Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512) was a Florentine sailor, explorer and trader. He was one of the more colorful characters of the early age of discovery in the Americas and captained one of the first journeys to the New World. His lurid descriptions of the New World natives made his accounts extremely popular in Europe and as a result it is his name - Amerigo - which eventually would be modified into "America" and given to two continents.
Amerigo was born into a wealthy family of Florentine silk traders who had a princely estate near the city of Peretola. They were very prominent citizens of Florence and many Vespuccis held important offices. Young Amerigo received an excellent education and served for a time as a diplomat before settling in Spain just in time to witness the excitement of Columbus' first voyage. He decided that he, too, wanted to be an explorer.
The Alonso de Hojeda Expedition
In 1499, Vespucci joined the expedition of Alonso de Hojeda (also spelled Ojeda), a veteran of Columbus' second voyage. The 1499 expedition included four ships and was accompanied by well-known cosmographer and cartographer Juan de la Cosa, who had gone on Columbus' first two voyages. The expedition explored much of the northeastern coast of South America, including stops in Trinidad and Guyana. They also visited a tranquil bay and named it "Venezuela," or "Little Venice." The name stuck.
Like Columbus, Vespucci suspected that he may have been looking at the long-lost Garden of Eden, the Earthly Paradise. The expedition found some gold, pearls and emeralds and captured some slaves for sale, but still was not very profitable.
Return to the New World
Vespucci had earned a reputation as a skilled sailor and leader during his time with Hojeda, and he was able to convince the King of Portugal to finance a three-ship expedition in 1501. He had become convinced during his first trip that the lands he had seen were not, in fact, Asia, but something altogether new and previously unknown. The purpose of his 1501-1502 journey, therefore, became the location of a practical passage to Asia. He explored the eastern coast of South America, including much of Brazil, and may have gone as far as the Platte River in Argentina before returning to Europe.
On this journey, he became more convinced than ever that the recently discovered lands were something new: the coast of Brazil that he had explored was much too far to the south to be India. This put him at odds with Christopher Columbus, who insisted until his death that the lands he had discovered were, in fact, Asia. In Vespucci's letters to his friends and patrons he explained his new theories.
Fame and Celebrity
Vespucci's journey was not an extremely important one in relation to many of the others taking place at the time. Nevertheless, the seasoned navigator found himself something of a celebrity within a short time due to the publication of some letters he had allegedly written to his friend, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de Medici. Published under the name Mundus Novus ("New World") the letters became an immediate sensation. They included fairly direct (for the sixteenth century) descriptions of sexuality (naked women!) as well as the radical theory that the recently discovered lands were, in fact, new.
Mundus Novis was followed closely by a second publication, Quattuor Americi Vesputi Navigationes (Four Voyages of Amerigo Vespucci). Supposedly letters from Vespucci to Piero Soderini, a Florentine statesman, the publication describes four voyages (1497, 1499, 1501 and 1503) undertaken by Vespucci. Most historians believe some of the letters to be fakes: there is little other evidence that Vespucci even made the 1497 and 1503 journeys.
Whether some of the letters were fakes or not, the two books were immensely popular in Europe. Translated into several languages, they were passed around and discussed exhaustively. Vespucci became an instant celebrity and was asked to serve on the committee which advised the King of Spain about New World policy.