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Italian-born explorer who determined that the lands discovered by Columbus were part of a whole new continent, and for whom those lands were subsequently named
Amerigo Vespucci [veh spoo' chE] was born in Florence, Italy, in 1454. From the time he was a small boy he was very interested in astronomy and maps, and was very curious about the explorers of his day and their adventures. In 1491 he moved to Seville, Spain, where he became connected with a company that equipped ships for long voyages. Although his later letters indicate that he made voyages to the New World as early as 1497, there is no conclusive evidence for any such trip until 1499.
In 1499 and 1500, Vespucci took part in an expedition led by the Spanish explorer Alonso de Ojeda. It is not known for certain whether Vespucci was simply a "tourist" aboard one of the ships, a navigator, or a crewman, but the importance of the voyage itself is unquestioned. After he returned to Spain, Vespucci wrote a letter to Lorenzo di Pier Francesco de' Medici, the ruler of Florence, in which he provided details about his experiences along "the extreme limits of Asia." As he reviewed his notes, however, he came to realize that he had actually crossed the Line of Demarcation, made by Pope Alexander VI, and had actually seen lands not yet visited by Europeans.
In 1501 and 1502, and again in 1503 and 1504, Vespucci sailed with the fleet of Gonšalo Coelho, a Portuguese captain. Both of these expeditions explored the coast of South America, from Brazil to Tierra del Fuego.
Vespucci wrote another letter to Lorenzo in 1502, in which he made the claim that the lands discovered by Columbus were not in fact part of the Orient but a whole new continent. The letter was published in 1503 or 1504 under the title of Mundus Novus (New World). It became extremely popular and later was published in several editions and translations. The letter established Vespucci as a famous explorer, even though modern historians question the validity of many of Vespucci's claims of discovery.
Whether Vespucci exaggerated his claims of discovery or not, his name has become permanently linked to the Western Hemisphere, thanks to Martin Waldseemuller, a German map maker who was the first to use the name "America" in relation to the New World.
Vespucci became a Spanish citizen in 1505 and went to work for a government agency that regulated commerce with the New World. He served as chief navigator for the agency from 1508 until his death, at Seville, in 1512.
This page was last updated on 03/08/2017.