Cartography of the New World – Part 1

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We’ve come across this extensive and fascinating article reviewing the early cartography of the New World, and published in the Bulletin of the American Geographical Society in 1904.
Even though the article is more than 100 years old, its author is still referenced to in recent publications (see one of our upcoming book reviews) and it contains some fascinating information, such as some great quotes from the cartographer Martin Waldseemüller himself. It is also interesting to see that the 20th century has brought to light some of those treasured early maps (we’ll write soon on these recent discoveries) several centuries after they were created.
As the article is very long, we are presenting it in three parts here and we have added some sub-titles (in square brackets) to make it easier to read, as well as a couple of comments (also in square brackets).

Martin Waldseemüller and the Early Lusitano-Germany Cartography of the New World

E.L. Stevenson, Bulletin of the American Geographical Society, Vol. 36, No. 4 (1904), pp. 193-215

Twenty-five years ago the honoured President of this Society chose as the theme for his annual address, “What we know of maps and map-making before the time of Mercator,” giving in brief sketch a review of the progress of cartographical science through a period of 2,000 years. He said:

I have sought to bring together and arrange in something like connected order the principal facts in the history of cartography down to the time of Mercator. I have attempted to do this because, as far as I know, the facts have never been brought together as a whole.

This was the raison d’être of that admirable address.

In reading its pages, particularly those reviewing the earliest cartography of the New World, I have noted, however, statements here and there quite correct, in the main, according to the knowledge of the time, but which the investigations of the years since then have shown to be inaccurate. It is there stated that “the first map on which the discovery of Columbus appears is that of John Ruysch;” that “The Stobnicza Map is the first to present the spherical surface of the earth upon a plane;” that the “Apianus Map has acquired a celebrity as the first map on which the name AMERICA appears.” Although this paper made no pretence to an exhaustive treatment of the subject, I could but think, on reading it, how fruitful have been the last twenty-five years in this field of study; how much that had been written then needs correction now; how much, indeed, that was written ten years or less ago needs revision; how much there is yet to be done before we are brought to realize fully the value of these documents.

Great, I know, would have been the interest of Judge Daly in each new discovery, and quick he would have been to catch its scientific import, and quick he would have been to catch its scientific import, alert to correct the record of yesterday by the newly-acquired information of to-day.

In this day, when a new interest seems to be awakened in the earliest cartography of the New World, occasioned by a fuller appreciation of the historical value of early maps, and by recent discoveries, to which so much importance clearly attaches, it has occurred to me that a review of that cartography in the light of present knowledge would appeal to this Society as a theme well worth an evening’s consideration.

My purpose, therefore, in this address is to trace the development of the New World cartography from its earliest beginnings until fairly accurate notions were entertained concerning the Western Hemisphere, with a brief reference to some pre-Columbian maps; to call attention to some of the problems which have arisen concerning this cartography, and to the solutions which more recent investigations have advanced for a number of these problems, and to consider especially of Martin Waldseemüller and the St. Dié School.
Of the maps to be exhibited not a few are comparatively well known, and their significance fully understood. Some of the more important ones, however, are little known, having been discovered recently, among which may be named the Canerio, the Glareanus, the King, and the Waldseemüller.

I wish here to speak a word of commendation for such investigators as Harrisse, Nordenskiӧld, and Kretschmer, for their critical and systematic work in this field in the last twenty-five years, and for their efforts, though wanting completeness, to make many of these early maps accessible in facsimile reproductions, and for the encouragement they have given the desire of a more intimate acquaintance with these valuable historical documents. it is a surprising fact that very little has been done in our own country to encourage a systematic and critical study of old maps, very little to make them accessible to students. A few of the better-known printed maps of the day of discovery and exploration have reappeared in works treating the subject of early American history, and their importance has been noted; but in many of these reproductions found in American books it is only a small section of the map that has been reproduced, and so imperfectly has the work often been done as to render it of little value. There are many manuscript maps preserved in European libraries of the highest value for the history of discovery in America which are little known, which never have been critically examined, and never have been reproduced even in part. Here is a field which American scholarship should enter, here is opportunity for a monumental publication ̶ may I say for a monumental atlas? ̶ of cartographical documents relating to a most interesting and important period.

[Renaissance Coast Charts]

No activity of the period which we designate the Renaissance was more fruitful of important results than that having to do with maritime discovery and exploration. Just how early navigators, urged on by practical interests, began to feel their way down the coast of Africa, or to sail the Atlantic in search of those islands which had an existence in the literature of tradition, and to penetrate the region of the north, we do not know. We, however, find the fact clearly established that by the opening of the fifteenth century there was a lively interest, particularly among the peoples of the Mediterranean lands, in such enterprises as were undertaken for the purpose of opening up communication with remote regions of the earth. Here we meet with a veritable renaissance of geography. Our oldest maps of real values, which seem to owe their origin to these newly-awakened interests, are the portolanos or coast charts, constructed at first for the region of the Mediterranean. Those portolanos were the work of the sea-faring peoples of Italy and the coast districts of the western Mediterranean, who were the immediate precursors of the trans-Atlantic explorers, and they possess a real value, in striking contrast with the world-maps of the Middle Ages ̶ an individuality which insured them for many years a place of commanding importance. They form the basis of many of the maps in which the New World is first presented.

[Ptolemy’s Geography]

When Chrysoloras and Aurispa, with their companions among the early Humanists, were introducing into Italy the re-discovered literature of Ancient Greece, along with their treasures came the text of Ptolemy’s Geography. “It had the effect of an important discovery, which seized men’s minds, at first with even more force than the discovery of the New World by Columbus. Not a new world, but the very world in which one was living, had been extricated from the darkness in which it had been hidden during a whole millennium.”
Prolemy became anew the teacher of geography to the peoples of Europe, and his authority was very tardily called in question even after the discovery of the New World. Long after the region had been explored lying beyond the world of which Ptolemy had knowledge, the work of that Alexandrian geographer was in great favour. “No less than thirty editions of his work were printed before 1570, and of these twenty-six contain about 700 old Ptolemy maps and about 400 tabulæ novæ.” If a comparison is made with the small number of maps which were printed before the year 1570, some impression of the influence of the Alexandrian geographer, after fourteen hundred years had passed, may be gained. A study of modern cartography should begin with Ptolemy ̶ the Ptolemy of the Renaissance.

The oldest known copy of his work, to which in addition to the usual 27 maps new maps have been added, is found in the library of Nancy, France. Considering Greenland to be a part of the western continent, we find here one of the oldest known maps in which any part of the New World appears. It is stated in the accompanying text that it is the work of Claudius Clavus, and it is probably based upon he observations of northern explorers. Though a sketch far from accurate in its details, it has the merit of exhibiting accurately the relative position of Iceland and Greenland, that which is not true generally of the maps of Columbus’s day. To the significance of this fact Professor Fischer, the fortunate discoverer of the long-lost Waldseemüller world-map of 1507, in his excellent critical study of the discoveries of the Northmen in America, has recently directed attention. It is probable that to inaccurate description and to the confusion of names such errors as the placing of Iceland west or south of Greenland are due. In the majority of the maps of Donnus Nicolaus Germanus, that cartographer, to whom we owe so much for his skill in the reproduction of the Ptolemy maps, the above-mentioned error is perpetuated. It was unquestionably from this cartographer that Waldseemüller drew his information concerning the northern regions which he reproduces in his map of 1507. Aside from the features referred to as appearing in the early editions of the Ptolemy geography, the general influence of this work in encouraging maritime enterprises which ultimately led to the discovery of America is an all-important fact.

[Columbus’ Discoveries]

Not, however, until 1504 does there appear a Ptolemaic world-map which makes mention of the discoveries of Columbus, for I take it the brief legend appearing in the Reisch maps of the Margarita Philosophica of that date has reference to such discoveries. On the indicated land connection between Asia and Africa we read: “Here there is no land, and only a sea, in which are wonderfully large islands which Ptolemy did not know.” We shall later see America emerge in this region on a very important globe but recently discovered.

It is a belief, which has found very general acceptance for many years, that when Columbus was in search of aid for his great maritime enterprise a letter and a map were sent to him by the Italian cosmographer Toscanelli, in which it was clearly set forth that a voyage to India by way of the west was altogether possible. The authenticity of both letter and map, which so long have done service in exhibiting the geographical views of Toscanelli, and which by many have been thought to have served Columbus as sailing directions on his first voyage, has been impeached by the recent critical studies of Vignaud and de la Rosa. They present a strong case against d’Avezac, who believed Toscanelli to have been the “initiator of the discovery of America,” through the suggestions in his letter. The map, according to the letter, presented little that had not already appeared on other maps of the century ̶ Antillia, St. Brandans, Cape Verde, the Azores ̶ excepting, perhaps, the cartographical demonstration that India did not lie so far away from the shores of western Europe as was commonly believed.

[The Oldest Globe]

Respecting the authenticity of the Behaim Globe a like question has never arisen. This globe exhibits features in common with the so-called Toscanelli Map for the Atlantic region. It was in the year 1492 ̶ the year in which Columbus sailed in his first voyage ̶ that Martin Behaim, a native of Nuremberg, constructed this globe, one of the oldest of which we have knowledge. It is drawn on parchment, and is pasted on a sphere having a diameter of about 18 inches.

Its legend, in the old German dialect, combining historical and geographical record, are not its least interesting feature. Many of the details Behaim derived from the narrative of Marco Polo, and from the maps of his own and of the preceding century. He lived in Portugal in the years when Columbus was seeking aid for his expedition, and it is altogether probable that he talked over with him the problems of a western voyage. If this globe is so intimately associated with the plans for western exploration as has been made to appear, though exhibiting no part of the western continent, it should find a place in any cartographical history of America.

[1492 Henricus Martellus Germanus Map]

The map in which maritime exploration, prior to Columbus, is best expressed is that by Henricus Martellus Germanus. It was drawn in Rome in the year 1492, perhaps from information which had found its way thither from Portugal. It expresses, in particular, the conception of the geography of Africa which was entertained as a result of the Portuguese expeditions in that direction. It seems to indicate that a waterway was open to India. For the student of Portuguese explorations it is a map of special importance, as may be seen in the nomenclature and in the legends.

[1500 Juan de La Cosa Map]

However numerous may have been the maps drawn by State cartographers, who accompanied all official expeditions to the west, or by the pilots of those expeditions, or by those who participated in clandestine voyages and brought back information which was incorporated in early maps, the oldest one known to us to-day is the chart which was constructed by Juan de la Cosa, a pilot who accompanied Columbus on his second voyage. It bears date 1500, which we find written beneath the vignette of St. Christopher appearing on the western border.

There were many expeditions to the west between the years 1492 and 1500, official and otherwise, and doubtless many maps were drawn to represent the location and the contour of the lands discovered. Not a few records are known which tell of such work have been done. Probably some of these treasures lie hidden away in little-known archives, perhaps many of them were early destroyed because so soon out of date, and therefore considered valueless.

But none of these maps is known. The Juan de la Cosa map, therefore, has the distinction of being the oldest map bearing date on which the discoveries of Columbus are indicated, and of being the only Spanish map known of any considerable importance produced in the first thirty years after Columbus brought back word of his discovery. It, however, is not certain that we have in this map, so highly prized, and indeed so valuable, an original. On the contrary, it appears to be a copy, perhaps a copy of a copy ̶ a statement which holds true of the great majority, if not all of the early manuscript maps.

The maps of that day contained information gathered from many and various sources, and in the transcriptions strange errors appear.

Among the many names to be seen on this La Cosa map not a few are unintelligible, occasioned, it is probable, by a careless reading of an original by the copyist. Such errors are considered to be strong evidence that the map is a copy of an older one.

We cannot learn from it what La Cosa thought of the relation of the west continental land to the region of eastern Asia described by Marco Polo. The map gives rise to many questions concerning the knowledge of the western region at that day. Had the coast which is indicated been traversed from the Cabot landfall in the north to the region touched by Cabral in the south? Was Cuba then known to be an island? It seems to me to be the most reasonable assumption that La Cosa had actual knowledge from sources which we do not now know, and that we do not have here merely an instance of good guessing.

The map clearly belongs to a transitional period. Rich with its colours of red, and blue, and gold, it is an object of art as well as an instrument to serve a practical purpose. In true medieval style GOG and MAGOG appear in the region which legend assigned to them. Kings are represented on their thrones, buildings indicate the location of cities. The three wise men appear coming out of the east, led on by the Star of Bethlehem. Pope Alexander’s Line of Demarcation is drawn, dividing between Spain and Portugal the regions explored and to be explored. Omitting further reference to descriptive details of the map, it may be said that it embodies the results of the first three voyages of Columbus, the first and second voyages of Vespuccius, the voyages of Diego Cam and Cabral; hence, though largely a Spanish map, it is to some considerable extent of Portuguese origin.

[Portuguese Expeditions]

As early as 1500 the expeditions of the Portuguese to the west were attracting attention. In that year Cabral, by good fortune, probably not in accord with a prearranged plan, had touched the east coast of Brazil, and word was immediately carried home that a new region had been discovered, to which it was proposed that the name Terra Sanctæ Crucis, or The Land of the Holy Cross, should be given.

[The Cantino Map]

The brothers Gaspar and Miguel Cortereal, between 1500 and 1502, sailed into the region entered by the Cabots but a short time before. They were lost in shipwreck, but the meagre records of those first official Portuguese expeditions to the New World seem especially to have impressed the map-makers of that day, since most of them gave prominence to the Cortereal discoveries in their productions. It was especially the knowledge of these expeditions which, reaching Duke Hercules of Ferrara, awakened in him a desire to receive, in full, details respecting trans-Atlantic voyages. To Cantino, his envoy at the Court of the King of Portugal, he therefore gave instructions that a chart should be obtained which would give him information concerning what, up to that time, had been accomplished in the way of discovery. Cantino forthwith executed his commission, and after a somewhat eventful history, that map is now preserved in the Royal Estense Library of Modena.

It is a world-map in colours, omitting the eastern part of Asia, and having an abrupt termination in the west. Probably its most striking feature is the indication of a continental region lying northwest of Cuba. Several theories have been advanced concerning the significance of that continental land ̶ that it is Cuba, that it is Yucatan, that it is Asia. It is now the generally ̶ accepted opinion that Cantino actually intended to represent a newly-discovered continental region, and that he was in possession of knowledge quite sufficient to warrant this belief. Of his 22 names appearing along the coast, not one is given on the La Cosa map, not one is mentioned by Columbus. It is especially unfortunate that this western section of the map has been cut away. We do not know how far he believed that the indicated land extended to the west, how far to the south. It is altogether probable that it was identical with the Canerio map, indicating before its mutilation an indefinite stretch of land to the westward, an abrupt termination to southward, with a wide strait between the land to north and south. The Demarcation Line appears, as does the land supposed to have been found by the Cortereals. The West India Islands are represented in large numbers, though too far to the north; and to Cuba is given that peculiar hammer-like shape with which we shall meet in many later maps, especially of the Lusitano-Germanic type. [Definition: A Lusitano-Germanic map is characterized by an indicated continental region in the west, clearly not a part of Asia, a strait between the continental land to north and that to the south connecting Oceanus Occidentalis with Oceanus Orientalis, and the southern region very early taking the name America.]

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