The chronicle of the expedition

Manuel Lucena Giraldo (Royal Academy of History)

Researcher, CSIC

The most important and only complete narrative of the first voyage around the world was written by the young Antonio Pigafetta. Born in Venice to a noble family in 1480 or 1491, and dying in that same city around 1534, also known as Antonio Lombardo and Antonio de Plegafetis, he travelled to Spain in 1518, perhaps as a Knight of Rhodes, in the service of the pope’s ambassador, Monsignor Francisco Chieregati. He soon struck up a great friendship with Ferdinand Magellan, which allowed him to accompany the man on his voyage to the Spice Islands, without any specific duties, as part of the group of ‘captain’s servants and notables’. This enabled him to observe and write his famous account of the voyage based on the logs he accumulated, and miraculously, preserved.

It has been conjectured that his training had made him deserving of a position with more seafaring responsibility. In any event, after returning to Spain from the first voyage around the world in 1522, he travelled to Lisbon, France, Mantua, Rome and Venice, seeking support to promote his writings. Settled in Italy from 1523, in conflict with Elcano and determined to attribute all the merit for the heroic voyage to Magellan, he devoted his time to writing Relazioni in torno al primo viaggio di circumnavigazione. Notizia del Mondo Nuovo con le figure dei paesi scoperti, dedicated to Felipe de Villiers, grand master of the Order of Rhodes. It was published after his death, in 1536, although he may have already died in 1532, as his father did not mention him in a will of that date.

Pigafetta’s account of the first voyage around the world, naturalistic, accurate and imaginative at the same time, full of Renaissance spirit, based on the notes he took daily, is rich in ethnographic, zoological and geographic details and evinces the immense curiosity of its author. Particularly noteworthy are his capacity for observation and for communication with the natives, from whom he collected an abundance of information, ethnographic and linguistic; the deployment of literary, artistic and scientific knowledge worthy of a humanist; the spirit of religious providentialism; the attention to curative techniques and the symptomology of illnesses; and the attention to detail, which shows the difficulties in understanding the very dissimilar realities those extraordinary seafarers had found.

Pigafetta also wrote a treatise on navigation that contains a description of the three methods for determining longitude, linked to the work of Francisco Faleiro, an associate of Magellan’s and author of Tratado de la esfera o arte de navegar (1535). These methods were: calculating the distance from a known point of longitude by observing the distance of the moon from the ecliptic (curve along which the sun passes around the earth); observing the conjunction of the moon with a star or planet; and using a compass. Pigafetta also described how to take the altitude of the Pole Star to determine latitude, how to figure out wind direction and other navigation problems.