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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Fischer began examining the first map in the folio. Its title, running in block letters across the bottom of the map, read, THE WHOLE WORLD ACCORDING TO THE TRADITION OF PTOLEMY AND THE VOYAGES OF AMERIGO VESPUCCI AND OTHERS. This language brought to mind the Introduction to Cosmography, a work Fischer knew well, as did the portraits of Ptolemy and Vespucci that he saw at the top of the map.

Could this be...the map? Fischer began to study it sheet by sheet. Its two center sheets, which showed Europe, northern Africa, the Middle East and western Asia, came straight from Ptolemy. Farther to the east, it presented the Far East as described by Marco Polo. Southern Africa reflected the nautical charts of the Portuguese.

It was an unusual mix of styles and sources: precisely the sort of synthesis, Fischer realized, that the Introduction to Cosmography had promised. But he began to get truly excited when he turned to the map's three western sheets. There, rising out of the sea and stretching from the top to bottom, was the New World, surrounded by water.

A legend at the bottom of the page corresponded verbatim to a paragraph in the Introduction to Cosmography. North America appeared on the top sheet, a runt version of its modern self. Just to the south lay a number of Caribbean islands, among them two big ones identified as Spagnolla and Isabella. A small legend read, "These islands were discovered by Columbus, an admiral of Genoa, at the command of the King of Spain." Moreover, the vast southern landmass stretching from above the Equator to the bottom of the map was labeled DISTANT UNKNOWN LAND. Another legend read THIS WHOLE REGION WAS DISCOVERED BY THE ORDER OF THE KING OF CASTILE. But what must have brought Fischer's heart to his mouth was what he saw on the bottom sheet: AMERICA.

The 1507 map! It had to be. Alone in the little garret in the tower of Wolfegg Castle, Father Fischer realized that he had discovered the most sought-after map of all time.

Fischer took the news of his discovery straight to his mentor, the renowned Innsbruck geographer Franz Ritter von Wieser. In the fall of 1901, after intense study, the two went public. The reception was ecstatic. "Geographical students in all parts of the world have awaited with the deepest interest details of this most important discovery," the Geographical Journal declared, breaking the news in a February 1902 essay, "but no one was probably prepared for the gigantic cartographical monster which Prof. Fischer has now awakened from so many centuries of peaceful slumber." On March 2 the New York Times followed suit: "There has lately been made in Europe one of the most remarkable discoveries in the history of cartography," its report read.

Interest in the map grew. In 1907, the London-based bookseller Henry Newton Stevens Jr., a leading dealer in Americana, secured the rights to put the 1507 map up for sale during its 400th-anniversary year. Stevens offered it as a package with the other large Waldseemüller map—the Carta Marina of 1516, which had also been bound into Schöner's folio—for $300,000, or about $7 million in today's currency. But he found no takers. The 400th anniversary passed, two world wars and the cold war engulfed Europe, and the Waldseemüller map, left alone in its tower garret, went to sleep for another century.

Today, at last, the map is awake again—this time, it would appear, for good. In 2003, after years of negotiation with the owners of Wolfegg Castle and the German government, the Library of Congress acquired it for $10 million. On April 30, 2007, almost exactly 500 years after its making, German Chancellor Angela Merkel officially transferred the map to the United States. That December, the Library of Congress put it on permanent display in its grand Jefferson Building, where it is the centerpiece of an exhibit titled "Exploring the Early Americas."

As you move through it, you pass a variety of priceless cultural artifacts made in the pre-Columbian Americas, and a choice selection of original texts and maps dating from the period of first contact between the New World and the Old. Finally you arrive at an inner sanctum, and there, reunited with the Introduction to Cosmography, the Carta Marina and a few other select geographical treasures, is the Waldseemüller map. The room is quiet, the lighting dim. To study the map you have to move close and peer carefully through the glass—and when you do, it begins to tell its stories.

Adapted from The Fourth Part of the World, by Toby Lester. © 2009 Toby Lester. Published by the Free Press. Reproduced with permission.


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