Written by Marisa Garreffa
What is the deal with Amerigo Vespucci? The continent of America was named after this Florentine, though some people are confused as to why. Christopher Columbus had already been there, they say, so why name it after an obscure Italian man?
Let’s go back to the beginning. Vespucci was born in 1454 in Florence, the child of a notary for the money changers’ guild. Banking was his birthright, and he worked for Lorenzo de’ Medici and his brother Giovanni in their banks. It was the Medici who sent him to Seville in 1492 to work in one of the branches there, and that’s where he got into sailing and exploring. He was a good friend of Christopher Columbus, helping him to fit out one of his ships for a voyage, and there are some writings of Columbus where he mentions that he trusted Vespucci and held him in high esteem. They both loved exploring, but what made them different, is that Vespucci also loved writing. He would chronicle his travels and publish them widely, becoming very popular because his writing was entertaining as well as scholarly. It’s one of the reasons he, and not Columbus, got the continent named after him.
Columbus had been there first, but his mistake was in believing that the land was a part of Asia. Vespucci had doubts. He was pretty sure the land was a whole new continent, and off he went exploring. He made about four voyages, (though some say it’s only three), and he wrote about it widely, as we writers like to do. So here we arrive at a map maker named Martin Waldseemüller who was making a new world map in 1507. He’d read a whole bunch of Vespucci’s writing, and made the assumption that he had first discovered the continent (instead of Columbus). He used the Latin version of his first name, Amerigo became Americus, which was then feminised to America (because that’s what we do with foreign lands, right?), and the name was printed across a land mass that is our present-day Brazil.
So in a very roundabout way, the Medici had a small part to play in the naming of the continent of America. They were responsible for sending Vespucci to Seville, and that’s where he began his journey to becoming one of the most famous names in the world.