If you’re a boomer like me, you may remember that high-octane java jolt when you first encountered the cover of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog from 1968. There was Earth, seen from the unearthly prospect of space, a vantage point never seen before. It was a whole new way of looking at the world.
When I look at the two Renaissance maps we’ve just published, I wonder if those who encountered them back in the sixteenth century had a comparable shock. Because clearly, the world would never be seen in quite the same way.
The maps are two of the treasures in the Library of Congress, which was our partner in this publishing project.
The creator of the maps, a German humanist living in France named Martin Waldseemüller, is someone most of us haven’t heard of. And yet his 1507 map was the first to put the name AMERICA on a map. Even more radically, the map showed an ocean to the west of North and South America, where one had never been placed before.
His 1516 map is called the Carta marina, or “Sea chart.” It draws liberally on iconography to demonstrate that no longer would world views be guided by the guesswork of the second-century Greek cartographer Ptolemy, as all maps up to this point had been. Instead, Waldseemüller took his cues from someone who’d actually been there: Christopher Columbus.
The title of our book is Seeing the World Anew. What strikes me when I read the captivating text by John Hessler and Chet Van Duzer is how similar a time to Waldseemüller’s we now live in. It’s a much different world from 1507, of course, but comparable upheavals of the status quo and radical shifts in knowledge are taking place. Things that seemed immutable in a pre-digital world are no longer. In an era of GPS and Google maps, the creased paper map in the glove compartment from 2002 seems almost as ancient as Ptolemy.
The editor of Levenger Press, Mim Harrison, worked along with John and Chet on the making of Seeing the World Anew. Both men are cartographic scholars, and each is the authority on the map he wrote about—John on the 1507, Chet on the 1516. I asked Mim to share some of their ongoing dialogue about how Waldseemüller was able to see the world as he did.
Levenger Press: John, you’d mentioned early in our conversations that what the 1507 World Map said about the world was the modern-day equivalent of being told there was human life on Mars. Was it because Waldseemüller showed North and South America as having an ocean on their western coasts?
John Hessler: I was really looking for a dramatic way to describe what was, essentially, a geographic revolution. The discovery of the New World, just a few years before Waldseemüller’s great map, was an event that changed the way the Old World perceived itself. It was a revolution not only of information but also of identity. No longer were the people of Europe, who of course this had the most effect on, alone. No longer did they have a special place. Waldseemüller uses both new and old information, and I think he is trying to draw a deep contrast between the geography of the ancient world as embodied by Ptolemy and that of the new discoveries. He is really trying to graphically portrait radical change.
LP: And yet nine years later, Waldseemüller essentially backpedaled on the Carta marina and did away with that western ocean. Why would he have abandoned this knowledge?
Chet Van Duzer: Two factors need to be taken into account in considering the absence of a western ocean on the Carta marina. First, in that map, Waldseemüller adopts Columbus’s view of the newly discovered lands, which is that it was part of Asia. We can see this clearly in a legend in North America, which labels that area “Land of Cuba, part of Asia.” If the newly discovered lands are part of Asia, there is no ocean between those lands and Asia. Second, in the Carta marina Waldseemüller has created a more practical map that shows the areas of the world where Europeans sailed, and where trade was conducted. Hence the long list of trade goods available in India in the lower right corner of the map. Waldseemüller’s focus on creating a more practical image of the world in the Carta marina also likely played a role in his omitting speculation about a western ocean on the map.
LP: Waldseemüller radically changed the history of how we saw the world. Why is it, then, that most of us never read of Waldseemüller in our history books?
John: One of the most exciting things about Waldseemüller’s maps is that they were very understudied as few as fifteen years ago. Almost all of the modern scholarship that has been produced on the maps has come in that time period, and we are still making new discoveries about the maps even now. There are many things that for one reason or another become canonic stories in our history, some of which are very difficult to overcome. History as a series of real acts is very complicated; the writing of it must simplify and select.
Chet: Large wall maps do not survive well over the centuries. In the case of the 1507 and 1516 maps, if copies of the maps were glued to walls like wallpaper, which is probably what Waldseemüller intended, they were destroyed during renovations. Even if they are not glued to anything, the large sheets are difficult to store, which means that they are more readily discarded. The fact that no copies of the maps were known for many years prior to the discovery in 1901 of the copies now in the Library of Congress means that these two maps were unavailable for study during the nineteenth century. I hope that Seeing the World Anew, together with the increasing scholarly and public interest in maps, will do something to make “Waldseemüller” more of a household name.
LP: One thing that’s striking on the Carta marina is the iconography that you describe so vividly in the book, and some of it is the stuff of science fiction. Doesn’t it seem ironic that this rational, scientific thinker would also believe that in certain parts of the world, there were human creatures who just inhaled the aroma of apples for sustenance and never actually ate?
Chet: Waldseemüller was dependent on the sources available to him. He made less use of Marco Polo on his 1516 map than he had on his 1507 map, perhaps because in part because he had decided that Polo was not entirely reliable. Also, he had access to accounts by more recent travelers and geographers. The information about the “monstrous races” of India that he used on the Carta marina came from Pierre d’Ailly’s Ymago mundi, which was written in about 1410, and published in the 1480s. So this information would have seemed relatively recent. It is also possible that Waldseemüller thought that the curious images of the “monstrous races” of men would help sell copies of the Carta marina.
LP: John, in your spare time, you’re an alpinist, and you’ve said that “there has always been something about a mountain that makes it appear mappable.” Waldseemüller essentially lived tucked away in the mountains in northern France. Do you think these inspired him?
John: Our fascination with mountains and their beauty is a very modern invention. It’s most likely that in Waldseemüller’s time, these places were to be avoided. Waldseemüller did produce a map of his home region, which shows the mountains of the Vosges quite clearly. But if you look at that map closely, or at any of his other maps for that matter, there is really nothing shown happening in the mountains. It’s as if for people of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, there was really no geography going on in these places to speak of.
LP: For those of us who are new to appreciating old maps, how should we look at them in order to best enjoy them?
Chet: In making world maps during the Middle Ages or Renaissance, cartographers had much less information at their disposal than modern cartographers do. Thus, these maps contain more in the way of speculation, guesses and extrapolation, and from the cartographers themselves, more about their assumptions, cultural influences and learning. I personally enjoy looking at the use of sources for clues about the cartographer’s character. But it is also important to mention the aesthetic qualities of maps: it is exhilarating to see the whole world at a glance, and also to be able to explore the details so easily, merely by shifting one’s eyes, without the burdens of travel. And the Waldseemüller maps are works of high art, both in their design and in the expression of that design by the cutters of the woodblocks from which the sheets were printed, that abundantly repay study.
John: I think one must try, as best as one can (even though for historians this is pure fantasy), to put oneself in the place being mapped. Attempt to look at the conjunction between the actual landscape being mapped and the mapmaker himself, and for just a moment, try to grasp how difficult it must have been to make a map, to construct it accurately, before it was possible to get above the surface of the earth and look at it from above. Even though I have been involved with cartography, either as a mapmaker or historian for most of my adult life, I still marvel at the skill and geometric insights these early mapmakers drew from such limited information. I still wonder about what has been called the hidden fourth dimension of cartography, where the mapmaker’s mind interacts with a place, and forms a graphic and symbolic image that others can understand.
And now to you, dear reader: What has happened in your lifetime to make you see the world differently? I'd love to hear about your java-jolt moment. Just click on the Comments link below. (If you're reading this as an email, click here and you'll connect to Comments.)