Cartography: the Waldseemüller map, 1507

Cartography: the Waldseemüller map, 1507

The advent of printing in Europe inaugurated a golden age of cartography. One of many early landmarks in this tradition is the Universalis Cosmographia published by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüllter in 1507.
This map is the culmination of several years of effort, centred Saint-Dié, Lorraine (France), to update geographical knowledge on the basis of a decade and more of Portuguese and Spanish voyages of exploration. Prior to 1507, all European maps had shown only the three continents known to the ancients: Africa, Asia, and Europe. Although Columbus had made four separate voyages to the New World between 1492 and 1504, he died still believing that he had found an archipelago off the west coast of Asia which he referred to as the ‘East Indies’. In 1501-2, however, the Italian cartographer Amerigo Vespucci had joined a Portuguese expedition which made such an extensive survey of the Brazilian coast that he returned to Europe convinced that these newfound lands were in fact a new continent. Drawing heavily on Vespucci’s data, Waldseemüller’s map was the first to depict the New World as a separate continent with a separate ocean to its west. In recognition of Vespucci’s priority in acknowledging the existence of this separate continent, Waldseemüller also named this new continent ‘America’ – the Latin version of his Christian name in its feminine form, to match Asia, Africa and Europa.
Although 1,000 copies are thought to have been printed, only one known copy survives: appropriately enough, in the Library of Congress, in Washington D.C. The full map can be explored on the Library’s website (here) and on an extensive new website created in partnership with the Museo Galileo in Florence. The outcome of three years of in-depth research, the website allows users ‘to explore the map’s wealth of historical, technical, scientific, and geographic data as well as to “read” the countless fascinating stories embedded in the Cosmographia.’

Credit: Howard Hotson (May 2019)