January 28, 2022

Accidental Discovery: Rare Map Found in German University Library

From Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet Muenchen (LMU):

The American continent was “christened” by the cartographer Martin Waldseemüller. A previously unknown variant of the famous world map from the mapmaker’s workshop has unexpectedly turned up in the collections in the University Library in Munich.

When Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel officially handed over the famous map of the world printed by Martin Waldseemüller (ca. 1470 – 1522) to the Library of Congress In Washington in 2007, she referred to it as “a wonderful token of the particularly close ties of friendship between Germany and America.” And indeed, the gesture had great symbolic weight, for the chart – then exactly 500 years old – can be seen as America’s birth certificate. On this map, the New World appears for the first time under the name “America”, chosen to honor the explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451 – 1512), whom Waldseemüller erroneously regarded as the discoverer of the continent.

The chart, which is registered in “Memory of the World”, UNESCO’s inventory of the world’s documentary heritage, is now on show in the Library of Congress in Washington. The map was formerly held in a private German collection, and was included as Object No. 01301 on the list of specially protected German Cultural Treasures, which prohibits their sale and export. Before the Library could purchase the map from the previous owner and obtain an export license, the object had first to be delisted. The application to delist was granted at the direction of the Chancellor’s Office in 2001.

The 1507 world map is a wall map, with an area of three square meters. But the much smaller maps, the so-called globe segments, that Waldseemüller also produced were at least as important for the dissemination of geographical knowledge in his own time. These depict the world in twelve individual segments, or rather surface wedges, which taper to a point at each end and are printed on a single sheet, like cut-outs on construction paper. When correctly arranged, they form a small globe of about 11 cm in diameter. And in the three rightmost wedges, one sees a huge, boomerang-shaped landmass in the middle of an immense ocean. The globe places America in the remotest West, seen from Europe and Africa, on the far side of a wide, wide sea.

The wall map was only a part of a carefully designed package put together by the cartographer Waldseemüller and his colleague Matthias Ringmann in their workshop in the monastery of Saint-Dié-des-Vosges – a combination with which they no doubt hoped to revolutionize how the world was perceived. In addition to the large map, the package included an introduction to the principles of geography or “cosmography” (the Cosmographiae Introductio) – and the segmental maps.

Only a handful of the perhaps 100 sets printed from the original woodblocks are known to have survived. The copy now in Washington, which belonged to the princely House of Waldburg-Wolfegg and Waldsee in Germany, is the sole copy of the large world map that has come down to us. A copy of the Cosmographiae Introductio is among the treasures kept in the Munich University Library (MUL).

Four copies of the segmental maps were previously known to researchers. Three of them are now in Minneapolis, Offenburg and in the Bavarian State Library in Munich, respectively. The fourth was sold at auction for the handsome sum of 1 million dollars by Christie’s in 2005. Members of the staff of the University Library have – quite by accident – now discovered a fifth.

MUCH MORE in the Complete News Release

Take a Close-Up Look at the Map (PDF)

About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.