By HELEN DALRYMPLE
German Chancellor Angela Merkel officially transferred the 1507 Waldseemüller map—the oldest known document to name "America"—from the German government to the American people in a ceremony at the Library of Congress on April 30. The map was purchased by the Library in 2003. (See Information Bulletin, September 2003.)
"Today is truly a great day," said Merkel. "A unique work of German cartographic art takes its rightful place in the Library of Congress. It is a very great pleasure for me to hand over this map today, 500 years after it was created…. I am convinced there can hardly be a more dignified and appropriate place for it… . We share the delights of this wonderful map, and we will send a lot of visitors over from Germany to see it."
Librarian of Congress James H. Billington welcomed Chancellor Merkel as "a very special woman of the 21st century…here to celebrate this extraordinary act of trans-Atlantic generosity." Merkel, who was sworn in as German Chancellor in November 2005, is the first woman and the first East German to hold this position. She is also serving in the rotating post of president of the European Union.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, majority leader of the House of Representatives, accepted the map on behalf of the people of the United States. He was standing in for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (whom he described as "another extraordinary woman of the 21st century"), who was in California for the funeral of Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald.
"This map and our friendship reflect our shared values and shared aspirations," said Hoyer. "On behalf of Speaker Pelosi and the bipartisan leadership of the Congress, we thank you and welcome you. We will make sure that everyone who visits this Library will understand that it is one of its greatest treasures. We will keep it well. Danke schön."
Billington gave a short history of the map, which was drawn by cartographer Martin Waldseemüller and a group of scholars known as the Gymnasium Vosagense, in Saint-Dié, France. "It was the first document of any kind to name the new continent [America] and to show that it was completely surrounded by water," he said. It is also the first map to depict a separate and full Western Hemisphere and the first to represent the Pacific Ocean as a separate body of water.
In creating the 1507 world map, Waldseemüller took into account information gathered from the voyages of Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci, as well as other unknown Portuguese and Spanish sources. The map's depiction of a new continent between two big oceans in a new hemisphere not attached to Asia reflected the biggest change in how the world was viewed since the second century work of Greek geographer Claudius Ptolemy. It was a modern view of the world.
Billington added that the map contains other information that was only later confirmed through historical writing. "Even now," he said, "exactly 500 years after its appearance, we marvel at its many elements of geographical and cartographic accuracy, and scholars are already seeking further information about the sources used to create it."
Long thought to be lost, the map was rediscovered in 1901 in a portfolio of maps owned by the family of Prince Waldburg-Wolfegg in Baden-Württemberg, Germany. Because of the map's cultural and historical significance, the Library had made many attempts to acquire it throughout the 20th century, but they were not successful until the Waldburg-Wolfegg family indicated that it was willing to sell the map. The state of Baden-Württemberg and the German national government issued export permits for this German national treasure.
"It had been well preserved by the family of Prince Johannes Waldburg-Wolfegg," said Billington, "and we appreciate Prince Johannes' support for bringing it to the Library of Congress … and the dedicated work of Margrit Krewson, a former head of our great German collections here at the Library, in making arrangements for this historic acquisition."
Merkel charmed the audience of German officials, distinguished German visitors, members of Congress and Library staff with her warm remarks about the longstanding friendship between the German and American peoples. She spoke principally in German, with an interpreter providing a consecutive translation.
"The map is important for the cultural identity of America," Merkel said. "For many years the Library of Congress tried to acquire it. Only in 2001, after Germany granted an export license, was it possible." Merkel acknowledged that the granting of the export license stirred up some opposition in Germany, but, she said, "I still think today it was the right decision."
She said the decision was taken also because of the "outstanding services the American people have rendered to the German people," by helping to defeat the German national socialist government during World War II, helping to rebuild the country after the war, and assisting with the peaceful reunification of Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
"The fact that I am standing here before you today is visible proof of this," she added.
Billington concluded the ceremony by thanking Chancellor Merkel and thanking the Congress for its support in providing a special appropriation to help purchase the map. He also acknowledged the private donors who made its acquisition, study and/or preservation possible: Discovery Communications, Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest, David Koch, George Tobolowsky and Virginia Gray and the Gray family in memory of Martin Gray.
Helen Dalrymple is a retired Library employee and the former editor of the Library of Congress Information Bulletin.