For the first time since its rediscovery in 1901, the 1507 world map by Martin Waldseemüller was the subject of a symposium, held at the Library of Congress May 14-15.
“Exploring Waldseemüller’s World,” sponsored by the Library’s Geography and Map Division, brought together a distinguished group of 400 scholars from around the world to discuss the history and production of the map—the first to depict a landmass separated by water from Europe, Africa and Asia and to name it “America.”
Speakers provided a glimpse into Waldseemüller’s 16th-century world of intellectual foment and the changing views of geographers and astronomers. They posed some new theories of exploration, map-dating, renaissance art in print-making and other subjects.
The symposium, which focuses not only on Waldseemüller’s cartographic vision but also on the times in which he lived, included papers about Johann Schöner, the original owner of the Library of Congress’s copy, by Owen Gingerich, professor emeritus of the history of science at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and John Hessler, a senior reference librarian in the Library’s Geography and Map Division and fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
Gingerich concentrated on Schöner’s activity as an astronomer and as a humanist scientist who was active during Waldseemüller’s time. Gingerich used Schöner’s writings and letters as case study to show how information moved in scientific and cartographic circles in the early 16th century. Hessler reported on Schöner’s unpublished manuscripts and annotations and discussed the globemaker’s geographic theorizing in an effort to elucidate for the audience how Waldseemüller’s 1507 map may have been used by its public.
The difficulties in trying to come to terms with the 1507 map’s complicated relationship to both Portuguese and Spanish exploration was dealt with in a series of papers by Nicolás Wey-Gómez, associate professor of Hispanic studies at Brown University; Rita Costa-Gomes, assistant professor of history at Towson University; Allison Sandman, assistant professor of history at James Madison University; and Peter Dickson, an independent scholar.
All of the speakers presented a multidisciplinary framework from which to approach what is a complex and open historical question regarding the transmission of information about the early explorations of Columbus and Vespucci to the St. Dié group that created the map. Although most scholars believe that the 1507 map displays information relating to the early explorations of these two great sailors, how this information about their exploits arrived in the village of St. Dié in the early 16th century remains an open and controversial question.
Considerable discussion at the symposium revolved around the reception of new geographical information in humanist circles in Germany during the early 16th century and its relationship to the older geography of Ptolemy. Christine Johnson, associate professor of history at Washington University and a Kluge Fellow, concentrated on German intellectual communities at the beginning of the period and how Waldseemüller’s map contributed to the understanding of the new geography brought about by the discoveries of Vespucci and Columbus.
In this same vein, Susan Dackerman, curator of prints at the Harvard University Art Museum, examined the role of artists and printing in the transmission of scientific and cartographic information in early 16th century Nurnberg. Dackerman, an expert in Renaissance printing, told the audience about the role of print design in science and cartography and about the possible artists who might have been involved in the creation of the 1507 map. The subject is a difficult one and has not often been discussed in the literature about the map, for even though the 1507 world map is a masterpiece of Renaissance printing, scholars still do not know either who printed it or who might have cut the woodblocks from which it was printed.
Two of the speakers at the symposium dealt with the controversies surrounding the date of Library’s copy of the 1507 map and its missing or lost geographic sources. S. Blair Hedges, professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University, used a new imaging technique combined with statistical analysis to confirm older studies that show that the Library’s copy was most probably printed around 1515. In practical terms, this means that after Waldseemüller created the 1507 map, the woodblocks from which it was made survived for at least 10 years, at which time another copy was luckily made from the same blocks.
Chet van Duzer, in perhaps one of the most discussed papers of the conference, postulated a lost cartographic source for the 1507 map by tracing the origins of the legends of sea monsters that Waldseemüller placed in various locations on his map to particular medieval sources and travelers’ tales.
Many questions about the map remained unanswered at the end of the symposium. What was the purpose of the map? What sources of information about the earlier voyages of Amerigo Vespucci and Christopher Columbus informed Waldseemüller’s creation of his world map and how did he get that information? How was the map received?
Much more scholarly work needs to be accomplished to unravel the mystery of the 1507 map.
Martin Waldseemüller, the primary creator of the map, was a 16th-
century scholar, humanist, cleric and cartographer. He and his collaborator Matthias Ringmann were part of a small intellectual circle, the Gymnasium Vosagense, located in St. Dié, France.
Waldseemüller was born near Freiburg, Germany, sometime in the 1470s, and died in the canon house of the Cathedral at St. Dié around 1522. During his lifetime, he and his colleagues in St. Dié devoted much of their activities to cartographic ventures, creating the famous 1507 world map, which is the first to use the name “America” and to show a Pacific Ocean, a set of globe gores, and a guidebook to the 1507 map titled the Cosmographiae Introductio.
The scholars at St. Dié were also responsible for several other important cartographic works, such as the 1513 edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia and the Carta Marina, another large world map that dates from 1516.
John Hessler, a senior reference librarian in the Library’s Geography and Map Division, contributed to this article.