Paradise lust: the man who sexed up America

He had two continents named after himself and thrilled Europe with the salacious tales of what he saw there. But, 500 years on, can we trust Amerigo Vespucci's accounts? Peter Popham discovers the full story

Christopher Columbus didn't know where he was going when he set out and he didn't know where he had been when he got back. But was Amerigo Vespucci, who died 500 years ago today and after whom America was named, any better informed?

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A person who has not one but two continents named after himself is likely to attract his share of jealousy. The Florentine mathematician and navigator who crossed the Atlantic a few years after Columbus, making landfall in what are now Venezuela and Brazil and reaching almost as far south as Patagonia, has been called many names over the years, a deliberate liar, a "faker", a "false pickle-dealer" and much else.

Yet there is little doubt that he was a great navigator: a man of science and mathematics reared in the intellectual hothouse of Medici Florence who ended his career honoured with the title "Pilot Major" by the King of Spain.

Tales of his adventures in what he was the first person to call the "New World" became massive bestsellers. And unlike Columbus, he knew where he had not been: to the Indies.

The son of a notary who expanded his client base to include the city's ruling elite, Vespucci was born in 1454, and in his youth he was close to the men and women who made Florence the flower of the Renaissance. Vespucci was swept up in the hectic scholarly atmosphere of the city, the rapidly evolving knowledge of geometry, mathematics, philosophy, medicine, astronomy and astrology, and became a close friend of a cousin of Lorenzo de'Medici.

The studies were by no means only of theoretical interest. With the fall of the Khans in China and the conversion of the Mongols who ruled Persia to Islam, Marco Polo's land route to the Far East was blocked. Thanks to Polo all Europe knew about the fabulous riches of the Orient, and now the Renaissance men of Florence and elsewhere dreamt of reaching them by sea. Vespucci's contemporary in the city, the polymath Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, wrote to the King of Portugal in June 1474, dangling before him visions of "these very fertile lands with every type of spice and gems," of palaces covered with solid gold where philosophy and astrology, arts and inventions flourish," and insisting that a sea passage to the East was a certainty. "I send Your Majesty a map drawn by my own hand [indicating] the islands from which the journey to the East must commence..."

It was all of course a tremendous bluff: these men knew the world was round, but had only the haziest idea what lay on the other side of it. But the challenge of the unknown was too muchto resist: in 1491, the year before Columbus made landfall in "the Indies", Vespucci left Florence and headed for Seville. Supporting himself as a supplier to departing ships – hence the "pickle-dealer" slur hurled at him centuries later by Ralph Waldo Emerson – he immersed himself in maps and charts and speculation. He left on his first voyage on 10 May 1497, taken on as a specialist in the primitive artof navigation.

He was not a natural sailor. Writing to Lorenzo de'Medici, he moaned about "the risks of shipwreck, the innumerable physical deprivations, the permanent anguish that afflicted our spirits... we were prey to such terrible fear that we gave up every hope of surviving." But when everything was as bad as it could get, "In the midst of this terrible tempest... it pleased the Almighty to show us the continent, new earth and an unknown world."

These were the words that, once set in type, galvanised Europe. Vespucci knew the geographical works of Ptolemy and had spent years steeped in maps and geographical speculation. For him the coast of modern Venezuela and Brazil where his expedition landed had nothing in common with the zones described by explorers of the Orient. Instead this was something far more fascinating – an unimagined world.

"Surely," he wrote, "if the terrestrial paradise be in any part of this earth, I esteem that it is not far from these parts." In his description, this New World is made up of extremes. On the one hand, the people he encounters are living in a dream-like state of bliss: with no metals except gold, no clothes, no signs of age, few diseases, no government, no religion, no trade. In a land rich in animals and plants, colours and fragrances, free from the stain of civilisation, "they live 150 years and rarely fall ill".

But turn the coin and he was in a world of devils. "They eat one another, the victor [eats] the vanquished," he wrote. "I know a man... who was reputed to have eaten more than 300 human bodies..." The women are intensely desirable: "none... among them who had a flabby breast," but they are also monsters and witches: "... Being very lustful, [they] cause the private parts of their husbands to swell up to such a huge size that they appear deformed and disgusting... in consequence of this many lose their organs which break through lack of attention, and they remain eunuchs... When [the women] had the opportunity of copulating with Christians, urged by excessive lust, they defiled... themselves."

Vespucci's sensational description inspired an early etching of the Florentine's first encounter with an American: the explorer and the naked, voluptuous and very pale woman lock eyes; the woman is in the act of clambering off a hammock and moving in his direction. Meanwhile, on a nearby hillock, a woman is roasting the lower half of a human body over a fire.

The wild and fantastic nature of Vespucci's descriptions raises the question of how reliable any of his observations are – but then vast doubt surrounds almost everything about his adventures. We don't know how many voyages he undertook; his authorship of some of the accounts is questionable; and it is not even universally accepted that he identified South America for what it was, a new continent.

That honour may more rightly lie with the man who immortalised his name: a German geographer called Martin Waldseemüller, a member of an amateur learned society. In the society's survey of world geography published in 1505 they included one of Vespucci's accounts, and a world map with the new, southern continent labelled "America" – the first time the coinage had been used, in honour of "its discoverer, a man of great ability".

The geographer later changed his mind about Vespucci's worthiness and wanted to change the continent's name. But by then the Florentine's tales of sex and cannibalism in paradise had made him world famous. And the name stuck.

Explorers: The first

Christopher Columbus The Genoa-born explorer (1451-1506) did not discover America, but he did make his mark on history when he landed in what became known as the Bahamas in October 1492, opening up a New World for European colonialists.

James Cook Having joined the Royal Navy as a teenager, Captain Cook (1728-1779) became one of the world's most famous explorers. His mapping of the Pacific, New Zealand and Australia revolutionised western ideas of world geography.

Marco Polo The son of a Venetian jewel merchant, Polo (c.1254-1324) became one of the first Westerners to visit China, where he spent 17 years as the guests of Kublai Khan.

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