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Frederick A. Ober

Amerigo's Friends and Teachers


Florence, in Vespucci's day, was the home of genius, of culture, and of art. Amerigo, doubtless, was acquainted with some of her sons whose fame, like his own, has endured to the present day, and will last for all time. The great Michael Angelo, who was born at or near Florence in 1475, and whose patron was Lorenzo the Magnificent, was his contemporary, although the artist and sculptor survived the discoverer more than fifty years. Savonarola, who came to Florence in 1482, was just a year the junior of Amerigo, and is said to have been an intimate friend of his uncle, who, like himself, belonged to the Dominican order. The young man may not have been touched by Buonarroti's art, nor have been moved by Savonarola's preaching, but, like the former, he possessed an artistic temperament, and, like the latter, he was an enthusiast.

The man, however, who, next to his uncle, shaped Amerigo's career and turned him from trade to exploration, was a learned Florentine named Toscanelli. If you have followed the fortunes of Christopher Columbus, reader, you have seen this name before, for it was Toscanelli who, in the year 1474, sent a letter and a chart to the so-called discoverer of America, which confirmed him in the impression that a route to India lay westward from Europe across the "Sea of Darkness."

It is not known just when Amerigo first met "Paul the Physicist," as Toscanelli was called in Florence; but it may have been in youth or early manhood, for aside from the fact that "all the world" knew and reverenced the famous savant, there was the inclination arising from a mutual interest in cosmography and astronomy. Toscanelli was the foremost scientist of his age, and as he was born in 1397, at the time Amerigo met him he must have been a venerable man. He lived, however, until the year 1482, and as the younger man was in Florence during the first forty years of his life, and the last thirty of Toscanelli's, it is more than probable that their intercourse was long and friendly.

It is known, at least, that they were acquainted at the time the learned doctor wrote Columbus, in 1474, and it does not require a stretch of the imagination to fancy them together, and wondering what effect that letter would have upon a man who entertained views similar to their own. Columbus, it is thought, had then been pondering several years over the possible discovery of land, presumably the eastern coast of India, by sailing westward. "It was in the year 1474," writes a modern historian, "that he had some correspondence with the Italian savant, Toscanelli, regarding this discovery of land. A belief in such a discovery was a natural corollary to the object which Prince Henry of Portugal had in view by circumnavigating Africa, in order to find a way to the countries of which Marco Polo had given golden accounts. It was, in brief, to substitute for the tedious indirection of the African route a direct western passage—a belief in the practicability of which was drawn from a confidence in the sphericity of the earth."

Later in life Columbus seems to have forgotten his indebtedness to Toscanelli, and "grew to imagine that he had been independent of the influences of his time," ascribing his great discovery to the inspiration of one chosen to accomplish the prophecy of Isaiah. But the venerable Florentine had pondered the problem many years before Columbus thought of it. "Some Italian writers even go to the extent of asserting that the idea of a western passage to India originated with Toscanelli, before it entered the mind of Columbus; and it is highly probable that this was the case."

There is this in favor of Toscanelli: He was a learned man, while Columbus was comparatively ignorant. He was then advanced in years, and had given the greater portion of his life to the consideration of just such questions, having had his attention called to them by reading the travels of Marco Polo and comparing the information therein contained with that derived from Eastern merchants who had traded for many years in the Orient. He was not a sailor, nor a corsair—though Columbus had been both, and had followed the sea for years—but he was an astronomer, and he knew more of the starry heavens, as well as of the earth beneath them, than any other scientist alive. "It was Toscanelli who erected the famous solstitial gnomon at the cathedral of Florence." For his learning he was honored, when but thirty years of age, with the curatorship of the great Florentine library, and for nearly sixty years thereafter he passed his days amid books, charts, maps, and globes.

As a speculative philosopher, he had arrived at a correct conclusion respecting the sphericity of the earth, and, with all the generosity of a humanitarian, he freely communicated his ideas to others. Columbus would have excluded every other human being from participating in his thoughts, and arrogated to himself alone the right to navigate westerly. This was the difference between the broad-minded philosopher and the narrow-minded sailor who by accident had stumbled upon a theory. The philosopher said, "It belongs to the world!" The ignorant sailor cried, "It is mine!"

Toscanelli advanced the theory, but it was Columbus who put it to the test, and reaped all the rewards, as well as suffered for the mistakes. For mistakes there were, and the chief error lay in supposing the country "discovered" by Columbus pertained to the Indies. He died in that belief, and also Toscanelli, who passed away ten years before the first voyage made to that land, subsequently known as America. In one sense, perhaps, the Florentine doctor was the means of that first voyage of Columbus having been accomplished, for the chart he sent him made the distance between Europe and the western country seem so short that it was undertaken with less reluctance, and persisted in more stubbornly, than it might otherwise have been. But this was a mistake in detail only, and not in theory. A line was projected from about the latitude of Lisbon, on the western coast of Europe, to the "great city of Quinsai," as described by Marco Polo, on the opposite shores of Asia. This line was divided into twenty-six spaces, of two hundred and fifty miles each, making the total distance between the two points sixty-five hundred miles, which Toscanelli supposed to be one-third of the earth's circumference.


A conjectural restoration of Toscanelli's Map.

In short, Toscanelli calculated the distance, made a conjectural chart embodying the results of his readings of Aristotle, Strabo, and Ptolemy, of his conversations during many years with Oriental travellers, and his own observations. He sent this chart to Columbus; the latter adopted it as his guide, and by means of it, faulty as it was, achieved his great "discovery." Whose, then, is the merit of this achievement? Does it not belong as much to Toscanelli as to Columbus?

To whomsoever the credit may be given—whether to the man who conceived the idea, or to him who developed it, and whether or not Columbus intentionally appropriated the honor and glory exclusively—by the irony of fate, there stood a man at Toscanelli's elbow, as it were, when he wrote to the Genoese, who was destined to rob him of his great discovery's richest reward. This man was Amerigo Vespucci, after whom—though unsuggested by him and unknown to him—the continents of America were named, by strangers, before Christopher Columbus had lain a year in his grave!

It is not at all improbable that Vespucci was aware of the correspondence between Toscanelli and Columbus, as he was then acquainted with the former, and at the age of twenty-three was intensely interested in the pursuits of the learned physician. Next to Toscanelli, in fact, he was probably the best-informed man then living in Florence as to the studies to which his friend had devoted the better part of his life, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that he saw the letters before they were sent to Columbus.

But this is a trivial matter compared with the importance of these letters, in a consideration of the effect they produced upon the mind of Columbus, for, if they did not suggest to him the idea of voyaging westerly to discover the Indies, they certainly confirmed him in the opinion that such a voyage could be successfully made. By a strange freak of fate these letters were preserved in the Life of Columbus, written by his son Fernando, and there can be no question of their authenticity. They breathe the spirit of benevolence for which Toscanelli was noted, and indicate the greatness of the man—a greatness decidedly in contrast to the mean and petty nature of his correspondent, who would have perished sooner than allow information so precious to escape from him to the world.

Toscanelli's first letter was written in Florence, June 25, 1474, and is as follows:

"To Christopher Columbus, Paul the Physicist wishes health.

"I perceive your noble and earnest desire to sail to those parts where the spice is produced, and therefore, in answer to a letter of yours, I send you another letter which, some days since, I wrote to a friend of mine, a servant of the King of Portugal before the wars of Castile, in answer to another that he wrote me by his highness's order, upon this same account. And I also send you another sea-chart, like the one I sent to him, which will satisfy your demands. This is a copy of the letter:

"'To Ferdinand Martinez, Canon of Lisbon, Paul the Physicist wishes health.

"'I am very glad to hear of the familiarity you enjoy with your most serene and magnificent king, and though I have very often discoursed concerning the short way there is from hence to the Indies, where the spice is produced, by sea (which I look upon to be shorter than that you take by the coast of Guinea), yet you now tell me that his highness would have me make out and demonstrate it, so that it may be understood and put in practice.

"'Therefore, though I could better show it to him with a globe in my hand, and make him sensible of the figure of the world, yet I have resolved, to make it more easy and intelligible, to show the way on a chart, such as is used in navigation, and therefore I send one to his majesty, made and drawn with my own hand, wherein is set down the utmost bounds of the earth, from Ireland in the west to the farthest parts of Guinea, with all the islands that lie in the way; opposite to which western coast is described the beginning of the Indies, with the islands and places whither you may go, and how far you may bend from the North Pole towards the Equinoctial, and for how long a time—that is, how many leagues you may sail before you come to those places most fruitful in spices, jewels, and precious stones.

"'Do not wonder if I term that country where the spice grows, West, that product being generally ascribed to the East, because those who sail westward will always find those countries in the west, and those who travel by land eastward will always find those countries in the east! The straight lines that lie lengthways in the chart show the distance there is from west to east; the others, which cross them, show the distance from north to south. I have also marked down in the chart several places in India where ships might put in, upon any storms or contrary winds, or other unforeseen accident.

"'Moreover, to give you full information of all those places which you are very desirous to know about, you must understand that none but traders live and reside in all those islands, and that there is as great a number of ships and seafaring people, with merchandise, as in any other part of the world, particularly in a most noble port called Zaitun, where there are every year a hundred large ships of pepper loaded and unloaded, besides many other ships that take in other spices. This country is mighty populous, and there are many provinces and kingdoms, and innumerable cities, under the dominion of a prince called the Grand Khan, which name signifies king of kings, who for the most part resides in the province of Cathay. His predecessors were very desirous to have commerce and be in amity with Christians, and two hundred years since sent ambassadors to the Pope, desiring him to send them many learned men and doctors, to teach them our faith; but by reason of some obstacles the ambassadors met with they returned back, without coming to Rome. Besides, there came an ambassador to Pope Eugenius IV., who told him of the great friendship there was between those princes and their people, and the Christians. I discoursed with him a long while upon the several matters of the grandeur of their royal structures, and of the greatness, length, and breadth of their rivers, and he told me many wonderful things of the multitude of towns and cities along the banks of the rivers, upon a single one of which there were two hundred cities, with marble bridges of great length and breadth, adorned with numerous pillars.

"'This country deserves as well as any other to be discovered; and there may not only be great profit made there, and many things of value found, but also gold, silver, many sorts of precious stones, and spices in abundance, which are not brought into our ports. And it is certain that many wise men, philosophers, astrologers, and other persons skilled in all arts and very ingenious, govern that mighty province and command their armies. From Lisbon directly westward there are in the chart twenty-six spaces, each of which contains two hundred and fifty miles, to the most noble and vast city of Quinsai, which is one hundred miles in compass—that is, thirty-five leagues. In it there are ten marble bridges. The name signifies a heavenly city, of which wonderful things are reported, as to the ingenuity of the people, the buildings, and the revenues.

"'This space above mentioned is almost the third part of the globe. The city is in the province of Mangi, bordering on that of Cathay, where the king for the most part resides. From the island of Antilla, which you call the Island of the Seven Cities, and whereof you have some knowledge, to the most noble island of Cipango are ten spaces, which make two thousand five hundred miles. This island abounds in gold, pearls, and precious stones; and, you must understand, they cover their temples and palaces with plates of pure gold; so that, for want of knowing the way, all these things are concealed and hidden—and yet may be gone to with safety.

"'Much more might be said; but having told you what is most material, and you being wise and judicious, I am satisfied there is nothing of it but what you understand, and therefore will not be more prolix. Thus much may serve to satisfy your curiosity, it being as much as the shortness of time and my business would permit me to say. So, I remain most ready to satisfy and serve his Highness to the utmost, in all the commands he shall lay upon me.'"

A second communication followed the reply of Columbus, in which Toscanelli wrote:

"I received your letters with the things you sent me, which I take as a great favor, and commend your noble and ardent desire of sailing from east to west, as it is marked out in the chart I sent you, which would demonstrate itself better in the form of a globe. I am glad it is well understood, and that the voyage laid down is not only possible, but certain, honorable, very advantageous, and most glorious among all Christians. You cannot be perfect in the knowledge of it but by experience and practice, as I have had in great measure, and by the solid and true information of worthy and wise men, who are come from those parts to this court of Rome, and from merchants who have traded long in those parts and who are persons of good reputation. So that, when the said voyage is performed, it will be to powerful kingdoms, and to most noble cities and provinces, rich, and abounding in all things we stand in need of, particularly all sorts of spice in great quantities, and stores of jewels. This will, moreover, be grateful to those kings and princes who are very desirous to converse and trade with Christians, or else have communication with the wise and ingenious men in these parts, as well in point of religion as in all sciences, because of the extraordinary account they have of the kingdoms and government of these parts. For which reasons, and many more that might be alleged, I do not at all wonder that you, who have a great heart, and all the Portuguese nation, which has ever had notable men in all undertakings, be eagerly bent upon performing this voyage."

In these letters we have outlined by Toscanelli the very voyage that Columbus took in 1492, eighteen years after he had received this precious information. In his journal of that voyage he makes mention of "the islands marked on the chart"; he was constantly seeking the island of Atlantis, and hoped eventually to arrive at the great and noble city of Quinsai, as well as at Cipango and Cathay. As for the "Grand Khan"—of whom he had been informed by Toscanelli, who obtained his information from Marco Polo's works—he not only sent an embassy in search of him, when in Cuba, but was looking for him throughout all his voyages.

It is well known that Columbus was not aware that he had really discovered a new world, but to the end of his days believed he had merely arrived at the eastern coast of India. So persistent was he in this belief that he falsified documents, and forced his crew to swear to what they did not know—namely, that Cuba was a continent, and not an island! He believed he had arrived at Cipango, when he heard the Indian word, cibao, on the coast of Hispaniola; and he says, in a letter written to Luis Santangel in 1493, "In Espanola there are gold-mines, and thence to terra firma, as well as thence to the Grand Khan, everything is on a splendid scale." Also, "When I arrived at Juana [Cuba], I followed the coast to the westward, and found it so extensive that I considered it must be a continent and a province of Cathay!"

Columbus, it has been said by some investigators, was a man of one idea—and that idea not his own! "It is impossible," says Washington Irving, in his Life of Columbus—which is, throughout, an elegant but labored apology for its hero—"to determine the precise time when Columbus first conceived the design of seeking a western route to India. It is certain, however, that he meditated it as early as the year 1474, though as yet it lay crude and unmatured in his mind."

The year 1474, as we know, was that in which Toscanelli sent him the letter and the chart. In that letter the route to India was laid down, and on that chart it was made clear to any seafaring man how Cathay might be reached, by merely sailing westward! By setting his helm, and persisting in a westerly course, any one might reach the coast that was supposed to lie opposite to Europe and Africa. Columbus did that, according to directions received from Toscanelli eighteen years before. He did nothing more, and he reached, not the coast of India, but the outlying islands of a new world since called America.

The idea, then, which Columbus claimed as exclusively his own was conveyed to him by Toscanelli—or, at least, it so appears—and Toscanelli obtained it from the ancients. For, says one having authority, "Eratosthenes, accepting the spherical theory, had advanced the identical notion which nearly seventeen hundred years later impelled Columbus to his voyage. He held the known world to span one-third of the circuit of the globe, as Strabo did at a later day, leaving an unknown two-thirds of sea; and if it were not that the vast extent of the Atlantic Sea rendered it impossible, one might even sail from the coast of Spain to that of India, along the same parallel."

And again: "An important element in the problem was the statement of Marco Polo regarding a large island, which he called Cipango, and which he represented as lying in the ocean off the eastern coast of Asia. This carried the eastern verge of the Asiatic world farther than the ancients had known, and, on the spherical theory, brought land nearer westward from Europe than could earlier have been supposed. . . . Humboldt has pointed out that neither Christopher Columbus nor his son Ferdinand mentions Marco Polo; still, we know that the former had read his book."