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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When Ringmann came across the New World letter, he was immersed in a careful study of Ptolemy's Geography, and he recognized that Vespucci, unlike Columbus, appeared to have sailed south right off the edge of the world that Ptolemy had mapped. Thrilled, Ringmann printed his own version of the New World letter in 1505—and to emphasize the southness of Vespucci's discovery, he changed the work's title from New World to On the Southern Shore Recently Discovered by the King of Portugal, referring to Vespucci's sponsor, King Manuel.

Not long afterward, Ringmann teamed up with a German cartographer named Martin Waldseemüller to prepare a new edition of Ptolemy's Geography. Sponsored by René II, the Duke of Lorraine, Ringmann and Waldseemüller set up shop in the little French town of St. Dié, in the mountains just southwest of Strasbourg. Working as part of a small group of humanists and printers known as the Gymnasium Vosagense, the pair developed an ambitious plan. Their edition would include not only 27 definitive maps of the ancient world, as Ptolemy had described it, but also 20 maps showing the discoveries of modern Europeans, all drawn according to the principles laid out in the Geography—a historical first.

Duke René seems to have been instrumental in inspiring this leap. From unknown contacts he had received yet another Vespucci letter, also falsified, describing his voyages and at least one nautical chart depicting the new coastlines explored to date by the Portuguese. The letter and the chart confirmed to Ringmann and Waldseemüller that Vespucci had indeed discovered a huge unknown land across the ocean to the west, in the Southern Hemisphere.

What happened next is unclear. At some time in 1505 or 1506, Ringmann and Waldseemüller decided that the land Vespucci had explored was not a part of Asia. Instead, they concluded that it must be a new, fourth part of the world.

Temporarily setting aside their work on their Ptolemy atlas, Ringmann and Waldseemüller threw themselves into the production of a grand new map that would introduce Europe to this new idea of a four-part world. The map would span 12 separate sheets, printed from carefully carved wood blocks; when pasted together, the sheets would measure a stunning 4 1/2 by 8 feet—creating one of the largest printed maps, if not the largest, ever produced to that time. In April of 1507, they began printing the map, and would later report turning out 1,000 copies.

Much of what the map showed would have come as no surprise to Europeans familiar with geography. Its depiction of Europe and North Africa derived directly from Ptolemy; sub- Saharan Africa derived from recent Portuguese nautical charts; and Asia derived from the works of Ptolemy and Marco Polo. But on the left side of the map was something altogether new. Rising out of the formerly uncharted waters of the Atlantic, stretching almost from the map's top to its bottom, was a strange new landmass, long and thin and mostly blank—and there, written across what is known today as Brazil, was a strange new name: America.

Libraries today list Martin Waldseemüller as the author of the Introduction to Cosmography, but the book does not actually single him out as such. It includes opening dedications by both him and Ringmann, but these refer to the map, not the text—and Ringmann's dedication comes first. In fact, Ringmann's fingerprints are all over the work. The book's author, for instance, demonstrates a familiarity with ancient Greek—a language that Ringmann knew well but Waldseemüller did not. The author embellishes his writing with snatches of verse by Virgil, Ovid and other classical writers—a literary tic that characterizes all of Ringmann's writing. And the one contemporary writer mentioned in the book was a friend of Ringmann's.

Ringmann the writer, Waldsee­müller the mapmaker: the two men would team up in precisely this way in 1511, when Waldseemüller printed a grand map of Europe. Accompanying the map was a booklet titled Description of Europe, and in dedicating his map to Duke Antoine of Lorraine, Waldseemüller made clear who had written the book. "I humbly beg of you to accept with benevolence my work," he wrote, "with an explanatory summary prepared by Ringmann." He might just as well have been referring to the Introduction to Cosmography.

Why dwell on this arcane question of authorship? Because whoever wrote the Introduction to Cosmography was almost certainly the person who coined the name "America"—and here, too, the balance tilts in Ringmann's favor. The famous naming-of-America paragraph sounds a lot like Ringmann. He's known, for example, to have spent time mulling over the use of feminine names for concepts and places. "Why are all the virtues, the intellectual qualities and the sciences always symbolized as if they belonged to the feminine sex?" he would write in a 1511 essay. "Where does this custom spring from: a usage common not only to the pagan writers but also to the scholars of the church? It originated from the belief that knowledge is destined to be fertile of good works....Even the three parts of the old world received the name of women."

Ringmann reveals his hand in other ways. In both poetry and prose he regularly amused himself by making up words, by punning in different languages and by investing his writing with hidden meanings. The naming-of-America passage is rich in just this sort of wordplay, much of which requires a familiarity with Greek. The key to the whole passage, almost always overlooked, is the curious name Amerigen (which Ringmann quickly Latinizes and then feminizes to come up with America). To get Amerigen, Ringmann combined the name Amerigo with the Greek word gen, the accusative form of a word meaning "earth," and by doing so coined a name that means—as he himself explains—"land of Amerigo."


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