This is a striking portrait of Amerigo Vespucci, from John Ogilby’s America, one of the seminal English language works on the New World from the 17th Century. Like other portraits in the atlas, Vespucci is depicted surrounded by the tools of the explorer. A celestial globe appears above and a ship, presumably from his apocryphal voyage, over his shoulder. The imagery is richly embellished. Although the portrait has been credited to Ogilby, his 1671 atlas is, with little exception, a direct copy of Arnoldus Montanus’s “Die Nieuwe en onbekende Weereld. . .” which was produced in Amsterdam earlier the same year. Considered the first encyclopedias of the Americas, both texts are richly illustrated with maps, views and portraits.
For 500 years a controversy has raged around Amerigo Vespucci. He has been presented as a thief who robbed Columbus of his rightful glory, starting with Father Las Casas. According to G. Arciniegas, this is due to the fact that in his views Columbus was very close to the medieval thinking of Las Casas, while in contrast, Amerigo represented the living culture of the Renaissance. Arciniegas continues that Columbus’s concepts were imperial, for instance for him the natives were good only to be slaves. Amerigo, on the other hand, set afoot a concept that was a forerunner of the idea of independence: the term New World diminished the force of empire. It never occurred to anyone, even Las Casas, to suggest the new continent to be named for Columbus, on the contrary, Spain wanted to keep the denomination Indies that Columbus had given to his discovery. What is the truth? Two letters attributed to Vespucci were published during his lifetime. Mundus Novus (New World) described a voyage to South America in 1501-1502 and was soon reprinted and distributed in numerous European countries.The Lettera al Soderini was printed in 1504 or 1505 and claimed to be an account of four voyages to the Americas made by Vespucci between 1497 and 1504. Some have suggested that he was exaggerating his role and constructed deliberate fabrications. However, many scholars now believe that the two letters were not written by him but were fabrications by others based in part on genuine letters by Vespucci. It was the publication and widespread circulation of the letters that might have led Martin Waldseemüller to name the new continent America on his world map of 1507. Vespucci’s real historical importance may well rest more in his letters, whether he wrote them all or not, than in his discoveries. From these letters, the European public learned about the newly discovered continents of the Americas for the first time; its existence became generally known throughout Europe within a few years of the letters’ publication.
From top to bottom, original maps of the voyages of Amerigo Vespucci, created by Nij Tontisirin and Boris Michev, Olin Library Map Collection.