Mata-Hari, Kim Philby or Juan Pujol are some of the most famous spies in history and they are, in theory, considered 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 Medici family in the Casa de Contratación de Sevilla, the royal establishment that controlled the transit of expeditions to America. But this Juan Vespucci (Luis A. Robles Macías, of the Free University of Brussels has discovered) was neither a spy, nor did he monitor trade with the New World. The real infiltrator was his cousin, whose name was the same as him and what he was spying on was the court of Ferdinand the Catholic, the movements of his troops, the Mediterranean fleet and the alliances in Europe: what really interested the Medici clan .
In 1988, the CSIC historian Consuelo Varela wrongly turned Juan Vespucci into a spy, believing that three encrypted letters that he found in the Florence State Archive were his work, as they were signed by a certain 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 researching Columbus and the Florentines when I found the 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, the cartographer Juan Vespucci was not a spy for the Medici), extracted from the doctoral thesis of 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 Vespucci. Juan worked as a pilot for the Casa de Contratación between 1512 and 1525, the year he was fired. The reasons are unknown.
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 in Rome on December 13, 1513, the informant announced that he planned to travel shortly to Spain with the papal nuncio Galeazzo Bottrigari. Juan could never make this statement because he was already in Seville at that time.
On April 11, 1514, Juan Vespucci embarked for 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 have been the author of this petition either because he would have to have referred to the person for whom he was requesting the perk as “my brother.” Furthermore, the handwriting of the Florentine letters “differs remarkably” from the spelling of Juan that is preserved in the Seville archives.
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 former; and Giovanni di Bartolomeo.
The investigation soon focused on Giovanni di Guidantonio Vespucci, because he had worked as a diplomat for Giuliano de Medici, the brother of Pope Leo X and Lorenzo’s uncle. Therefore, he had direct contact with the powerful family. Furthermore, in January 1514 he accompanied the nuncio Bottrigari to Spain, as advanced in the secret report signed on December 13. It all fitted. On the other hand, the Florentine ambassador in Spain was Giovanni Corsi, who had a secretary named Agostino Nettucci, who was Giovanni di Guidantonio’s tutor. In other words, the author of the reports was always where the letters indicated 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 Casa de Contratación. Or simply, his spying on the royal establishment was so perfect that it has never been detected. That of the court, yes, but it took 500 years.