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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.