Astrolabium. Americus Vespuccius cum quattuor Stellis… (Astrolabe. Amerigo Vespucci with Four Stars…)
The name ‘America’ derived from the feminised Latin first name of the Florentine explorer and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci.Full description »
The name ‘America’ derived from the feminised Latin first name of the Florentine explorer and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci. It was Vespucci who demonstrated that Brazil and the West Indies were not, as had been claimed by Columbus, part of Asia, but parts of another continent previously unknown in Europe.
In a letter he wrote to fellow countryman, and de facto ruler of the Florentine Republic, Lorenzo de Medici, Vespucci described an incident off the coast of Brazil during his voyage to the New World in 1499. Vespucci’s ship had crossed the equator, and he had lost sight of the Pole Star. Staying awake all night with sleeping sailors beside him, Vespucci examined the heavens, taking readings with his quadrant and astrolabe; he could not find the Pole Star but observed new constellations. In doing this, Vespucci was put in mind of verses from Dante’s 'Purgatorio', in which Purgatory is located on a mountain in the southern hemisphere. These verses are printed in Italian and Latin at the side of this engraving, along with a picture of the celebrated Florentine poet and republican. Dante pities northerners who will never see southern star patterns such as the constellation of the Southern Cross, depicted here as a Maltese Cross.
This illustration of Vespucci measuring lattitude, using the Southern Cross as his point of reference, is popularly thought to be the first recorded illustration of the use of an astrolabe. The Bruges-born Mannerist artist Stradanus, who studied in Italy and worked with Vasari and the Medicis, has drawn a planispheric astrolabe as a spherical object akin to an armillary sphere. Although early examples date from the thirteenth century, mariner’s astrolabes (with a distinctive pierced circular frame construction) only became more widely used from the middle of the sixteenth century – long after Columbus and Vespucci had lost sight of the safety of the shoreline to venture across the vastness of the ocean.