Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Globemaker’s Toolbox

Waldseemüller World Map (detail) – Library of Congress - A plate of the 1507 world map made by the clerics Martin Waldseemüller and Mathias Ringmann.

              One of the best cartographic mysteries of all time involves the 1507 Waldseemüller map of the world.  One of the first world maps to show the New World, the only remaining print of it languished for centuries, hidden in the library of a remote castle in Germany, rediscovered only in 1901.   The importance of the map, among other things, is that it is believed to be the first world map to name the American continents “America,” after Amerigo Vespucci, whom the map makers believed was the actual discoverer of the land.  
There is an excellent book about the seminal Waldseemüller map, called The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map that Gave America its Name by Toby Lester (2009).  Some of you may recall that I mentioned this book in my blog post listing good Geography Beach Books, and it is a worthy read.  In fact, everything on that list is a worthy read, and I intend to update that list for your summer reading pleasure with all the many new and interesting geography-related books that have arrived in the interim. 
            There is now a new book out on the story of the Waldseemüller map and the young protégé, Johannes Schöner, who made an accurate globe based on it.  The book is called A Renaissance Globemaker’s Toolbox: Johannes Schöner and the Revolution of Modern Science 1475-1550, by John Hessler.  It is unknown how the map makers produced the outline of South America so accurately at such an early date, prior to the voyages of discovery that would have provided that information.  That is also one of the map’s mysteries.  One of my favorite quotes from the book is what Waldseemüller himself wrote about the map, in order to prepare map readers for the strange sights they would see on his map: “if you are not familiar with the new discoveries, do not be afraid of what it is you see on this map, for it is how you will come to see your world in the future.”  Isn’t that the dream for any cartographer, to be able to produce a map that will open our eyes to new possibilities, a new world, a new future?  
            I am pasting below the excellent NYT article by one of my favorite science writers, John Noble Wilford, about the map, the book, Waldseemüller, Schöner, and the incredible world they found themselves in at the dawn of the 16th century.

Why America Is Called America by John Noble Wilford

A DECADE AGO, the Library of Congress paid $10 million to acquire the only known original copy of a 1507 world map that has been called “the birth certificate of America.” The large map, a masterpiece of woodblock printing, has been a star attraction at the library ever since and the object of revived scholarly fascination about the earliest cartography of the New World.  The research has also rescued from obscurity a little-known Renaissance man, the 16th-century globe maker Johannes Schöner, who was responsible for saving the map for posterity.
We call ourselves Americans today because of the map’s makers, Martin Waldseemüller and Mathias Ringmann, young clerics in the cathedral village of St.-Dié, France.  By incorporating early New World discoveries, their map reached beyond the canonical descriptions of Old World geography handed down from Ptolemy in the second century.  On a lower stretch of the southern continent, the mapmakers inscribed the name “America” in the mistaken belief that Amerigo Vespucci, not Columbus, deserved credit for first sighting a part of that continent, South America.
Or possibly they favored Vespucci because he held more firmly to the growing consensus that this was indeed a New World, not the Indies (as Columbus so wanted to believe), and because he wrote more colorfully than Columbus about the people he encountered.
The map is also the source of an abiding mystery.  How did Waldseemüller and Ringmann already know so well the configuration of South America, before any recorded Spanish or Portuguese voyages around the horn to the west coast? How did they know of the Pacific before Balboa made his sighting in 1513?  Hard to believe it was just a guess or futuristic vision of what world geography would come to be.
Were the cartographers themselves dropping a hint when they wrote on the map that “if you are not familiar with the new discoveries, do not be afraid of what it is you see on this map, for it is how you will come to see your world in the future”?
Five years ago, John W. Hessler, a historian of cartography at the library, published “The Naming of America,” an account of the map’s importance in post-Ptolemy geography, its disappearance for centuries and its rediscovery in a castle near the Black Forest in southwestern Germany.  Now, Dr. Hessler has dug deeper into the dynamic of the years between Columbus, in 1492, and Copernicus, in 1543.  Science and exploration were stretching minds to distant horizons, once unknown.  Copernican astronomy was about to dislodge Earth from the center of the universe, a start to the Scientific Revolution.
His new book, “A Renaissance Globemaker’s Toolbox,” is not able to solve the mapmakers’ enduring mystery.  But it is a richly illustrated delight to the eye.  I advise a slow tour of the maps, drawings, marginal notes and other material remains of Schöner’s wide-ranging mind.  Read the informative captions, then begin the text.
General readers will find the accounts of Schöner’s place in history and the preservation of the map lucid and fascinating.  Parts of more technical chapters, like the instructions on making a terrestrial globe, appear to be written more for the author’s academic peers than for many laypeople.  And of necessity, this is hardly a flesh-and-blood biography, as the archives are largely silent about Schöner’s personal life.
We do see a print of a bearded, heavyset man and read a brief diary entry about him as a young Catholic cleric with a relaxed view of celibacy: he entered into a relationship with a woman that produced three children.  One can thus understand his conversion to Protestantism in Martin Luther’s Reformation. That led him to the professorship in mathematics at Nuremberg, which he held to his death in 1547.
Dr. Hessler leaned heavily on Schöner’s personal archive of correspondence and manuscripts, books and maps, including corrections and comments in the margins. He was into everything in science: completing two world globes in his prime, drawing celestial maps and globes and preparing horoscopes, one even for a Hapsburg emperor.  Not another Leonardo da Vinci, but who was?
“          Rather than a producer of theories,” Dr. Hessler observes, Schöner “was instead a disseminator, a compiler and a transmitter of the new science and mathematics.”  Yes, something of a pack rat, but one with a sharp eye for what was likely to be of importance in the future. This attribute cast Schöner as savior of the 1507 world map. His practice was to gather and bind portfolios of his compiled materials. One of these, now called Schöner Sammelband (meaning “gathering”), preserved the “America” map. There it passed from hand to hand, all the other original prints disappeared, and Schöner’s was lost for more than 300 years. Most of the bound portfolios wound up in a Vienna library, but one languished in a German castle, unrecognized, until a Jesuit priest found it in 1901 — thence to the United States in 2003.
Nothing in the book points up more clearly Schöner’s pivotal place in a world in transition from the medieval to the modern than his residual interest in astrology and his awakening curiosity when he apparently heard reports of a new theory being formulated by a Polish Catholic cleric. A brilliant young student of Schöner’s, Georg Joachim Rheticus, went to see Copernicus in 1539 and learned more about the Earth orbiting the Sun. Rheticus then composed a short treatise, written in the form of a letter to his teacher, “most illustrious and learned” Johannes Schöner.
The publication, widely circulated in Europe, was the first definitive account of the new Copernican system of the heavens.

For an excerpt of a few pages from the book The Globemaker’s Toolbox, see the NYT at:

The wall map consists of twelve sections printed from woodcuts measuring 18 x 24.5 inches. Each section is one of four horizontally and three vertically, when assembled.  The map uses a modified Ptolemaic Map projection with curved meridians to depict the entire surface of the Earth.  In the upper-mid part of the main map there is inset another, miniature world map representing to some extent an alternative view of the world.  The full title of the map is Universalis cosmographia secundum Ptholomaei traditionem et Americi Vespucii aliorumque lustrationes ("The Universal Cosmography according to the Tradition of Ptolemy and the Discoveries of Amerigo Vespucci and others" - amongst the "others" being Columbus - who gets short shrift in the naming of the continents!). The map is held by the US Library of Congress, and a facsimile is on display there.  

Detail of the map, showing part of the land mass the map makers decided to call “America.”

For the post on Geography Beach Books, see:

The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map that Gave America its Name, by Toby Lester, Free Press, 2009. 


  1. Sorry, there is now a here book out on the story of the Waldseemuller map, the book is called:
    America 1507 la genesi del Mondo, by Diego Baratono - Claudio Piani. (2013

  2. Nice! thank you so much! Thank you for sharing. Your blog posts are more interesting and informative.
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