The Waldseemüller Map: Charting the New World- page 1 | History | Smithsonian
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The Waldseemüller map, printed in 1507, depicted the New World in a new way. (Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress)

The Waldseemüller Map: Charting the New World

Two obscure 16th-century German scholars named the American continent and changed the way people thought about the world

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It was a curious little book. When a few copies began resurfacing, in the 18th century, nobody knew what to make of it. One hundred and three pages long and written in Latin, it announced itself on its title page as follows:

INTRODUCTION TO COSMOGRAPHY
WITH CERTAIN PRINCIPLES OF GEOMETRY AND
ASTRONOMY NECESSARY FOR THIS MATTER

ADDITIONALLY, THE FOUR VOYAGES OF
AMERIGO VESPUCCI

A DESCRIPTION OF THE WHOLE WORLD ON BOTH
A GLOBE AND A FLAT SURFACE WITH THE INSERTION
OF THOSE LANDS UNKNOWN TO PTOLEMY
DISCOVERED BY RECENT MEN

The book—known today as the Cosmographiae Introductio, or Introduction to Cosmography—listed no author. But a printer's mark recorded that it had been published in 1507, in St. Dié, a town in eastern France some 60 miles southwest of Strasbourg, in the Vosges Mountains of Lorraine.

The word "cosmography" isn't used much today, but educated readers in 1507 knew what it meant: the study of the known world and its place in the cosmos. The author of the Introduction to Cosmo­graphy laid out the organization of the cosmos as it had been described for more than 1,000 years: the Earth sat motionless at the center, surrounded by a set of giant revolving concentric spheres. The Moon, the Sun and the planets each had their own sphere, and beyond them was the firmament, a single sphere studded with all of the stars. Each of these spheres wheeled grandly around the Earth at its own pace, in a never-ending celestial procession.

All of this was delivered in the dry manner of a textbook. But near the end, in a chapter devoted to the makeup of the Earth, the author elbowed his way onto the page and made an oddly personal announcement. It came just after he had introduced readers to Asia, Africa and Europe—the three parts of the world known to Europeans since antiquity. "These parts," he wrote, "have in fact now been more widely explored, and a fourth part has been discovered by Amerigo Vespucci (as will be heard in what follows). Since both Asia and Africa received their names from women, I do not see why anyone should rightly prevent this [new part] from being called Amerigen—the land of Amerigo, as it were—or America, after its discoverer, Americus, a man of perceptive character."

How strange. With no fanfare, near the end of a minor Latin treatise on cosmography, a nameless 16th-century author briefly stepped out of obscurity to give America its name—and then disappeared again.

Those who began studying the book soon noticed something else mysterious. In an easy-to-miss paragraph printed on the back of a foldout diagram, the author wrote, "The purpose of this little book is to write a sort of introduction to the whole world that we have depicted on a globe and on a flat surface. The globe, certainly, I have limited in size. But the map is larger."

Various remarks made in passing throughout the book implied that this map was extraordinary. It had been printed on several sheets, the author noted, suggesting that it was unusually large. It had been based on several sources: a brand-new letter by Amerigo Vespucci (included in the Introduction to Cosmography); the work of the second-century Alexandrian geographer Claudius Ptolemy; and charts of the regions of the western Atlantic newly explored by Vespucci, Columbus and others. Most significant, it depicted the New World in a dramatically new way. "It is found," the author wrote, "to be surrounded on all sides by the ocean."

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