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The document is a map--and so Mr. Lester's book is in essence about cartography, and sixteenth century cartography at that, a specialist's dream. But the tale of the making and then the hiding and the losing and the finding of this extraordinary and very large document--it called the Waldseemüller Map, and it now belongs to the Library of Congress--is sufficiently exciting to be almost unbearably thrilling. And anyone who can make cartography thrill deserves a medal, at the very least.
The mapmakers in question were German: Martin Waldseemüller and his poetically-inclined colleague, Mathias Ringmann. Come the beginning of the sixteenth century, and working in southern France these two, like many in the European intellectual world, were beginning to hear rumors that a new continent had lately been found, halfway between Spain and Japan. (This was fifteen years after Columbus, who still had no clue what he had found in 1492--to his dying day he insisted that he had merely found a hitherto unknown piece of Asia.)
The rumors swiftly became accepted fact: in the early 1500s the pair came across two printed accounts of the alleged new continent--accounts that were prolix, flamboyant, unreliable and in parts very saucy (there was material relating to the cosmetic self-mutilation, anal cleanliness and sexual practices of the locals) written by a colourful Italian explorer and sorcerer named Amerigo Vespucci. Crucially Vespucci claimed in one of these papers that “on this last voyage of mine…I have discovered a continent in those southern regions that is inhabited by more numerous peoples than in our Europe, Asia or Africa, and in addition I found a more pleasant and temperate climate than in any other region known to us…”
As it happened, the mapmakers had already been commissioned to create a new world map--and so on it, they both agreed after reading Vespucci's accounts, they would now draw this new body of land, and they would give it a name. After some head-scratching they agreed the name should be the feminine form of the Latinised version of Amerigo Vespucci's Christian name: the properly feminine place-nouns of Africa, Asia and Europe would now be joined, quite simply, by a brand-new entity that they would name America.
And so, in 1507, their map was duly published; and in large letters across the southern half of the southern continental discovery, just where Brazil is situated today, was the single word: America. It was written in majuscule script, was a tiny bit crooked, curiously out of scale and looking a little last-minute and just a little tentative--but nevertheless and incontrovertibly, it was there.
It caught on: a globe published in Paris in 1515 placed the word on both segments of the continent, north and south. The word was published in many books in central Europe--Strasbourg in 1509, Poland in 1512, Vienna in 1520; it was found in a Spanish book in 1520. In Strasbourg, five years later, another book lists 'America' as one of the world's regions and finally, in 1538, Mercator, the new arbiter of the planet's geography, placed the names North America and South America squarely on the two halves of the fourth continent. And with that, the name was secure; and it would never be changed again.
Toby Lester has done American history the greatest service by writing this elegant and thoughtful account of the one morsel of cartographic history that would shake the world's foundations. We are told that this is his first book: may we hope that he writes many more, for his is a rare and masterly talent. --SW
(Photo © Setsuko Winchester)
Click to discover the Waldseemüller map legend
This legend highlights an idea that's almost completely forgotten today: that the New World was remarkable to Europeans in 1507 because it lay not just to the west but also to the south. Read more
The portrait shown here is an idealized depiction of the ancient Greek sage Claudius Ptolemy. Read more
The portrait shown here, an obvious companion to the portrait of Ptolemy to its left, is an idealized portrait of Amerigo Vespucci...Read more
Here, printed in block letters on what we know today as Brazil, is the first use of the name America on a map. Read more
Should be required reading for all schools as part of history & geographyPublished 13 days ago by Mrs. Carole
Intriguing, but not enough to hold my attention after reading about a third of the book.Published 1 month ago by Amazon Customer
I would have loved to read this book. but, it never downloaded and I could not fix it...so, too bad. Live and learn, I guess.Published 1 month ago by Mike3746
I'm finding this book fascinating. The perspective, sort of a history of the Western world seen through maps -- or, more broadly, geography -- is totally new to me. Read morePublished 10 months ago by Hampden H. Smith III
I really enjoyed reading this book. The author makes the dreams and ideas of the 13th to 16th century come alive. Read morePublished 16 months ago by Dale DePriest
This is a book about the history of cartography. I recommend having an atlas nearby. The research that went into this book is so incredible. Read morePublished 16 months ago by Margaret M. Glenn
Toby Lester's book, ostensibly about the Waldseemüller map of 1507, but it is about so much more. Read morePublished 19 months ago by Gene Rhea Tucker