By HEATHER WANSER
The only known copy of the first map to introduce the name "America" to the world arrived at the Conservation Division of the Library of Congress on June 27, 2001. The earliest known wall map, a woodcut, it is printed on 12 sheets of paper each measuring approximately 18 inches by 24 inches. When assembled, the map spans an impressive 4.5 feet by 8 feet. It appears to be uncolored although it actually has some hand-drawn red lines on two center sections.
The map came bound in a handsome 16th century German binding, or portfolio, decorated with a tooled leather spine, and with wood covers held shut with two brass clasps. Also in the portfolio was another 12-sheet wall map by Waldseemüller, the Carta Marina (1516), along with a set of terrestrial and celestial globe gores by Johann Schöner (1477-1557). Schöner was an astronomer-geographer who is known as the first map-maker to issue globes in pairs. He used the name "America" on his 1515 terrestrial globe gores, thus helping to perpetuate the use of the name even after Waldseemüller had abandoned it in 1513. Schöner's bookplate is inside the front cover, suggesting that it was he who helped to preserve these maps by placing them in the portfolio.
Library conservators treated only the 1507 Cosmographia Mundi. It was, in fact, the desire of Prince Wolfegg, the previous owner of the map, to have it removed from the portfolio binding and assembled so that it could be displayed and viewed in its entirety, as Waldseemüller had originally intended. This map had been removed from the portfolio on two other occasions: in 1902, in order to make a lithographic reproduction of it shortly after its discovery by Josef Fischer; and for its display in 1992 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
Before any treatment began, the map was fully examined, and its condition recorded in a report containing a series of photographs. Conservators used a variety of aids to examine the map, including a binocular microscope to view details, and transmitted, infrared and ultraviolet light to reveal features not visible in normal light. A special photographic process, called beta radiography, was used to make an image of the "crown" watermark found on each of the paper sheets of the 1507 map. Other documentation included recording pH readings for future comparison and taking pigment and fiber samples for analysis.
The 12 sections of the map were easily removed from the binding by locally softening the adhesive that adhered each to a guard in the portfolio. Conservators applied tiny amounts of water to the guard until the adhesive softened enough to seprate it from the map. Adhesive residues were gently removed with moistened cotton swabs. To maintain the structure of the binding after the map was removed, 12 sheets of handmade rag paper, cut to the same size as the map sections, were attached to the same guards that held the map sections.
The 1507 map required relatively little treatment for two reasons. First, it was printed on high quality handmade rag paper that, despite some old adhesive stains on the back, was still in good condition. And second, it had been treated extensively when it was prepared for exhibition in 1991. A few minor tears had to be mended and a small paper loss was filled with compatible antique paper. "Printer's creases," formed when the paper is creased upon itself during printing, had opened on three of the sections revealing an unprinted gap in the design. To restore the design, the area was locally humidified until the paper was relaxed enough to refold it back to the way it looked when it was freshly printed.
Part of the Library's preservation strategy was to prepare a digital scan of the map. A digital image gives researchers easy access to the map and allows the production of an exact facsimile for display purposes. Before the map could be scanned, each section had to be flattened, because design elements were obscured in the centerfold. Each section was briefly humidified by introducing water vapor through Gore-tex fabric. The relaxed and expanded paper was then "stretched dry" by placing weights around the outer edges to gently restrain the paper as it dried. This method avoids contact with the embossed relief of the woodcut print.
Conservators measured the light sensitivity of the media on the 1507 map (red pigment, an iron gall ink inscription and black printing ink) to establish safe exhibit guidelines. The results indicated that the media were not extremely sensitive to light. A secondary finding indicated that the red lines were most likely made with brazilwood, a red pigment commonly used in Waldseemüller's time.
Waldseemüller had said that 1000 copies of his Cosmographia Mundi were printed, yet none was known until Josef Fischer came across this copy in the Waldburg collection in 1901. Fischer believed that the map he found was a proof copy; however, other scholars are not convinced. A new finding may fuel the debate: on the reverse side of one of the map's sections, (the section with the name "America,") Library conservators discovered an identical offset image. This image was likely made when it was placed upon another freshly printed section. This might suggest that multiple printings of the map were made, thus supporting Waldseemüller's own account.
Another new finding is the heretofore-undocumented discovery of a life-size figure of a fly near Vespucci's head. Is this a bit of whimsy on the part of the artist or does it have special significance? One source suggests that during the mid-15th and early 16th centuries, European artists often placed a fly in a painting to "serve as a talisman against real insects which otherwise might settle and leave their dirt marks" on the art work.
The preparation of the map for exhibition was especially challenging because of its large size and complex format. A special frame, and a case and cart to transport it, was custom- designed and made. The environment within the frame had to protect the map from fluctuating changes in the relative humidity, pollutants inside and outside the housing, and ultraviolet light. A special laminate safety glass was used to protect the interior climate, because the glass, unlike a plastic glazing, is impervious to humidity and pollutants. The map was hinged to a support made with a special rag board that contains "molecular traps" to absorb contaminants in the environment. And the interior climate of the frame was sealed with large sheets of a special laminated aluminum foil that acts as a vapor barrier.
The successful installation of the map was carried out by the combined efforts of the Office of Interpretive Programs and the Preservation Division. Special thanks go to the assembled team from the Architect of the Capitol's paint, carpentry and sheet metal shops who uncrated the 185-pound sheet of glass and safely maneuvered it through the multiple stages of the framing process.
The Cosmographia Mundi, once available only to a few, is now accessible at the Library of Congress where, 500 years later, it still captivates the viewer's imagination with the same degree of amazement as it must have engendered when it was first published in 1507.
Heather Wanser is a senior paper conservator in the Library's Conservation Division.