October 25, 2020

The Medici spy comes to light 500 years later | Culture


Kill hari, Kim Philby or Juan Pujol are some of the History’s most famous spies and they are, in theory, the best. But obviously the best are those whose name is unknown. The opposite of what happened to the cartographer Juan Vespucci in the 16th century, considered until now a secret agent of the powerful Médici family in the Hiring House of Seville, the royal establishment that controlled the transit of expeditions to America. But this Juan Vespucci – discovered Luis A. Robles Macías, of the Free University of Brussels – was not a spy, nor did he monitor trade with the New World. The real infiltrator was his cousin, who was called just like him and what he was spying on was the Court of Ferdinand the Catholic, the movements of his troops, the fleet of the Mediterranean and the alliances in Europe: what really interested him Medici clan.

In 1988, the historian of the CSIC Consuelo Varela mistakenly made Juan Vespucci a spy by believing that three encrypted letters he found in the Florence State Archive were his work, since they were signed by one Giovanni Vespucci and addressed to Lorenzo II of Medici Since then, the data has been repeated in numerous publications and it has even been believed that Juan lost his official job because the Crown also thought he was an agent. “I was investigating Columbus and the Florentines when I found all three letters. I thought they were from Juan. I was wrong,” admits Varela.

In the article No, Mapmaker Juan Vespucci Was Not a Medici Spy (No, cartographer Juan Vespucci was not a Medici spy), by Luis A. Robles, it is explained that the innocent Juan Vespucci (born Giovanni di Antonio) was a cartographer, navigator and merchant nephew of the famous Americo vespucio. Juan worked as a pilot of the Hiring House between 1512 and 1525, the year he was fired. The reasons are ignored.

Act of the Hiring House, with the signature of Vespucci, where he is paid 6,666 madaveríes for his services as a pilot.


Act of the Hiring House, with the signature of Vespucci, where he is paid 6,666 madaveríes for his services as a pilot.

To refute the thesis that Juan was the confidant, Robles reviewed, not three, but the 12 letters that are kept in Florence with his supposed signature. In one of them, dated Rome on December 13, 1513, the informant announced that he planned to travel to Spain shortly with the papal nuncio Galeazzo Bottrigari. This statement could never be made by Juan because at that time he was already in Seville.

On April 11, 1514, Juan Vespucci embarked towards Panama. However, the spy sent one of his reports from Madrid in May of that year. In another letter, signed on September 17, 1515, the agent asks for a favor for a relative whom he calls “son of Antonio Vespucci.” Antonio was Juan’s father, which means that Juan could not be the author of this petition either because he should have referred to the person for whom he asked for the prebend as “my brother.” In addition, the letter of the Florentine letters “differs markedly” from Juan’s spelling in the archives of Seville.

But who was the spy then? Robles studied the Vespucci family tree around 1515. There he found four men named Giovanni. Besides Juan, he found Giovanni di Guidantonio, son of a famous diplomat; Giovanni di Bernardo, second cousin of the previous one; and Giovanni di Bartolomeo.

The investigation soon focused on Giovanni di Guidantonio Vespucci, because he had worked as a diplomat for Giuliano de Médici, brother of Pope Leo X and uncle of Lorenzo. Therefore, he had direct contact with the powerful family. In addition, in January 1514 he accompanied Spain to the Bottrigari nuncio, as the secret report signed on December 13 advanced. It all fit. On the other hand, the Florentine ambassador to Spain was Giovanni Corsi, who had a secretary named Agostino Nettucci, who was the preceptor of Giovanni di Guidantonio. That is, the author of the reports was always where they indicated the letters and had preferential access to the embassy and the Medici.

The study concludes that, therefore, Juan Vespucci was not the secret agent, because “the Italian powers were not interested in obtaining information” from the Hiring House. Or, simply, his espionage in the royal establishment was so perfect that it has never been detected. That of the Court, yes, but 500 years have been needed.

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