Amerigo Vespucci (1451-1512)

Letters from A New world: A Digital Edition
By Maura Elford and Rebecca Lush


(by Rebecca Lush)

Amerigo Vespucci left a lasting legacy in the Western Hemisphere; he has named after him two continents whose inhabitants typically identify themselves as some sort of "American." However, the historical figure of Vespucci remains controversial and rather poorly represented. Writings by some of Vespucci's contemporaries considered him a liar and usurper, while others viewed him as an important figure to the growing body of knowledge about the "New World." This scholarly debate has not abated and has continued over the years. English translations of Vespucci's works tend to provide antagonistic footnotes and other bibliographic "interruptions" to detract as much as possible from the authority of Vespucci, particularly in his writings about the New World in favor of other figures of exploration, namely Columbus. As recent scholarship seeks a more neutral editing role in works of Vespucci, allowing the letters to speak for themselves, this new digital edition also seeks to present the letters as clearly and objectively as possible.

Amerigo Vespucci was born on March 9, 1452 (or 1454) in Florence. The third of five children in a family of notaries, he did not have the privilege of attending a university like his eldest brother but still received a very impressive education. Vespucci first studied with his uncle Giorgio Antonio, a Dominican friar and well respected humanist who imparted a love of travel to his nephew as well as providing the foundations of a classical and elite humanist education. During his early twenties Vespucci traveled to Paris to serve as a personal secretary to his other notable uncle, Guido Antonio, from whom he received a significant political education. Vespucci worked in the Medici banking business for Pier Francesco de'Medici, cousin to Lorenzo the Magnificent; however, he was more than a mere employee as he became a member of the Medici household, and Pier Francesco's children looked upon him as a sort of "uncle." The privileged position within the Medici household afforded Vespucci the opportunity to meet various members of the Accademia, continuing his remarkable education.[1]

Vespucci first traveled to Seville in 1489 tending to banking affairs for the Medici but soon returned home to Florence. After his second journey to Seville in 1491 he established himself in various mercantile industries in Spain-never to return to his native Florence or Italy for the rest of his life.


In his writings, Vespucci claims to have gone on a total of four voyages; early scholars subscribed to a somewhat more conservative assessment of two voyages. However, recently scholars have re-evaluated the previous criticism against Vespucci and now lend credibility to the author's claim. He embarked on his first voyage in the May of 1497 when he was 43 years old, exploring Venezuela and Haiti. All his sailing knowledge was completely theoretical so it seems certain he sailed as an observer, not a captain or pilot. King Ferdinand of Spain commissioned this first voyage most likely to verify Columbus' reports, which at the time were facing criticism; therefore, this voyage would not have been a publicized journey leaving behind substantial records or other relevant documents. The Spanish crown commissioned Vespucci to undertake a second voyage in 1499-1500 which brought him to the Cape Verde islands, Venezuela and Brazil. In 1502 he journeyed again, this time on an expedition financed by King Manuel I of Portugal to Brazil and Patagonia. During this expedition he probably did briefly command a fleet, but the exact circumstances surrounding his navigation are debated. His fourth and final voyage, also under the Portuguese flag, was only to Brazil. Vespucci records in one of his letters that he wrote a detailed account of all his journeys entitled The 4 Voyages that he gave to the "Most Serene King," who never returned it.[2]

The veracity of Vespucci's letters has been questioned by scholars for centuries-beginning with the "campaign of character assassination" by the Spanish historian and Vespucci's contemporary Father Bartolomé de las Casas, setting the precedence for future Spanish historical scholarship.[3]

Bartolomé de las Casas portrays Vespucci as conceited and attempting to usurp Columbus' claim of discovery out of jealousy. Documentary evidence suggest that Vespucci and Columbus were friendly acquaintances, perhaps even confidantes, with little hint of competition between them despite their different interpretations of the newly charted territory.[4]

Those arguing against Vespucci also cite what they consider the conspicuous fact that his published letters never circulated in Spain or Portugal during his lifetime; an odd situation for the two countries that financed the voyages. Critics suggest that the author knew the "fiction" of his letters would be refuted in those countries.[5]

Critics also cite the literary flavor of Vespucci's letter to Soderini, particularly the manner in which the events become increasingly more dramatic. Critics however do not consider the extent of character defamation achieved by Bartolomé de las Casas in Spain preventing interest in Vespucci's publications, nor that the voyages for Ferdinand were never explicitly publicized.

This digital edition presents the two letters published in Vespucci's own lifetime; letters that were crucial to Europeans' understanding of the "discovery" of the "New World." The first document known as the Medici letter was written in March or April of 1503 to Pier Francesco de'Medici. Originally composed in Italian, or more precisely the Tuscan vernacular, this document was translated into Latin by a scribe identified in the colophon as Jocundus, thought to be a pseudonym for the Veronese humanist Fra Giovanni del Giocondo. This Latin translation was published as a separate volume entitled Mundus Novus and was extremely popular all across Europe. Unfortunately the original manuscript version no longer survives, nor any printed copy of the original Italian.[6]

The Latin version has over the years been retranslated back into Italian and other vernacular languages, and then back to Latin from that retranslation leading to numerous corruptions; therefore, the most authoritative version is the first Latin translation. The Latin was published within a year after its composition and shortly after the death of Pier Francesco, a factor thought to have increased the text's popularity, thus leading some textual historians to surmise that the original manuscript was read to pieces.

The second and longer letter to Piero Soderini, the Gonfaloniere of Florence,[7]

known as the Lettera, was also published soon after its composition, leading some scholars to speculate that Vespucci composed it with a reading public in mind.[8]

The vernacular was published in Florence in about 1505, but was succeeded by a Latin translation that remained more popular in print, perhaps owing to the prestige conferred on texts printed in Latin but also since it was more accessible as it was not confined to a regional dialect. The original letter no longer exists, but a few copies of the early Florentine edition do survive.[9]


The Latin version has been considered unreliable because of corruptions known to have occurred during the translation in Paris. The letter was translated from Tuscan into French; the French was then translated into Latin and conflated with other documents stored with Vespucci's materials. In 1507 the Soderini letter was published as part of Waldseemuller's Cosmographiae Introductio the text responsible for suggesting that the newly discovered territories should be named after Vespucci since he was the first to recognize this geographic region as distinct from Asia, as Columbus erroneously believed his entire life, leading the Florentine to coin the term "New World." The issue of naming the New World after Vepuscci was the main point of contention from Bartolome de la Casas, an assertion made without Vespucci's approval.

This edition of Vespucci is presented in a digital format in hopes of creating easy accessibility to important source documents of the Early Modern period. Many primary source texts of the early modern period are not readily available to interested readers and researchers and our hope through this digital edition is to provide greater accessibility to important writings and thoughts about the Americas. This work has been formatted with XML encoding to allow for greater inter-textual searching capabilities to further assist readers. Although by no means a critical edition, it is hoped that this edition will provide as clear and readable a version of Vespucci as possible verified by comparison with the earliest vernacular printing of the text. To aide in readability annotations have been added that provide not only textual information but clarify historical concepts whenever appropriate. Presenting the letters in an English translation contributes to the goal of rendering a reader's edition. To provide a clear and objective presentation of Vespucci we used an eclectic editing method as this was the only way to present the most accurate content of the letters when working within the confines of translation. This eclectic edition integrates textual components from varying editions, however due to translation issues does not uniquely fit the definition of a traditional eclectic text. Since this edition does not use the earliest printed version or have the luxury of using the original manuscripts to account for accidentals this component of textual accuracy cannot be determined. Also since the text was collated from English translations the accidentals obviously changed in this process. Every English translation divides paragraphs and combines sentences in different ways, and when compared to the body of the text from the Italian facsimile seems to be a result of accidentals created by the translators. Since the concept of paragraphing during the Renaissance was mainly for aesthetic considerations this is less of an issue, therefore, the paragraphing and other accidentals in the this edition appear as in the text translated by Markham.

This edition primarily represents the text of the translation as completed by Clements R. Markham in 1894 on behalf of the Hakluyt Society of London. Markham's edition was produced in response to an increased interest in the early exploration of the Americas due to the 400th anniversary of Columbus' discovery but also to a recent text that sought to rehabilitate Vespucci's reputation.[10]

The Hakluyt Society states that their mission with Markham's translation is to allow readers to decide for themselves the veracity of Vespucci's writings; however, Markham's introduction and editorial decisions combine to create an edition of Vespucci that attempts to discredit the Florentine whenever possible and to elevate the role of Columbus. The selection of Markham's edition as the copy-text is primarily based on copyright restrictions which limit this project to works in the public domain but it should be noted that Markham's translation is more readable than earlier English translations from the nineteenth century, especially those completed by C.E. Lester. Markham's British spellings have not been changed to reflect standard American English since they do not interfere with meaning of the text.

Markham's edition presents Vespucci's two famous letters in a very disjointed manner, frequently interrupting passages with "evidence" from Vespucci's contemporaries-and of course this evidence is meant to directly contradict what has just been accounted by Vespucci himself. Markham also places the Medici letter as a subset within the Soderini letter again giving a discontinuous reading. This edition removes the Medici letter from the middle of the Soderini letter and places it at the beginning of the document as this letter was composed and printed first. The Soderini letter has been restructured to reflect the original order of the letter restoring coherence to this document as the interrupting documents tended towards distorting Vespucci's words. As a result the evidence by Alonso de Hojeda, which Markham included at the end of the second voyage of the Soderini letter, has been removed.


To verify the accuracy of the translation, this text was compared with the English translation of the 1505 Florentine edition. The original printing of the Soderini letter was this Florentine edition that was reproduced in facsimile form with an accompanying English translation in 1893 in England, again in response to a heightened interest in New World exploration. The translator unfortunately has not been documented but the translation is rendered without interrupting evidence and the edition in general does not present an agenda to discredit Vespucci. As Markham does not provide his source texts, determining what documents he translated from proved difficult, but after consulting various English translations of the Soderini letter completed during the nineteenth century it seems likely that Markham chose the Latin as his source text, as can most verifiably be determined by his preference for the "Pariah" reading over the known Tuscan version of "Lariab" in the first voyage. However, Markham does footnote this inconsistency so it seems he may have consulted both Latin and Italian versions, but with more deference given to the former.[11]

Where variants were found the actual Italian facsimile was consulted and the text amended to reflect the reading that appears in the translation of the 1505 Italian edition with the original wording from Markham footnoted. In consideration of the letter's textual history described above, the 1505 Florentine edition appears to be the most reliable (and most direct) translation of Vespucci's original manuscript therefore this version was chosen for inconsistencies since the Markham edition is filtered through various translations. Of particular note, the English translations from Latin editions have a more conservative relation of details regarding the appearance of the Native women, whereas the Florentine edition provides a much more complete account of these aspects, suggesting that the Latin translation also suppressed "troublesome" material.

Markham's annotations have been removed as these were not an inherent part of the document as written by Vespucci. Also as Markham's notes tend to be antagonistic towards the text they did not contribute to our editorial aim of an objective rendering of Vespucci. Additionally, there were some concerns about the reliability of the information provided in Markham's notes, particularly in light of errors in the biographical information about Vespucci in the introduction, especially regarding Pier Francesco de'Medici's place on the Medici family tree.[12]

Some of the aesthetic features of this text have been lost in making a digital edition, particularly the star diagrams Vespucci included in his works. In the Medici letter there are three diagrams; two represent constellations, and in this transcription the diagrams have been approximated from their appearance in the Markham edition.[13]

The third diagram, however, depicts a labeled right triangle, and could not be replicated; a bracketed note indicates the point in the text where this diagram would have appeared. These diagrams should be viewed as an essential component of the text that is limited by translation to a digital format.[14]

The right triangle diagram is described in some detail within the body of the text, a small compensation for the necessary deletion of this bibliographic code. Although the truth of the events Vespucci recounts in his letters can never be accurately verified our hope with this edition is to provide modern readers with a sense of what early modern Europeans believed or read at this moment in history; his writings stand as a cultural artifact that provides modern readers some insight into the earliest impressions and thoughts about the Americas. As the state of Vespucci scholarship evolves and confirms and negates new aspects of his character and writings, the impact his very popular and published letter had on his first readers will never be revoked and the content of the document should be approached as such.


Source Text:

Vespucci, Amerigo. The Letters of Amerigo Vespucci and other documents illustrative of his career. Trans. Clements R. Markham. Hakluyt Society, 1894. New York: Burt Franklin, 1966.



[1] See the comprehensive bibliography: Germán Arciniegas. Why America? 500 Years of a Name: The Life and Times of Amerigo Vespucci. Trans. Harriet de Onís. Bogotá: Villegas Editores, 2002.

[2] Presumably King Manuel I of Portugal. Germán Arciniegas. Why America?, p. 366.

[3]Arciniegas, 16.

[4] Vespucci correctly identified the "discovery" as previously unknown territories; Columbus continued to believe he had visited part of Asia. The document particularly in question is one of the last letters written by Columbus to his son. See also Arciniegas, 17.

[5] See C.R. Markham's introduction to his translation of Vespucci's letter discussed later in this essay.

[6] There is no evidence that the Medici letter was ever published in its original language.

[7] The printed versions did not explicitly state Soderini's name, perhaps since it would strain the writer's longstanding relationship with the Medici.

[8] Some scholars include the Medici letter also as a public document masquerading as a private letter.

[9] Five copies are known to still exist, including the one at the Huntington library.

[10] See M.F. de Varnhagen's book: Amerigo Vespucci, son caractère, ses écrits (meme les moins authentiques), sa vie, et ses navigations.

[11] The translator of this edition is not named within the document.

[12] Markham's refers to him as the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Lorenzo had a grandson named Pier Francesco but not a son. In fact the Pier Francesco de'Medici of Vespucci's letters is of the Popolani branch of the Medici family making him a cousin of "il Magnifico."

[13] Currently, rendering the diagrams has presented an XML encoding problem that will soon be resolved.

[14] Vespucci claims to have written at length about his astronomical observations in the now lost The 4 Voyages.

EADA Entries:

The Letters of Amerigo Vespucci