The Map That Named America
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Library Acquires 1507 Waldseemüller Map of the World


In late May 2003 the Library of Congress completed the purchase of the only surviving copy of the first image of the outline of the continents of the world as we know them today— Martin Waldseemüller's monumental 1507 world map.

The map has been referred to in various circles as America's birth certificate and for good reason; it is the first document on which the name "America" appears. It is also the first map to depict a separate and full Western Hemisphere and the first map to represent the Pacific Ocean as a separate body of water. The purchase of the map concluded a nearly century-long effort to secure for the Library of Congress that very special cartographic document which revealed new European thinking about the world nearly 500 years ago.

The Waldseemüller world map is currently on display in the Library's Thomas Jefferson Building in the exhibition honoring the Lewis and Clark expedition, "Rivers, Edens, Empires: Lewis & Clark and the Revealing of America." It will remain on display, either in the original or with an exact facsimile, until Nov. 29. A permanent site for the display of this historical treasure will be prepared in the Thomas Jefferson Building within the next year.

Martin Waldseemüller, the primary author of the 1507 world map, was a 16th-century scholar, humanist, cleric and cartographer who was part of the small intellectual circle, the Gymnasium Vosagense, in Saint-Dié, France. He was born near Freiburg, Germany, sometime in the 1470s and died in the canon house at Saint-Dié in 1522. During his lifetime he devoted much of his time to cartographic ventures, including, in the spring 1507, the famous world map, a set of globe gores (for a globe with a three-inch diameter), and the "Cosmographiae Introductio" (a book to accompany the map). He also prepared the 1513 edition of the Ptolemy "Geographiae"; the "Carta Marina," a large world map, in 1516; and a smaller world map in the 1515 edition of "Margarita Philosophica Nova."

Thus, in a remote part of northeast France, was born the famous 1507 world map, whose full title is "Universalis cosmographia secunda Ptholemei traditionem et Americi Vespucci aliorum que lustrationes" ("A drawing of the whole earth following the tradition of Ptolemy and the travels of Amerigo Vespucci and others"). That map, printed on 12 separate sheets, each 18-by-24-inches, from wood block plates, measured more than 4 feet by 8 feet in dimension when assembled.

The large map is an early 16th-century masterpiece, containing a full map of the world, two inset maps showing separately the Western and Eastern Hemispheres, illustrations of Ptolemy and Vespucci, images of the various winds, and extensive explanatory notes about selected regions of the world. Waldseemüller's map represented a bold statement that rationalized the modern world in light of the exciting news arriving in Europe as a result of explorations across the Atlantic Ocean or down the African coast, which were sponsored by Spain, Portugal and others.

The map must have created quite a stir in Europe, since its findings departed considerably from the accepted knowledge of the world at that time, which was based on the second century A.D. work of the Greek geographer, Claudius Ptolemy. To today's eye, the 1507 map appears remarkably accurate; but to the world of the early 16th century it must have represented a considerable departure from accepted views of the composition of the world. Its appearance undoubtedly ignited considerable debate in Europe regarding its conclusions that an unknown continent (unknown, at least, to Europeans and others in the Eastern Hemisphere) existed between two huge bodies of water, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and was separated from the classical world of Ptolemy, which had been confined to the continents of Europe, Africa and Asia.

While it has been suggested that Waldseemüller incorrectly dismissed Christopher Columbus' great achievement in history by the selection of the name "America" for the Western Hemisphere, it is evident that the information that Waldseemüller and his colleagues had at their disposal recognized Columbus' previous voyages of exploration and discovery. However, the group also had acquired a recent French translation of the important work "Mundus Novus," Amerigo Vespucci's letter detailing his purported four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean to America between 1497 and 1504. In that work, Vespucci concluded that the lands reached by Columbus in 1492 and explored by Columbus and others over the ensuing two decades were indeed a segment of the world, a new continent, unknown to Europe. Because of Vespucci's recognition of that startling revelation, he was honored with the use of his name for the newly discovered continent.

It is remarkable that the entire Western Hemisphere was named for a living person; Vespucci did not die until 1512. With regard to Columbus' exploits after 1492, i.e., his various explorations between 1492 and 1504, the 1507 map clearly denotes Columbus' explorations in the West Indies as well as the Spanish monarchs' sponsorship of those and subsequent voyages of exploration.

By 1513, when Waldseemüller and the Saint-Dié scholars published the new edition of Ptolemy's "Geographiae," and by 1516, when Waldseemüller's famous "Carta Marina" was printed, he had removed the name "America" from his maps, perhaps suggesting that even he had second thoughts about honoring Vespucci exclusively for his understanding of the New World. Instead, in the 1513 atlas, the area named "America" on the 1507 map is now referred to as Terra Incognita (Unknown Land). In the1516 "Carta Marina," South America is called Terra Nova (New World) and North America is named Cuba and is shown to be part of Asia. No reference in either work is made to the name "America."

Cartographic contributions by Johannes Schöner in 1515 and by Peter Apian in 1520, however, adopted the name "America" for the Western Hemisphere, and that name then became part of accepted usage.

A reported 1,000 copies of the 1507 map were printed, which was a sizeable print run in those days. This single surviving copy of the map exists because it was kept in a portfolio by Schöner (1477-1547), a German globe maker, who probably had acquired a copy of the map for his own cartographic work . That portfolio contained not only the unique copy of the 1507 world map but also a unique copy of Waldseemüller's 1516 large wall map (the "Carta Marina") and copies of Schöner's terrestrial (1515) and celestial (1517) globe gores.

At some later time, the family of Prince Waldburg-Wolfegg acquired and retained Schöner's portfolio of maps in their castle in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, where it remained unknown to scholars until the beginning of the 20th century when its extraordinary contents were revealed. The uncovering of the 1507 map in the Wolfegg Castle early last century is thought by many to have been one of the most extraordinary episodes in the history of cartographic scholarship.

The map sheets have been maintained separated—not joined, with each of the large maps composed of 12 separate sheets—and that is probably why they survived. The portfolio with its great treasure was uncovered and revealed to the world in 1901 by the Jesuit priest Josef Fischer, who was conducting research in the Waldburg collection.

The Library of Congress' Geography and Map Division acquired the facsimiles of the 1507 and 1516 maps in 1903. Throughout the 20th century the Library continued to express interest in and a desire to acquire the 1507 map, if it were ever made available for sale. That time came in 1992 when Prince Johannes Waldberg-Wolfegg, the owner of the map, revealed to Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, the Associate Librarian for Library Services Winston Tabb, and the chief of the Geography and Map Division Ralph Ehrenberg in a conversation in Washington that he was willing to negotiate the sale of the map. Ehrenberg and Margrit Krewson, the Library's German and Dutch area specialist, were encouraged to investigate the opportunity.

In 1999 Prince Waldburg-Wolfegg notified the Library that the German national government and the Baden-Württemberg state government had granted permission for a limited export license, which Krewson was instrumental in negotiating. Having obtained the license, which allowed this German national treasure to come to the Library of Congress, the Prince pursued an agreement to sell the 1507 map to the Library. In late June 2001 Prince Waldburg-Wolfegg and the Library of Congress reached a final agreement on the sale of the map for the price of $10 million. In late May 2003 the Library completed a successful campaign to raise the necessary funds to purchase Waldseemüller's 1507 world map, after receiving substantial congressional and private support to achieve the terms of the contract. The Congress of the United States appropriated $5 million for the purchase of the map; Discovery Communications, Jerry Lenfest and David Koch provided substantial contributions; and other individuals (George Tobolowsky and Virginia Gray) gave matching funds for the purchase and additional support for its preservation, exhibition and study.

Through the combined efforts of Billington, Tabb and members of the Library's staff over the past 11 years, the map was able to leave Germany and come to the Library of Congress.

The 1507 world map is now the centerpiece of the outstanding cartographic collections of the Geography and Map Division in the Library of Congress. The map serves as a departure point for the development of the division's American cartographic collection in addition to its revered position in early modern cartographic history. The map provides a meaningful link between the Library's treasured late medieval-early Renaissance cartographic collection (which includes one of the richest holdings of Ptolemy atlases in the world) and the modern cartographic age that unfolded as a result of the explorations of Columbus and other discoverers in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. It represents the point of departure from the geographical understanding of the world based on Ptolemy's "Cosmographiae" and "Geographiae" (editions from 1475-) to that emerging in the minds of scholars and practical navigators as reports of the "new worlds" of America, southern Africa and other regions of Asia and Oceania reached Europe's shores. Waldseemüller recognized the transition taking place, as the title of his map notes and as his prominent placement of images of Ptolemy and Vespucci next to their worlds at the top portion of the 1507 world map denotes.

The Waldseemüller map joins the rich cartographic holdings of the Library's Geography and Map Division, which include some 4.8 million maps, 65,000 atlases, more than 500 globes and globe gores, and thousands of maps in digital form. And from that fragile first glimpse of the world, so adequately described by Waldseemüller in 1507, the Library of Congress' cartographic resources provide the historical breadth and cartographic depth to fill in the geographic blanks left by those early cosmographers.

The Library's acquisition of the Waldseemüller map represents an important moment to renew serious research into this exceptional map, to determine the sources which made possible its creation, and to investigate its contemporary impact and acceptance. The map's well-announced acquisition provides scholars with an extraordinary opportunity to appreciate the earliest of early depictions of our modern world. Major portions of this 1507 world map have not received the same concentrated scrutiny as the American segments. The very detailed depiction of sub-Saharan Africa, the south coast of Asia, and even the areas surrounding the Black and Caspian seas merit further study and discussion in response to obvious questions regarding the cartographic and geographic sources that were available and used by the Saint-Dié scholars to reach the conclusions that they embodied in the 1507 world map.

Through agreement with Prince Waldburg-Wolfegg and the government of Germany, the 1507 Waldseemüller world map is to be placed on permanent display in the Library of Congress' Thomas Jefferson Building. A second floor gallery, the Pavilion of the Discoverers, has been chosen as an appropriate location to house the map, where it will be exhibited with supporting materials from the Library's collections that will assist in describing the rich history surrounding the map and its relation to its creators and the sources used to prepare it in the 16th century.


The Library of Congress is extremely proud to have obtained this unique treasure and is hopeful that this great cartographic document will receive the public acclaim and the critical scholarly inspection that it so rightly merits.

John R. Hébert is the chief of the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress, USA.