Cradled in the valley of the Arno, its noble architecture fitly supplementing its numerous natural charms, lies the Tuscan city of Florence, the birthplace of immortal Dante, the early home of Michael Angelo, the seat of the Florentine Medici, the scene of Savonarola's triumphs and his tragic end. Fame has come to many sons of Florence, as poets, statesmen, sculptors, painters, travellers; but perhaps none has achieved a distinction so unique, apart, and high as the subject of this volume, after whom the continents of the western hemisphere were named.
Amerigo Vespucci was born in Florence, March 9, 1451, just one hundred and fifty years after Dante was banished from the city in which both first saw the light. The Vespucci family had then resided in that city more than two hundred years, having come from Peretola, a little town adjacent, where the name was highly regarded, as attached to the most respected of the Italian nobility. Following the custom of that nobility, during the period of unrest in Italy, the Vespuccis established themselves in a stately mansion near one of the city gates, which is known as the Porta del Prato. Thus they were within touch of the gay society of Florence, and could enjoy its advantages, while at the same time in a position, in the event of an uprising, to flee to their estates and stronghold in the country.
While the house in which Christopher Columbus was born remains unidentified, and the year of his birth undecided, no such ambiguity attaches to the place and year of Vespucci's nativity. Above the doorway of the mansion which "for centuries before the discovery of America was the dwelling-place of the ancestors of Amerigo Vespucci, and his own birthplace," a marble tablet was placed, in the second decade of the eighteenth century, bearing the following inscription:
At that time, about midway between the date of Vespucci's death and the present, the evidence was strong and continuous as to the residence in that building (which was then used as a hospital) of the family whose name it commemorates. Here was born, in 1451, the third son of Anastasio and Elizabetta Vespucci, whose name, whether rightly or not, was to be bestowed upon a part of the world at that time unknown.
The Vespuccis were then aristocrats, with a long and boasted lineage, but without great wealth to support their pretensions. They were relatively poor; they were proud; but they were not ashamed to engage in trade. Some of their ancestors had filled the highest offices within the gift of the state, such as prioris and gonfalonieres, or magistrates and chief magistrates, while the first of the Vespuccis known to have borne the praenomen Amerigo was a secretary of the republic in 1336.
It is incontestable that Amerigo Vespucci was well-born, and in his youth received the advantages of an education more thorough than was usually enjoyed by the sons of families which had "the respectability of wealth acquired in trade," and even the prestige of noble connections. No argument is needed to show that the position of a Florentine merchant was perfectly compatible with great respectability, for the Medici themselves, with the history of whose house that of Florence is bound up most intimately, were merchant princes. The vast wealth they acquired in their mercantile operations in various parts of Europe enabled them to pose as patrons of art and literature, and supported their pretensions to sovereign power. The Florentine Medici attained to greatest eminence during the latter half of the century in which Amerigo Vespucci was born, and he was acquainted both with Cosimo, that "Pater Patriae, who began the glorious epoch of the family," and with "Lorenzo the Magnificent," who died in 1492.
The Florentines, in fact, were known as great European traders or merchants as early as the eleventh century, while their bankers and capitalists not only controlled the financial affairs of several states, or nations, but exerted a powerful influence in the realm of statesmanship and diplomacy. The little wealth the Vespucci enjoyed at the time of Amerigo's advent was derived from an ancestor of the century previous, who, besides providing endowments for churches and hospitals, left a large fortune to his heirs. His monument may be seen within the chapel built by himself and his wife, and it bears this inscription, in old Gothic characters: "The tomb of Simone Piero Vespucci, a merchant, and of his children and descendants, and of his wife, who caused this chapel to be erected and decorated—for the salvation of her soul. Anno Dom. 1383."
The immediate ancestors, then, of Amerigo Vespucci were highly respectable, and they were honorable, having held many positions of trust, with credit to themselves and profit to the state. At the time of Amerigo's birth his father, Anastasio Vespucci, was secretary of the Signori, or senate of the republic; an uncle, Juliano, was Florentine ambassador at Genoa; and a cousin, Piero Vespucci, so ably commanded a fleet of galleys despatched against the corsairs of the Barbary coast that he was sent as ambassador to the King of Naples, by whom he was specially honored.
Another member of the family, one Guido Antonio, became locally famous as an expounder of the law and a diplomat. Respecting him an epitaph was composed, the last two lines of which might, if applied to Amerigo, have seemed almost prophetic:
This epitaph was written of the lawyer, who departed unknown and unwept by the world, while his then obscure kinsman, Amerigo, subsequently achieved a fame that filled the four quarters of the earth.
The youth of Amerigo is enshrouded in the obscurity which envelops that of the average boy in whatever age, for no one divined that he would become great or famous, and hence he was not provided with a biographer. This is unfortunate, of course, but we must console ourselves with the thought that he was not unusually precocious, and probably said little that would be considered worth preserving. It happened that after he became world-large in importance, tales and traditions respecting his earliest years crept out in abundance; but these may well be looked upon with suspicion. We know scarcely more than that his early years were happy, for he had a loving mother, and a father wise enough to direct him in the way he should travel.
It does not always follow that the course the father prescribes is the best one in the end, for sometimes a boy develops in unsurmised directions; and this was the case with Amerigo Vespucci. The fortunes of the family being on the wane, he was selected as the one to retrieve them, and of four sons was the only one who did not receive a college education. The other three were sent to the University of Pisa, whence they returned with their "honors" thick upon them, and soon lapsed into obscurity, from which they never emerged. That is, they never "made a mark" in the world; save one brother, Girolamo, who made a pilgrimage to Palestine, where he lived nine years, suffered much, and lost what little fortune he carried with him.
He may have thought, perhaps, in after years, that if he had not belonged to a family containing the world-famed navigator his exploits would have brought him reputation; but it is more probable that if he had not written a letter to his younger brother, Amerigo, the world would never have heard from him at all. However, he was the first traveller in the family, and with his university education he should have produced a good account of his adventures; but if he ever did so it has not been preserved from oblivion.
Amerigo was not given a college education, but something—as it eventuated—vastly better. His father had a brother, a man of erudition for his time, who had studied for the Church. This learned uncle, Georgio Antonio Vespucci, was then a Dominican friar, respected in Florence for his piety and for his learning. About the year 1450, or not long before Amerigo was born, he opened a school for the sons of nobles, and in the garb of a monk pursued the calling of the preceptor. His fame was such that the school was always full, yet when his brother's child, Amerigo, desired to attend, having arrived at the age for receiving the rudiments of an education, he was greeted cordially and given a place in one of the lower classes. It may be imagined that he would have been favored by his uncle; but such seems not to have been the case, for the worthy friar was a disciplinarian first of all. He had ever in mind, however, the kind of education desired by his brother for Amerigo, which was to be commercial, and grounded him well in mathematics, languages, cosmography, and astronomy. His curriculum even embraced, it is said, statesmanship and the finesse of diplomacy, for the merchants of Vespucci's days were, like the Venetian consuls, "very important factors in developing friendly international relations."
There was then a great rivalry between Venice, Florence, Genoa, and Pisa for the control of trading-posts in the Levant, which carried with them the vast commerce of the Orient, then conducted by way of the Mediterranean, the Black, and the Caspian seas, and overland by caravans with India and China. At the time our hero was growing into manhood, in the latter half of the fifteenth century, Florence, "under the brilliant leadership of the Medici and other shrewd merchant princes, gained control of strategic trading-posts in all parts of the [then known] world, and secured a practical monopoly in the trade through Armenia and Rhodes. . . . It was from banking, however, that Florence derived most of her wealth. For some time her bankers controlled the financial markets of the world. Most of the great loans made by sovereigns during this period, for carrying on wars or for other purposes, were made through the agency of Florentine bankers. Even Venetian merchants were glad to appeal to her banks for loans. In the fifteenth century Florence had eighty great banking-houses, many of which had branches in every part of the world."
It is evident, therefore, that the sagacious Anastasio Vespucci had mapped out a great career for the son whom he had chosen to recreate the fortunes of his house. He was to be a banker, a diplomat; eventually he might attain, like the greatest of the Medici, to the station and dignities of a merchant prince. To this end the worthy Georgio Antonio ever strove, and as he found his nephew a tractable and studious pupil, he congratulated himself and his family that in Amerigo they had the individual who was to restore the prestige of their ancient name.
But alas! the sequel proved that Friar Georgio was too ambitious, and had overshot the mark. In his desire to turn out a finished product, a scholar that should be a credit to his school and an ornament to his family, he not only inculcated the essentials for a commercial education, but, as has already been mentioned, led his eager follower into the wider fields of astronomy and cosmography. All he knew—and that included all the ancients knew—of these abstruse sciences he imparted to Amerigo, and in the end, so far as we can judge, the young man became more proficient in them than any other person of his age and time. So it eventuated that those studies, which were intended merely as subsidiary to the more serious pursuit, became the prime factors in shaping his career. They were his stepping-stones to greatness, as were his mercantile transactions; but, anticipating somewhat the events of his later life, we shall find that they did not conduce to the acquisition of wealth.
"In Florence," says the author previously quoted, "more than in any other Italian city during the Middle Ages, was displayed the direct influence of commerce upon the developments of all the finer elements of material and immaterial civilization. She was the Athens of Italy, and her art, literature, and science was the brightest gleam of intellectual light that was seen in Europe during that age. It was from Florence, more than from any other source, that came the awakening influence known as the Renaissance."
This truth we see exemplified in the formative period of Amerigo Vespucci's life, for, in order to become qualified to adorn the high position of a prince of commerce, he was as carefully trained as if to fill a prelate's chair or grasp the helm of state. So reluctant was his uncle, the good old monk Georgio, to relinquish his talented nephew to the world, that we find them in company as late as 1471, as attested by this letter, written in Latin by Amerigo to his father, in October of that year:
"To the Excellent and Honorable Signor Anastasio Vespucci.
"HONORED FATHER,—Do not wonder that I have not written to you within the last few days. I thought that my uncle would have satisfied you concerning me, and in his absence I scarcely dare to address you in the Latin tongue, blushing even at my deficiencies in my own language. I have, besides, been industriously occupied of late in studying the rules of Latin composition, and will show you my book on my return. Whatever else I have accomplished, and how I have conducted myself, you will have been able to learn from my uncle, whose return I ardently desire, that, under his and your own joint directions, I may follow with greater facility both my studies and your kind precepts.
"George Antonio, three or four days ago, gave a number of letters to you to a good priest, Signor Nerotto, to which he desires your answer. There is nothing else that is new to relate, unless that we all desire greatly to return to the city. The day of our return is not yet fixed, but soon will be, unless the pestilence should increase and occasion greater alarm, which may God avert!
"He, George Antonio, commends to your consideration a poor and wretched neighbor of his, whose only reliance and means are in our house, concerning which he addresses you in full. He asks you, therefore, that you would attend to his affairs, so that they may suffer as little as possible in his absence.
"Farewell, then, honored father. Salute all the family in my behalf, and commend me to my mother and all my elder relatives.
"Your son, with due obedience,
The cause of Amerigo's absence from Florence was, it is said, the terrible plague which swept over that city and for a time paralyzed its activities. All who were able fled to the country, and, Friar Georgio's school having been broken up by the scattering of his pupils, he and Amerigo retired to their family estate, at or near Peretola, there to await the subsidence of the epidemic.