The American continent might have been named ‘Columbia’, after Christopher Columbus, were it not for a sixteenth-century German cartographer, Martin Waldseemüller.
On a global map produced in 1507, Waldseemüller famously dubbed the New World ‘America’ — in honour of the Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci, whom he mistook as having discovered the continent. In 2007, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel presented the precious, three-square-metre wall map to the Library of Congress in Washington DC.
But today librarians at the Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU) of Munich, Germany, announced that they have just discovered, between the pages of an otherwise unremarkable antique geometry book, a different version of that map (picture), also printed in 1507. It is one of the very few surviving ‘globe-segment’ maps, of which 100 or so may have been produced in Waldseemüller’s workshop in the monastery of Saint-Dié-des-Vosges in Alsace (now part of France). Only four copies were previously known to researchers — one is now in Minneapolis, Minnesota; two are in Germany and the fourth was sold at auction in 2005, for US$1 million.
Segment maps were important for the dissemination of the still-rudimentary geographical knowledge during the sixteenth century. The chance finding in Munich depicts the world in 12 individual segments on a single sheet, which can be arranged to form a small globe.
The three right-most wedges show a small boomerang-shaped landmass, labelled ‘America’, placed in the middle of a large ocean.
By the early nineteenth century, Waldseemüller’s groundbreaking cartographic work had fallen into obscurity. The map appears to have been stored away around 200 years ago by librarians who had no idea of its significance.
“Even in our digital age, originals have lost none of their significance and unique fascination,” says Klaus-Rainer Brintzinger, the director of the LMU library. Yet his team is working hard to make the map accessible to the public — in time for the US Independence Day celebration on 4 July — in digital form.