A new continent for a new philosophy The discovery of the New World has been seen as an initiative of Columbus, aided by the Spanish throne. But in truth, the seeds of his discovery was made possible by the Renaissance, its scholars… and their belief in the existence of a continent in the West, a belief they acquired by reading ancient accounts.
by Philip Coppens

Navigation, geography and above all astronomy were the main focus of interest of the Renaissance scientist, at a time when the general population still subscribed to the idea that the Earth was flat. Nicholas of Cusa had dared to suggest that the Earth spun around its own axis. Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini before he became pope (Pius II) had noted how, while on a visit to Scotland, the day at the winter solstice lasted only four hours, unlike for example in Italy.

But the heliocentric model that would so forcefully be promoted by Bruno and later Galileo was not an invention of the Renaissance scholar; they – and their descendants – looked to Egypt as the homeland of all knowledge, from which they had inherited it. They had merely reacquired this knowledge. Both Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), the discoverer of the laws of planetary motion (which to this day are still the basis for space travel) and Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) said that they got their ideas from Egypt. There is actually factual evidence that Newton derived his physics – including gravity – from the Hermetic cosmology. Copernicus, who publicly promoted the heliocentric model in the 16th century, also identified the Hermetic literature as his source of information and inspiration. Florentine’s Platonic Academy not only acquired many old manuscripts on literature, it also saw the arrival of many ancient maps. Soon, the possible existence of a “fourth continent” was the talk of Florence; the Archbishop of Florence actually went as far as to prophesy the existence of a fourth continent in the West. The Florentine scholar Paolo Toscanelli pondered the idea of the existence of lands in the west in the presence of his close friends, a group which included Cosimo de Medici and Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, Gemisthus Pleton, and in later years, various members of the Platonic Academy.

Though Toscanelli did practical experiments, measuring the movements and the sun, these on themselves were insufficient to explain the explosion of geographical and astronomical knowledge – or the sudden speculation about a fourth continent. How did they acquire this knowledge? As bizarre as it may seem, the most logical choice was that the Egyptian documents and maps, probably from the Alexandrian Library, which resurfaced also contained geographical information. Indeed, this implies that someone around 300BC to 300 AD had travelled to America. Toscanelli became one of the chief mapmakers of the 15th century, working on an elliptical map that had been commissioned by the Medicis in 1457. It was the most advanced representation of the world to date. Toscanelli rejected the geography of Aristotle and accorded a much larger area to Asia. This would soon result in the discovery of America, for it was in 1478 that Columbus started corresponding with Toscanelli. The latter explained his views on the magnitude of Asia and provided Columbus with maps, which Columbus would use for his voyage to “Asia”.

Though Columbus is currently credited with discovering America, he himself believed, until his death, that the land he had disembarked on was Asia. It would be yet another Florentine citizen who would show that Columbus was wrong and that the land was, in fact, a fourth continent.

That man was Amerigo Vespucci, who was a close friend of Leonardo da Vinci and Toscanelli, who had been educated by the Medicis and who was introduced into the Academy, where he became friends with Botticelli. The Medicis posted him as their bank manager in Seville, where he would meet Columbus. Toscanelli Though Columbus had the approval of the Spanish king to go on his quest, he did not have sufficient funding to undertake his travels to the west. In 1491, the Florentine banker Berardi and Columbus, together with Vespucci, set up a business so that Columbus could undertake his voyages. Until Columbus’ death in 1506, he and Vespucci would remain close friends.

When Columbus returned from “Asia” in 1493, he had brought ten “Indians” with him, four of which lodged with Berardi. It was up to Vespucci to try to communicate with them. He soon concluded that those men were very different from the descriptions of Indians that Marco Polo and others after him had given of the inhabitants of India. As bizarre as it may seem in retrospect, Columbus’ fame quickly diminished and Vespucci realised this. He also realised that Columbus probably did not discover India, but another continent – the fourth continent. He therefore trained himself as a navigator, so that he himself could investigate. He indeed became the best of his days and the best for many centuries to come. In 1499, with Savonarolo meeting an untimely demise in Florence, Vespucci set sail to the west, out to prove that Columbus had not discovered a western sea route to Asia, but a new continent. This he did with success and he discovered the coastline of what is now Brazil.

Vespucci was impressed by the local population, some of whom walked around naked and had no personal possessions. He observed that they lived according to Nature, “each is his own master”, “without kings, laws, or religious faith”. For a Renaissance man, this was like finding Paradise: a world not spoiled by dogma.

At the same time, Vespucci’s mappings of the southern sky showed him that the world was different from what Ptolemaeus had written, and that it was bigger than anyone had expected. It was he who discovered the American mainland, a claim that rapidly won the approval of his contemporary scholars. In 1506, the Florentine cartographer Contarini drew the first map including the new discovery; the next year, the new continent was baptised America, after its discoverer, Amerigo Vespucci. Amerigo Vespucci There might, however, be more to Vespucci’s “discovery” of the new continent than most people have so far taken for granted. As mentioned, rumours of a fourth continent went around Florence decades before Columbus set sail; the Academy, of which Vespucci had been a member, had ancient manuscripts dating back to the Alexandrian Library. Would it therefore be possible that Amerigo had proof that this fourth continent existed, and that this knowledge was the main reason for his co-operation with Columbus? When Columbus fool-heartedly did not wish to believe he had discovered a new continent, but a sea-route to India, Vespucci himself took to sea, to “discover” the new continent himself.

Recent books have speculated that the Scottish Sinclair family might have sent expeditions to America in the 14th century. But, unfortunately, none of these theories have shown definitive proof that such expeditions to America ever occurred. No-one has ever offered any logical reason why the Sinclairs would keep the existence of their discovery secret for more than one century and apart from an alleged depiction of it in Rosslyn Chapel, neither did they seem have any profits or imports from that continent. It would, furthermore, also not explain why it was merely in Florence that the existence of a fourth continent was hot news and not, for example, in Scotland. There is therefore far better evidence to suggest that the real source of information was Egypt, particularly the information received from ancient accounts by the Medici’s hunt for ancient manuscripts.

For example, the Milanese mathematician Girolamo Cardano, a close friend of Leonardo da Vinci, claimed that a pre-Greek civilisation had mapped and measured the Earth. Maps charting a “fourth continent” circulated in Europe and the Middle East during the Middle Ages. But how is it possible some maps accurately show – defying all possibility of a mere coincidence – coastlines of areas that had not been visited – according to historians – at the time when these maps were drawn?

One such map showed the coastline of Brazil, which was exactly the destination that Vespucci set sail to on his first voyage to the New World. This map, the so-called Piri Reis map, had been drawn using an extremely sophisticated projection, the ‘equidistant projection’, which depicts the features of the Earth from one point on its surface. A lot has been said about this map, including the areas it maps. But less known is that the centre of this map lies close to the ancient Egyptian town of Syene on the Nile, from where Eratosthenes, Alexandria’s chief librarian, had calculated the circumference of the Earth. Why a 16th century Ottoman-Turkish admiral and cartographer would use Alexandria as this central point is an intriguing question few have posed, let alone answered. But the answer seems to be clear: they were redrawing maps that existed in the ancient Alexandrian Library.

It was, after all, Eratosthenes who had declared that the seas were connected, that Africa might be circumnavigated, and that “India could be reached by sailing westward from Spain”, which is of course the very idea Columbus wanted to test. The New World had been reached; its exploration itself was the endeavour of another Florentine son, Giovanni di Verrazzano. The Spanish and Portuguese held knowledge of the new continent closely guarded. The French throne, however, wanted to experience the New World and discover its potential for itself. Verrazzano was the only qualified sailor who could accomplish this mission. But even though the French king, Francis I, lent the flag of France to the expedition, the money for it had to come from elsewhere. Unsurprisingly, the budget was gathered by Florentine bankers.

Verrazzano’s fleet sailed in 1524. Going north from Florida, he entered coastal waters where no European had gone before. Sailing along the East coast of what is now the United States, he realised that the landmass was extremely big. Two European nations, Great Britain and France, would soon claim it as theirs. This new continent, discovered with the help of and through Florentine citizens, all inspired by the Renaissance, would become the home to a new system of democratic government: the United States of America. Though it is often said that it was born through the efforts of Freemasons, the role of yet another son of Florence, Filippo Mazzei, has been often ignored. He was a close friend of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and John Adams – the founding fathers – two of these friends also being important Freemasons. Christopher Columbus Mazzei befriended Benjamin Franklin through a business deal and he thus became involved in London’s American colony. When he settled in America, he was met by Washington, who had been told that Mazzei could enhance the agriculture and the economy of Virginia. Mazzei brought not only economic knowledge, he also offered his Renaissance philosophy to the founding fathers of the States – a philosophy that fell in fertile ground.

On September 3, 1783, Great Britain granted the American states their independence. Of the 19 signatures on the Declaration of Independence, nine were definitely Freemasons. But America was not a nation founded by Freemasons, for Freemasons, as some have argued. It was Mazzei, in 1784, who founded the Constitutional Society, which had to make the public aware of the need for a constitution that established the principles of law, freedom and democracy. These laws included the right to vote, to have religious freedom and the liberty of press. Both Jefferson and Mazzei – who were best friends and neighbours – also wanted the abolition of slavery, with blacks receiving education in public schools.

Though Jefferson was never a Freemason, it is agreed that many of his best friends were and that he shared their ideology. But his best friend was Mazzei. Both were fervent in their attempts to make “freedom” the most important word in America: freedom from England and France, freedom of religion, etc. And “freedom” is not a specific preoccupation of the Masons. The ideal of a “free man” was the aim of the Renaissance. But what it had never been able to accomplish in Europe, would happen in America. It literally was “the American Dream”. More than three hundred years after the Academy had been founded by Cosimo, the movement had finally concretised their ideal – and had created hope for a new world.