Amerigo Vespucci

Date: 1585
Owner: Granger Collection, The
Source Type: Images


This engraving depicts Amerigo Vespucci consulting astronomical and geographical instruments after landing on the continent of South America. In 1499, Vespucci posited that European explorers had encountered a new continent and not merely the eastern extremities of Asia, a revelation for which he was rewarded by having his name forever associated with the Americas. According to historian Felipe Fernandez-Arnesto, Vespucci was by no means the most accomplished explorer of his era nor the man to "discover" the New World, but the fact that cartographers began to associate his name with the western continents made the naming process a fait-accompli. Martin Waldseemuller's 1507 map (seen in the Cartography topic) was the first to use the term "America," and the name stuck (Fernandez-Arnesto 2007).

The scene here represents Vespucci's voyage to South America in 1502, when he first witnessed and documented the constellation of the Southern Cross. Although Vespucci was ostensibly the first European to see the southern skies, Dante-- in his Divine Comedy written almost 200 years earlier-- had described the Southern Cross as a constellation visible from Purgatory. Dante is pictured in the upper left corner of this image. It is unknown how Dante knew of the Southern Cross, but Vespucci took pride in being the first European to set eyes on what Dante described.

While his men are sleeping, Vespucci is using the cutting edge instruments of the early sixteenth century to make precise observations about his newly-discovered southern skies. Among the tools are a quadrant, dividers, and an armillary sphere, a model that was meant to represent the earth's position in reference to the heavens. The image's inclusion of a crucifix, boat, and swords bears witness to the less scientific elements that also played a huge role in the era of exploration.

Reference: Fernandez-Arnesto. Amerigo: The Man Who Gave his Name to America. Random House, 2007.

CITATION: Collaert, Andrianus, after Joannes Stradanus. "Amerigo Vespucci." c. 1585. The Granger Collection, New York. 0011343.