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

The Waldseemüller map, printed in 1507, depicted the New World in a new way. (Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress)
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But the word yields other meanings. Gen can also mean "born" in Greek, and the word ameros can mean "new," making it possible to read Amerigen as not only "land of Amerigo" but also "born new"—a double-entendre that would have delighted Ringmann, and one that very nicely complements the idea of fertility that he associated with female names. The name may also contain a play on meros, a Greek word sometimes translated as "place." Here Amerigen becomes A-meri-gen, or "No-place-land"—not a bad way to describe a previously unnamed continent whose geography is still uncertain.

Copies of the Waldseemüller map began to appear at German universities in the decade after 1507; sketches of it and copies made by students and professors in Cologne, Tübingen, Leipzig and Vienna survive. The map clearly was getting around, as was the Introduction to Cosmography itself. The little book was reprinted several times and attracted acclaim across Europe, largely because of the long Vespucci letter.

What about Vespucci himself? Did he ever come across the map or the Introduction to Cosmography? Did he ever learn that the New World had been named in his honor? The odds are that he did not. Neither the book nor the name is known to have made it to the Iberian Peninsula before he died, in Seville, in 1512. But both surfaced there soon afterward: the name America first appeared in Spain in a book printed in 1520, and Christopher Columbus' son Ferdinand, who lived in Spain, acquired a copy of the Introduction to Cosmography sometime before 1539. The Spanish didn't like the name, however. Believing that Vespucci had somehow named the New World after himself, usurping Columbus' rightful glory, they refused to put the name America on official maps and documents for two more centuries. But their cause was lost from the start. The name America, such a natural poetic counterpart to Asia, Africa and Europa, had filled a vacuum, and there was no going back, especially not after the young Gerardus Mercator, destined to become the century's most influential cartographer, decided that the whole of the New World, not just its southern part, should be so labeled. The two names he put on his 1538 world map are the ones we've used ever since: North America and South America.

Ringmann didn't have long to live after finishing the Introduction to Cosmography. By 1509 he was suffering from chest pains and exhaustion, probably from tuberculosis, and by the fall of 1511, not yet 30, he was dead. After Ringmann's death Waldseemüller continued to make maps, including at least three that depicted the New World, but never again did he depict it as surrounded by water, or call it America—more evidence that these ideas were Ringmann's. On one of his later maps, the Carta Marina of 1516—which identifies South America only as "Terra Nova"—Waldseemüller even issued a cryptic apology that seems to refer to his great 1507 map: "We will seem to you, reader, previously to have diligently presented and shown a representation of the world that was filled with error, wonder, and confusion.... As we have lately come to understand, our previous representation pleased very few people. Therefore, since true seekers of knowledge rarely color their words in confusing rhetoric, and do not embellish facts with charm but instead with a venerable abundance of simplicity, we must say that we cover our heads with a humble hood."

Waldseemüller produced no other maps after the Carta Marina, and some four years later, on March 16, 1520, in his mid-40s, he died—"dead without a will," a clerk would later write when recording the sale of his house in St. Dié.

During the decades that followed, copies of the 1507 map wore out or were discarded in favor of more up-to-date and better-printed maps, and by 1570 the map had all but vanished. One copy did survive, however. Sometime between 1515 and 1517, the Nuremberg mathematician and geographer Johannes Schöner acquired a copy and bound it into a beechwood-covered folio that he kept in his reference library. Between 1515 and 1520, Schöner studied the map carefully, but by the time he died, in 1545, he probably had not opened it in years. The map had begun its long sleep, which would last more than 350 years.

It was found again by accident, as happens so often with lost treasures. In the summer of 1901, freed from his teaching duties at Stella Matutina, a Jesuit boarding school in Feldkirch, Austria, Father Joseph Fischer set out for Germany. Balding, bespectacled and 44 years old, Fischer was a professor of history and geography. For seven years he had been haunting the public and private libraries of Europe in his spare time, hoping to find maps that showed evidence of the early Atlantic voyages of the Norsemen. This current trip was no exception. Earlier in the year, Fischer had received word that the impressive collection of maps and books at Wolfegg Castle, in southern Germany, included a rare 15th-century map that depicted Greenland in an unusual way. He had to travel only some 50 miles to reach Wolfegg, a tiny town in the rolling countryside just north of Austria and Switzerland, not far from Lake Constance. He reached the town on July 15, and upon his arrival at the castle, he would later recall, he was offered "a most friendly welcome and all the assistance that could be desired."

The map of Greenland turned out to be everything Fischer had hoped. As was his custom on research trips, after studying the map Fischer began a systematic search of the castle's entire collection. For two days he made his way through the inventory of maps and prints and spent hours immersed in the castle's rare books. And then, on July 17, his third day there, he walked over to the castle's south tower, where he had been told he would find a small second-floor garret containing what little he hadn't yet seen of the castle's collection.

The garret is a simple room. It's designed for storage, not show. Bookshelves line three of its walls from floor to ceiling, and two windows let in a cheery amount of sunlight. Wandering about the room and peering at the spines of the books on the shelves, Fischer soon came across a large folio with beechwood covers, bound together with finely tooled pigskin. Two Gothic brass clasps held the folio shut, and Fischer gently pried them open. On the inside cover he found a small bookplate, bearing the date 1515 and the name of the folio's original owner: Johannes Schöner. "Posterity," the inscription began, "Schöner gives this to you as an offering."

Fischer started leafing through the folio. To his amazement, he discovered that it contained not only a rare 1515 star chart engraved by the German artist Albrecht Dürer, but also two giant world maps. Fischer had never seen anything quite like them. In pristine condition, printed from intricately carved wood blocks, each one was made up of separate sheets that, if removed from the folio and assembled, would create maps approximately 4 1/2 by 8 feet in size.


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