Having discussed Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, and the traces these great navigators have left in Genoa and Venice, our tour of the “land of explorers” ends with a closer look at Amerigo Vespucci’s origins and presence in the city of Firenze. Unlike the two ancient Maritime Republics we have already dealt with, Florence is almost 100 kilometers away from the nearest sea.
Nonetheless, during its long history the place gave birth to many important seamen, such as Vespucci himself or Giovanni da Verrazzano, who discovered the New York Bay and Cape Cod – among other locations – in 1524. It is surely no surprise that the Florentine people are now willing to open a Museum of Tuscan Navigators inside the former residence of the Vespucci family.
Amerigo Vespucci was an explorer, an observer and a cartographer
Amerigo – or the “Man Who Gave His Name to America”, as he has been called (the continent being named after Americus, the Latin version of his first name) – was born here in Florence in 1454. According to tradition, his family had originated in Peretola, a suburb of the city which was then a village of its own: no wonder this district hosts their oldest home and the Amerigo Vespucci Airport. Anyway, the family had soon enough begun to buy some property in central Florence’s Borgo Ognissanti, in whose environs a bridge and the Arno riverfront are now entitled to the famous explorer.
The whole area, in fact, has long been associated with the Vespucci: already in 1382 a rich member of the family had funded the construction of the hospital of Santa Maria dell’Umiltà, to be erected just next to the main entrance of Palazzo Vespucci, arguably Amerigo’s birthplace (in the early 18th century both buildings were incorporated in the greater hospital of San Giovanni di Dio). Most notably, however, Vespucci’s family was responsible for the subsidy of the church of San Salvatore di Ognissanti (St. Savior of All Saints), where they also had their own chapel, majestically frescoed by Domenico Ghirlandaio: whereas the man by the name of Amerigo Vespucci hereby buried is in fact just an ancestor of the famous navigator, a portrait of the young explorer is said to be present in Ghirlandaio’s remarkable Madonna della Misericordia.
On the contrary, only a vague trace of Vespucci still remains in the so-called Palazzo Incontri in via de’ Servi
Differently from Cabot and Columbus, Amerigo descended from a wealthy family of notaries. In addition, he also received a very good education from his uncle Giorgio Antonio, a friar in the Convent of San Marco. Working as a merchant in the Renaissance City, Vespucci then connected with Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, cousin to the powerful Lorenzo il Magnifico (“the Magnificent”), at the time Lord of Florence: it was precisely on behalf of the House of Medici that young Amerigo was first sent to Paris as a diplomat, and then – just before the temporary fall of the Florentine ruling family in 1494 – he was commissioned to work in the Spanish branch of the Bank of Medici in Seville, where he also got to know Columbus.
Borgo Ognissanti in central Florence where Amerigo was born
By the last years of the 15th century, Vespucci had managed to join both Spanish and Portuguese expeditions to the “West Indies” as an observer and cartographer. During his four journeys there he happened to invent the names for Venezuela (a place which looked like a “Little Venice” to him) and the present-day Brazilian region of Bahia, whose bay Amerigo called All Saints’ Bay in honor of his native neighborhood. These voyages became particularly well-known because of Vespucci’s vivid accounts, making him the first person to describe the continent as a “New World” that was not Asia at all: of particular importance, in this regard, was his letter to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, published and spread across Europe with the name of Mundus Novus (New World).
Amerigo’s fame just grew to such an extent that it was not long before the local people decided to pay him homage: as a notable Florentine, a statue of him was included in the Loggiato degli Uffizi (Uffizi Gallery courtyard), while a bust was added to the peculiar facade of the Palazzo dei Visacci (Valori-Altoviti Palace) in Borgo degli Albizi. On the contrary, only a vague trace of Vespucci still remains in the so-called Palazzo Incontri in via de’ Servi, a family palace for which Sandro Botticelli himself had been commissioned to realize two panels, The Story of Lucrezia and The Story of Virginia.
Just as it was the case with Columbus and the Cabots, though, Amerigo’s name continues to resonate well beyond the boundaries of his hometown. There is indeed an old house in the little hamlet of Montefioralle – not much far from Greve in Chianti, a town 30 kilometers south of Florence – which some consider the real birthplace of the great explorer: as it appears, the Vespucci family used to reside in the local castle and their last descendant was buried there.