Wednesday, 28 October 2009
The map that changed the world
Drawn half a millennium ago and then swiftly forgotten, one map made us see the world as we know it today… and helped name America. But, as Toby Lester has discovered, the most powerful nation on earth also owes its name to a pun.
Almost exactly 500 years ago, in 1507, Martin Waldseemuller and Matthias Ringmann, two obscure Germanic scholars based in the mountains of eastern France, made one of the boldest leaps in the history of geographical thought – and indeed in the larger history of ideas.
Near the end of an otherwise plodding treatise titled Introduction to Cosmography, they announced to their readers the astonishing news that the world did not just consist of Asia, Africa, and Europe, the three parts of the world known since antiquity. A previously unknown fourth part of the world had recently been discovered, they declared, by the Italian merchant Amerigo Vespucci, and in his honour they had decided to give it a name: America.
But that was just the beginning. Waldseemuller and Ringman in fact had written the Introduction to Cosmography merely as a companion volume to their magnum opus: a giant and revolutionary new map of the world. It’s known today as the Waldseemuller map of 1507.
The Waldseemuller map was – and still is – an astonishing sight to behold. Drawn 15 years after Columbus first sailed across the Atlantic, and measuring a remarkable 8ft wide by 4½ft high, it introduced Europeans to a fundamentally new understanding of the make-up of the earth.
The map represented a remarkable number of historical firsts. In addition to giving America its name, it was also the first map to portray the New World as a separate continent – even though Columbus, Vespucci, and other early explorers would all insist until their dying day that they had reached the far-eastern limits of Asia.
The map was the first to suggest the existence of what explorer Ferdinand Magellan would later call the Pacific Ocean, a mysterious decision, in that Europeans, according to the standard history of New World discovery, aren’t supposed to have learned about the Pacific until several years later.
World of four parts
The map was one of the first documents to reveal the full extent of Africa’s coastline, which had only very recently been circumnavigated by the Portuguese. Perhaps most significant, it was also one of the first maps to lay out a vision of the world using a full 360 degrees of longitude. In short, it was the the mother of all modern maps: the first document to depict the world roughly as we know it today.
In the years after 1507, copies of the Waldseemuller map began turning up at universities all over central Europe. There, displayed in classrooms and discussed by geographers and travellers alike, its vision of a four-part world insinuated itself into the popular imagination.
Waldseemuller himself would later record that 1,000 copies of the map had been printed, a very substantial number for the day. But the rapid pace of geographical discovery meant that copies of the map were soon discarded in favour of newer, more up-to-date pictures of the world, and by 1570 it had all but vanished from memory.
When the map maker Abraham Ortelius that year published a comprehensive list of his cartographical predecessors and their maps, he mentioned Waldseemuller but made no reference to the great 1507 map.
Last surviving copy
Fortunately, one copy did survive. Sometime between 1515 and 1517, the Nuremburg mathematician Johannes Schoner acquired a reprint of the map, bound it into an oversized folio, and made it part of his reference library.
In the years immediately afterward, Schoner studied the map carefully, but as the decades wore on, as newer maps became available, and as his own interests shifted from geography to astronomy, he consulted the folio less and less. By the time he died, in 1545, he probably hadn’t opened it in years. The last remaining copy of the Waldseemuller map, beautifully preserved in Schoner’s folio, had begun a long slumber – and wouldn’t be roused again for some 350 years.
As is so often the case with historical treasures, the map was rediscovered by accident.
In the summer of 1901, while doing research in the library of Wolfegg Castle, in southern Germany, a Jesuit geography teacher named Joseph Fischer stumbled across the Schoner folio and quickly realized what he had found.
Within months his discovery was international news. “LONG SOUGHT MAP DISCOVERED,” a New York Times headline announced in March of 1902. “EARLIEST KNOWN RECORD OF THE WORD AMERICA FINALLY BROUGHT TO LIGHT.”
The map remained in the Wolfegg collection for the next hundred years – until 2003, when the US Library of Congress announced, with great fanfare, that it had acquired the map from the castle’s owner for the staggering sum of $10m.
It was the highest price the library had ever paid for anything in its vast collection. Proudly, in its press release the library referred to the map as America’s “birth certificate”.
Value for money?
Was it worth the price? Some observers grumbled that it was not. But now that the map is on public display at the library, scholars and generalists alike have been looking at it with fresh eyes—and what is coming into focus is a document that is far richer, far stranger, and much more historically valuable than had previously been imagined.
The map turns out to be an enormously revealing patchwork of several different kinds of maps: the world as depicted by the ancient Greeks and Romans, as diagrammed by Europe’s Christian theologians, and as charted by the sailors who plied the waters of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.
There’s more. The name America, for example, very probably represents not just a tip of the hat to Amerigo Vespucci but also a multilingual pun that can mean both “born new” and “no-place-land” – a playful coinage that seems to have inspired Sir Thomas More to invent his new world across the ocean, one meaning of which was also “no-place”: Utopia.
The map itself seems also to have made a powerful impression on none other than Nicholas Copernicus, who began his landmark On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres by describing America as he saw it depicted on the map, and who then went on to argue that the existence of a fourth part of the world meant that the traditional model not only of the earth but also the cosmos would have to be rethought.
For the only surviving copy of the map that not only gave America its name and introduced the New World to Europe but also helped Copernicus rethink the cosmos, $10m seems a very reasonable price to pay.