it so closely as to prevent all communication. The Tartars maintained themselves thus seven months, and planned day and night how they might convey tidings to their master of their condition; but finding this impossible, they agreed with the besiegers to surrender, securing only their lives. This took place in the year 1269.

"The grand khan ordered one of the commanders of the host that had returned to lose his head, and the other to be sent to the isle where he had caused the loss of so many men, and there put to death. I have to relate, also, a very wonderful thing: that these two barons took a number of persons in a castle of Cipango, and because they had refused to surrender ordered all their heads to be cut off. But there were eight on whom they could not execute this sentence, because these wore consecrated stones in their arms, between the skin and the flesh, which so enchanted them that they could not die by steel. They were therefore beaten to death with clubs, and the stones, being extracted, were held very precious. But I must leave this matter and go on with the narrative."


[6] The first printing-press in America was set up in Mexico in 1535, the first book printed on it was probably La Escala de San Juan Climaco, date 1536, and the first printer was Juan Pablos. The oldest existing example of this first Mexican printing is said to be the Manual de Adultos, bearing date 1540.




Before we revert to the real hero of this biography, let us seek to identify the various names we find in Marco Polo's book, and in Toscanelli's letter to Columbus, with the objects to which they were applied. We will imagine ourselves with the first-named in far Cathay, with the second in his library at Florence, and with the third as he gropes his way along the shores of islands for the first time then revealed to European eyes.

If Columbus had known—what we now know—that thousands of miles intervened between the places he was seeking and those to which he misapplied their names, he would not have died in the belief that he had discovered a new way to the Old World. To anticipate a little what will be revealed later in the unfolding of this story: it was Amerigo Vespucci, and not Columbus, who first applied to this newly discovered hemisphere the title Mundus Novus, or New World. However, we will not discuss that question now, but merely remark that Cathay was identical with northern China, while Mangi was the southern territory of that vast empire which, in Marco Polo's time, was in possession of Kublai Khan. Chambalu, or Peking, was its capital, while the "most noble and vast city of Quinsay," or Cansay, is the ancient King-sze connected with Peking by the grand canal.

The large island of Cipango, or Zipangu, outlying upon the coast of Cathay, was probably Japan, or Formosa; though its golden-tiled temples may never have been seen by the Polos, nor its red pearls have come into their hands. Forty years after Columbus began his vain search, Pizarro found and plundered the gold-plated temples of Cuzco, which were as rich as any described by Marco Polo in his account of Cipango; and in the Bahamas archipelago, through which the Spaniards passed in the voyage of 1492, precious pink pearls have been discovered in great numbers and of surpassing beauty.

Vasco da Gama, in 1497, was to open the way by water to the vast Oriental seas—to Calicut and Cathay—but until the last quarter of the fifteenth century the commerce of the eastern hemisphere depended mainly upon transportation by land. "Voyages of much extent were almost unknown, and the mariner confined himself to inland waters, or hovered along the shores of the great Western Ocean, without venturing out of sight of land.... The thriving republics of Italy were the carriers of the world. For many centuries their citizens were almost the only agents for commercial communication with the countries of the East. Venice and Genoa maintained establishments on the farthest shores of the Mediterranean and Black seas.

"Immense caravans crossed the deserts of Arabia and Egypt, their camels laden with the costly fabrics of the Indies, which were received by the Italian traders from the hands of the Mahometans and distributed over Europe. Here and there upon the deserts a green oasis, with its bubbling spring or rippling rivulet, served these mighty trains for a resting-place, where man and beast halted to recover from the fatigues of their weary journeys. Occasionally, on these spots where the soil was of sufficient fertility to sustain a population, villages grew up. In rarer instances and in earlier ages, large cities had been built upon these stopping-places and were for the time the centres of the traffic.... Travellers of the present day occasionally visit their sites, and tell wonderful tales of the gigantic ruins of some Baalbec or Palmyra of the wilderness.

"It was not to be supposed that the shrewd spirit of mercantile enterprise and speculation would remain dormant in this state of affairs. Traders in every part of Europe were alive to the advantages to be derived from the discovery of a new route of transportation. Several efforts were made, and in some cases attended with immense profit and success, to communicate with India by the long and arduous journey round the Black Sea, and through the almost unexplored regions of Circassia and Georgia. The far-off shores of the Caspian were reached by some travelling traders, and the geographical knowledge they circulated on their return gave a new impulse to the growing spirit of adventure. Apocryphal as the narratives of Marco Polo and Mandeville appeared, there was a sufficient mixture of truth with exaggeration to stimulate the minds of men, ever greedy of gain, and the endless wealth of the grand khan and his people were the subjects of many eager and longing anticipations."[7]

The Polos were merely the forerunners, the pioneers, to the far Cathay, and in the fourteenth century missionaries and merchants followed on their trail with varying success. The death of Kublai Khan had relieved them from their obligation to return; but soon after they had reached Venice, in 1295, a Franciscan monk, John of Monte Corvino, penetrated to Chambalu and established missions there. In the year 1338 an ambassador arrived at Avignon from the then reigning Khan of Cathay, and in return John de Marignoli, a Florentine, was sent to the court at Chambalu, where he remained four years as legate of the holy see. Commercial travellers followed after them, and about 1340 a guide-book was written by another Florentine, Francesco Pelotti, who was a clerk in the great trading-house of Bardi, or Berardi, with which, at a later date, Amerigo Vespucci was connected in Spain.

"When the throne of the degenerate descendants of Ghengis Khan began to totter to its fall, missions and merchants alike disappeared from the field. Islam, with all its jealousies and exclusiveness, had recovered its grasp over Central Asia. Night again descended upon the farther East, covering Cathay, with those cities of which the old travellers had told such marvels, Chambalu and Cansay, Zaitun and Chinkalan. And when the veil rose before the Portuguese and Spanish explorers of the sixteenth century those names were heard of no more....

"But for a long time all but a sagacious few continued to regard Cathay as a region distinct from any of the new-found Indies; while map-makers, well on into the seventeenth century, continued to represent it as a great country lying entirely to the north of China and stretching to the Arctic Sea. It was Cathay, with its outlying island of Zipangu, that Columbus sought to reach by sailing westward, penetrated as he was by his intense conviction of the smallness of the earth and of the vast extension of Asia to the eastward. To the day of his death he was full of the imagination of the proximity of the domain of the grand khan to the islands and coasts which he had discovered. And such imaginations are curiously embodied in some maps of the early sixteenth century, which intermingle on the same coast-line the new discoveries, from Labrador to Brazil, with the provinces and rivers of Marco Polo's Cathay."[8]

Having shown the state of European geographical knowledge in the fifteenth century, in the hope thereby of throwing light upon the conditions which surrounded Vespucci at the time, we will now follow as closely as possible the career which was then opening before him. He was, as we have stated, keenly alive to what was taking place in the world around him, and especially interested in geographical discoveries. Although it is not likely that he had an abundance of ready money, having been so many years engaged in preparation for his great pursuit, without immediate recompense of any sort, yet we learn from the records of his life that he was already making a collection of all the charts, maps, and globes that he could find. He had assembled the best works of the most distinguished projectors, and for one of the finest then available, "a map of sea and land," made in 1439 by one Gabriel de Valesca, he paid the large sum of one hundred and thirty ducats, equivalent to more than five hundred dollars at the present day. There was danger then, his parents and friends thought, of the abstruse and unprofitable science of cosmography absorbing him entirely; but, though he may have indulged in the hope of devoting his life to the studies which had so enriched the mind of his friend Toscanelli, he was rudely awakened from his day-dream by a family catastrophe.

Mention has been made of one of his brothers, Girolamo, who, about the year 1480, left home and went to Asia Minor, including in his travels a trip to Palestine. He finally established himself in one of the Grecian cities, and, being of a hopeful turn, sent for and obtained the greater portion of his father's money, with which he engaged in trade. All went well for a time, and the Vespuccis congratulated themselves upon having a son of the family finally embarked on the full tide of commercial prosperity.

Nine years went by, and nothing but good news came from the absent Girolamo; but one day, in 1489, disastrous tidings arrived. A Florentine pilgrim, returning from a pious visit to the holy sepulchre in Jerusalem, brought Amerigo a letter from his brother. It was dated July 24th, and contained information to the effect that while Girolamo was attending religious services at a convent in his neighborhood his house was broken open and robbed. "At one fell swoop," he wrote, he had been deprived of all his earnings during those nine years of toil, besides the money his father had sent him, which represented the accumulations of a lifetime.

He did not explain how his entire capital was in cash at the time, when he was supposed to be in trade; but even if derelict, he was too far away to be sought out and his story investigated, so the loss was accepted by the family as an indication that Providence was not inclined to smile upon the substitution of the eldest for the youngest son as a retriever of the Vespucci fortunes. All looked now towards Amerigo to take up the distasteful business of money-making, for which he had been so long in training, but which hitherto he had so successfully evaded. In sorrow, it is said, but without a murmur, he turned his back upon his maps, globes, books, and astrolabes and faced the situation manfully.

A position had long been open to him with the great trading-house of Lorenzo de Medici, who was own cousin to the world-famous Lorenzo the Magnificent, and he had only to apply in order to receive it. For the Medici well knew the value of men—good and faithful men—trained, as Amerigo was, in the diplomacy as well as the routine of commercial life in that age. They needed just such a man as he in their foreign agency, and bidding farewell to his family he set sail from Leghorn for the Spanish city of Barcelona.

The Iberian peninsula afforded at that time a most attractive field for commercial as well as military adventure. The protracted wars with the Moors, which had been carried on for generations, were drawing to a close, but they had taken thither many a man athirst for glory, and the demand for supplies gave the merchants great opportunities for profits. The commerce of that day was, as we have seen, mainly in the hands of Italian merchants, and as early as 1486 the Florentine trader, Juan Berardi, obtained a safe conduct from Barcelona to Seville, where, a few years later, we find Amerigo busily engaged in outfitting vessels for the Spanish voyages of discovery.

It was in the year 1490, or 1491, that Amerigo Vespucci went to Spain, accompanied by his nephew Giovanni, and several other young Florentines, who were placed in his charge by their parents that they might receive the benefit of his experience and the advantages of foreign travel. Giovanni, or Juan, was greatly attached to his uncle, and subsequently went with him on his voyages to America. Many years later the historian, Peter Martyr, wrote of him: "Young Vespucius is one to whom Americus, his uncle, left the exact knowledge of the mariner's faculties, as it were by inheritance, after his death, for he is a very expert master in the knowledge of the compass and the elevation of the pole star by the quadrant. He is my particular friend, a witty young man in whose company I take great pleasure, and therefore have him often for my guest."

Whether Giovanni was associated with Amerigo in business is not exactly known, nor can we tell just when the latter removed from Barcelona into southern Spain; but there is a letter extant, written at Cadiz in 1492, signed jointly by himself and a young Florentine, Donato Nicollini, as agents either of the Medici or the house of Berardi. The following extract was copied by his biographer, Bandidi, from this manuscript in Amerigo's handwriting:

"As it is necessary for one of us, either Amerigo or Donato, to proceed in a short time to Florence, we shall be able to give you better information on all points by word of mouth than can possibly be done by letter. As yet, it has been impossible to do anything respecting the freight of salt, for want of a vessel, as for some time past, we are sorry to say, no ship has arrived here which was not chartered. Be assured that if one arrives we shall be active for your interests.

"You will have learned from the elder Donato the good-fortune which has happened to his highness the king. Assuredly the most high God has given him His aid; but I cannot relate it in full. God preserve him many years—and us with him.

"There is nothing new to communicate. Christ preserve you.


"We date this January 30, 1492."

The last decade of the fifteenth century, which Amerigo was to pass chiefly in Spain, has been termed by historians the most important epoch in modern history. It was, admittedly, the most important for Spain, also for that country (then unknown) which her sailors were to discover and explore, and which was to receive the name of the Florentine merchant then living obscurely in Cadiz or Seville.

"The foreign intercourse of the country," says the renowned author of Ferdinand and Isabella, "was every day more widely extended. Her agents and consuls were to be found in all the ports of the Mediterranean and the Baltic. The Spanish mariner, instead of creeping along the beaten track of inland navigation, now struck boldly across the great Western Ocean. The new discoveries had converted the land trade with India into a sea trade, and the nations of the peninsula, which had hitherto lain remote from the great highways of commerce, now became the factors and carriers of Europe.

"The flourishing condition of the nation was seen in the wealth and population of its cities, the revenue of which, augmented in all to a surprising extent, had increased in some forty and even fifty fold beyond what they were at the commencement of Ferdinand and Isabella's reign: the ancient and lordly Toledo; Burgos, with its bustling industrious traders; Valladolid, sending forth thirty thousand warriors from its gates; Cordova, in the south, and the magnificent Granada, naturalizing in Europe the arts and luxuries of the East; Saragossa, 'the abundant,' as she was called from her fruitful territory; Valencia, 'the beautiful'; Barcelona, rivalling in independence and maritime enterprise the proudest of the Italian republics; Medina del Campo, whose fairs were already the great mart for the commercial exchanges of the peninsula; and Seville, the golden gate of the Indies, whose quays began to be thronged with merchants from the most distant countries of Europe."


[7] The Life and Voyages of Americus Vespucius, by C. Edwards Lester, 1845.

[8] Article, "China," in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.



1492 OR 1493

While we cannot affirm that Christopher Columbus and Vespucci were acquainted previous to the voyage which made America known to Europe, it is well established that Amerigo was in Spain when his favored rival sailed from Palos, in August, 1492, and also when he returned, in March, 1493. In the very month of January, 1492, in which Vespucci wrote the letter quoted in the previous chapter, Columbus and the Spanish sovereigns signed the "capitulation" that set forth the demands of the discoverer and the concessions of the king and queen. That paper was signed and sealed in the palace of the Alhambra, not far distant from Cadiz, and still nearer to Seville, whither Vespucci removed soon after. He may have been there when Columbus passed through the latter city on his way to Palos, Seville being in the direct route between Granada and the Rio Tinto; but if he then saw and conversed with him there is no record of the fact.

What must have been his feelings, though, when he learned of the transaction between Columbus and the sovereigns? Columbus had gained permission to make—what he himself was far better equipped for—a voyage across the Sea of Darkness, to the islands that lay on the route of Marco Polo's Cathay. And Columbus had merely corresponded with his master, Toscanelli, at whose feet he, Vespucci, had sat, and during days and hours discussed the problem that his rival was now going forth to solve!

While Vespucci plodded, almost hopelessly, at Cadiz and Seville, Columbus pushed forward preparations for his voyage, and finally set sail. Did not Amerigo, then, send a sigh after him and his caravels, and think regretfully of his maps, his charts, globes, and nautical instruments lying dusty and disused in Florence? They were more to him than anything else in the world. With their aid, and countenanced by royal favor, he might have been the fortunate one to adventure upon the ocean, and seek the unknown regions which he was positive lay there veiled from human sight. But he was pledged to repair the family fortune, he was committed to the interests of his employers, and even if the suggestion of embarking on a voyage of discovery came to him he could not entertain it for an instant. He could not then; but perhaps opportunity might yet offer, he thought, and so sent for his books, charts, and instruments, in order to perfect himself in cosmography and nautical science. He became so proficient that some years after he was appointed by King Ferdinand pilot-major of Spain, and even the charts that Columbus made were brought to him for correction or verification.

The months went by, spent by Columbus in "making history," by Vespucci in lading ships for others to sail in, and in the intervals of business poring over his books and charts. At last, in the spring of 1493, one day a courier came dashing into Seville with the news of Columbus's return, by way of Portugal, a letter having arrived from Lisbon addressed to the sovereigns, and another for Santangel, secretary to the king. Then Vespucci knew his opportunity had taken flight, for the New World had been discovered, the glory belonged to Columbus!

Soon after the return of the voyagers to Palos, he may have seen the triumphal procession led by Columbus to Barcelona, and probably had speech with him and with some of his sailors. He saw the six Indians who had been made captive in the islands and were brought to Seville, for they remained there some time while Columbus was awaiting orders from Barcelona. A letter from the sovereigns came at last, addressed to "Don Cristobal Colon, Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Viceroy of the Indies," which probably Amerigo himself perused—with what a sickening of heart may be imagined—for it contained a memorandum from the sovereigns referring to the equipment of a second expedition, and his firm received the contract. Vespucci was then connected with the house of Berardi (having left the employ of the Medici), either as contracting agent or partner. Whatever relation he stood in to the firm, it was a most responsible one, for to him was committed the furnishing of a large fleet without delay.

It was about the last of March, or early in April, that Columbus delivered to him the order from the king and queen, and then set out for Barcelona overland. He arrived there duly, to be received with almost royal honors, and meanwhile the house of Berardi, under the active supervision of Vespucci, was busy with the preparation of the fleet. Ships were sought and chartered; caravels built, bought, and repaired; munitions provided and crews of sailors assembled, which Vespucci was obliged to hold and keep together against the sailing of the squadron.

And what was the personal appearance of these two great navigators, thus so strangely brought into business relations, and whose fame in after times was to fill the world? Although there is no portrait existing of Columbus which we can affirm to be authentic, still verbal portraits have been left by his contemporaries which convey to us the impression that the "Admiral" was tall and stalwart, dignified in bearing, with fair complexion, blue eyes, and hair then silvery gray.

Amerigo Vespucci was his exact opposite, in superficial characteristics, for he was under rather than above the middle height, "thick-set and brawny," with a dark complexion, black hair mixed with gray, and flashing black eyes. An authentic portrait, painted at a later date, shows him with head nearly bald, encircled only by a fringe of hair, prominent cheek-bones, aquiline nose, a firm, sweet mouth, and without the thick black beard he wore when he first met Columbus. His temper was mild, while that of Columbus was hasty, though firmly controlled, save on a few occasions when, tried beyond measure, it burst its bounds and swept away all opposition. But both great men were courteous in speech, the dignified demeanor of Columbus commanding admiration, while the modesty of Vespucci won the friendship of all with whom he came in contact.

The following dialogue between the two, or the purport of it, is thought to have taken place soon after the return of Columbus from Barcelona, either at Cadiz or Seville. It was but natural that the two should meet, that they should exchange views and compare notes, for, while Columbus had made the great discovery—through having been the first to apply the theories of Toscanelli and the ancients—Vespucci had for many years been thinking on the subject, and had enjoyed the friendship of the physicist, whom both revered. Whether this conversation is apocryphal or not, at least it embodies the divergent views of the two, and does no violence to their sentiments, as can be shown by their writings. It is adapted from Lester's Americus Vespucius.

Having with him, it is believed, the charts and books from which he deduced his theories, Vespucci probably invited Columbus to his lodgings, where the two spent many an hour in good-natured controversy. Nearly twenty years had elapsed since the learned doctor sent the chart and letter to Columbus, and now the latter, with the laurels of the great "discovery" on his brow, was to engage in argument with the person best acquainted with his life-work—who had followed it from its very inception, and who was to enjoy its usufruct forever.

Let us try to imagine them within the walls of Vespucci's house—whether in golden Seville or crystal Cadiz cannot be told; but it is easy to find one like it to-day, for the architecture of neither city has changed much since that time. The house is of stone, with thick white walls and roof of tiles. The rooms are large and dreary, but open on a court, or Moorish patio, around which they are ranged, and where a fountain tinkles merrily. The floor of Vespucci's room is tiled and damp, the furniture is scanty, but in the centre of the apartment is a large and massive table, upon which are spread his charts, while a globe—perhaps one of Behaim's, recently constructed—stands in a corner.

The arrival of the distinguished stranger at Vespucci's modest lodgings causes a flutter of excitement, not only in the household, but in the street, which is lined with gaping citizens, anxious to see the new admiral, who has already taken on the dignities of his station, is costumed in velvet, wears a sword at his side, and is accompanied by a retinue of hired retainers. Vespucci, on the contrary, shows no ostentation in his garb, for he is but a man of business, and, entirely unconscious of any discrepancy in their apparel, conducts his guest to the room where lie his treasures.

To the credit of Columbus, it should be said, he sees in Vespucci only the man of science, the student, the cosmographer, and, with the gentle dignity inseparable from this man who had appeared before kings and at courts, he compliments his host upon his collection. They are soon in earnest consultation, scanning the sea-charts, quoting authorities, advancing theories, becoming so absorbed as to ignore the yawning hangers-on of the admiral's staff, who soon retire, one after another, leaving the two geographers alone.

Finally, Columbus says, looking up from the chart upon which he had been sketching the route of his voyage:

"It grieves me much, worthy Signor Vespucci, to learn from our friend the Signor Berardi that you do not estimate as I do the result of our recent navigation to the west. With your well-known skill in cosmography, I fear me, you combine more of doubt than would be becoming to a Christian navigator."

"Your excellency mistakes my views greatly, or has been misinformed of them," replies Vespucci, courteously. "Far from undervaluing the effect of the discoveries which your genius has accomplished, I am the rather disposed to place a greater estimate upon them than does the Admiral Colon himself. If I judged them in the light in which they are viewed by the most of those who hope to profit by them, then, indeed, the imputation would be just; but I look not to such things, and well I know that your own mind is above them."

"In that respect you only do me justice. If I look for gain in aught that I have undertaken, it is only that I may devote it to a holy purpose. Have I not, even within the last few days, recorded my solemn oath that I would, in the event of my prosperous arrival at the court of the grand khan—whom, by the favor of God, I hope to convert to the true faith—employ the riches I shall acquire in the equipment of a force of four thousand horse and fifty thousand foot, for the recovery of the holy sepulchre from the hands of the infidels? I am unwilling to think that your speech tends to the end of imputing to me mercenary motives; but wherein do we differ? Is not the way opened, and will not the intercourse I mean to establish with the pagan monarch contribute greatly to the purpose I keep ever in view? The holy father at Rome himself lends me encouragement in my undertaking, and regards with approbation my efforts to lead into the true Church so mighty a potentate."

"With all the deference that is due to your excellency's superior wisdom and experience, I would state that therein lies the very point of our difference. I deem it by no means certain that your ships have touched the territories of the grand khan at all, but rather land that has hitherto been alike unknown to him and to us. Thousands of leagues may yet intervene between that land and his dominions, whether of sea or earth remains to be discovered; and I judge in this wise as well from the accounts of cosmographers who have written on the subject, as from the description of the barbarous natives which you yourself have fallen in with in recent discoveries.

"The accounts of those who have penetrated to distant regions of the East lead us to understand that the subjects of the grand khan live in the midst of the most profuse wealth and luxury, and bedeck themselves with superfine garments, gold, and jewelry. These people, however, are wild and naked, little if any superior to the beasts, and cannot, I think, be in any wise connected with a monarch of such magnificence. My own thoughts carry me to the conviction that there exists near unto the lands you have visited an immense country, which may possibly belong to and be part of the grand khan's dominions, though I doubt if such be the case. Marco Polo himself speaks of an island lying far out in the ocean which washes the eastern shores of Asia—the great Cipango, abounding in riches and precious stones, which has never been subdued by the sovereign of Cathay, although he has made attempts to conquer it. This island I deem it necessary to discover, in the first place; then, even after it is circumnavigated or passed over—and the last may be the easier way—a voyage of long duration will still have to be accomplished before the empire of Cathay is reached. When I speak of a passage over this unknown island, I do so in view of its great extent, as I estimate it to be of such size that it might more properly be designated Terra Firma,[9] being, according to my calculations, as large as, if not larger than, the whole of Europe. And herein do I estimate most highly the worth of the discoveries which your excellency has made, and their importance to this realm, as it will now be comparatively easy to pass the lands you have fallen in with by sailing either in a more northerly or a more southerly direction, in either case striking the country I have in my mind."

"Nay, nay, good Signor Vespucci. I have the confidence in my heart that you are mistaken. I feel, indeed, persuaded, by the many and wonderful manifestations of divine Providence in my especial favor, that I am the chosen instrument of God in bringing to pass a great event: no less than the conversion of millions who are now existing in the darkness of paganism. I would, indeed, provide for the good of the poor natives we have already met, as well by building cities on their islands and cultivating their lands, as by the erection of churches and the establishment of Christian worship. But I would by no means forget the greater end in view—namely, that of bringing to bear upon the infidels the wealth and power of the vast kingdom of Cathay, that thus being encompassed, by the armies from Europe on the one side, and by the innumerable hosts of Asia on the other, they may be utterly destroyed, and the tomb of our Lord be again placed in the possession of the true believers.... In these things I marvel much at your incredulity, Signor Vespucci, seeing that you have often had opportunities of conversing with the learned physicist Paolo, your own countryman—peace to his ashes!—who in his lifetime so nearly coincided with me in opinion."

"I have, indeed, as your excellency observes, oftentimes disputed and argued with the venerable Toscanelli, and to him is due much of the little knowledge I have been able to acquire in cosmography and astronomy. But from him I also learned that the descriptions which are given by Marco Polo were considered by many wise men as not altogether beyond the reach of doubt. If, then, he is in error in some particulars, how shall we draw the line, and say wherein he speaks the truth of his own knowledge? And how could he know the distance which exists between Cathay and the western shores of Europe, save by hearsay, and the reports of mariners on that unknown shore, who themselves must have been falsifiers, as it is well known that not one of them has ever appeared here who might have estimated the distance? I cannot, then, think that we are so near to Cathay as your excellency supposes, and had much rather follow the opinion that you have possibly approached the shore that has been hitherto represented as inaccessible to mortals."

"You speak of the paradise, which so many sound and able divines assert to be still in existence on earth."

"I do, though not so firmly believing in the relation as they do. If there be such a place existing, as described by the learned St. Basil, methinks it must be near unto those balmy isles which you have discovered, so similar in climate and in verdancy."

"Such, in sooth, has often been my opinion, and I deem it not to be inconsistent with the other, which holds to the proximity of Cathay. Oh, that I might, through the grace of God and intercession of the saints, ever arrive at that blessed spot, where all is happiness and beauty; where the harmonious songs of birds ever fall gratefully on the ear; where the air is filled with the fragrance of flowers, and a perpetual spring, combining with its own beauties those of every other season of the year, continually prevails; where the limpid waters flow smoothly and gently, or gush forth in purest fountains; where all is suggestive of perennial youth, and decay and death are unknown!

"But I perceive, Signor, that you are incredulous, as to this region of bliss, and even smile at my belief. Remember, then, that herein I only follow the opinions of the wise and learned fathers of our Church, but that in regard to Cathay I am supported by ample proof, from the discoveries of travellers and the relations of cosmographers."

"I am ever willing to yield to proofs; but methinks that the foundation of the error under which your excellency seems to labor is this: that you do not make sufficient allowance for exaggeration in the accounts of the great traveller Marco Polo. It appears to me that he has deceived himself as to the extent to which he penetrated Cathay, and that he has thereby carried out the eastern coast too far into the ocean. That being so, the learned Paolo, my countryman, in following him, finds it necessary to shorten the extent of ocean which intervenes between Cathay and Europe, in order to render accurate his estimate of the circumference of the globe."

"I note your objections, but cannot deem them correct, and yet hope to deliver the letters of my sovereigns, with which I was charged in my recent voyage, to the grand khan in person. But let us examine this question of longitude, for therein I am interested deeply, and have small doubt that I can turn you to my opinions."

"Most gladly will I do so, most noble admiral, for I am strongly moved to tempt the ocean myself, in the hope of adding something to the knowledge of mariners."

Within four or five years from the conjectural date of this dialogue, Vespucci made his first voyage, and saw for himself some of those "isles of paradise" which had so charmed Columbus. This was either in the year 1497 or 1499, depending upon whether we accept his own statement or the opinion of those who have challenged the authenticity of his narrative.

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