The Universalis Cosmographia, a 1507 cartographic exploration of the known world, depicted the New World as two entirely separate continents. This was quite a revolutionary stance on the early days of the Age of Discovery: many people still believed that the New World was connected to Asia. Although we now know that North and South America are a single continent, this ambitious map by German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller is rightfully revered for giving America its name.
The wide wall map was originally printed in a gorgeous tome of cartographic illustrations and gores (maps designed to be cut out and pasted to a sphere to make a globe), now known as the Schöner Sammelband, or “beautiful miscellany.” Compiled in the early 16th century, the book held a handful of then-contemporary maps between its wooden covers.
After centuries away from the public eye, the impressive collection was rediscovered in 1901 when a Jesuit scholar found it sitting in the collection of a German prince. But even before the Schöner Sammelband came to light again, it had been the subject of much speculation. Waldseemüller’s map was the first to incorporate the exploratory findings of Amerigo Vespucci, who first demonstrated that the newly discovered coasts of the New World were part of their own separate land mass, and not just another part of Asia.
Honoring Vespucci’s findings, Waldseemüller’s map named the new continent “America,” after the Latin feminine construction of the explorer’s name. The rest of the map was based on other extant maps and sources from the time, and was created as an updated version of the Ptolemaic map of the world, its curved edges meant to mimic the planet’s sphere.
However, Waldseemüller’s conception of the land itself, as two separate continents (connected by an isthmus, in a thumbnail map capping the larger map), was not quite right, as we now know. In the accompanying text released with the map, known as the Cosmographiae Introductio, it was noted that the discovery of America meant that the Earth was composed of four major parts: Europe, Asia, Africa, and the New World.
Nonetheless, the map made a splash and became quite well known in its day, with somewhere near a thousand copies printed. It was originally released in 12 separate pages that could be laid out to form the larger map image. The only known copy of the Universalis Cosmographia, the one found in the Schöner Sammelband, is now held in the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. A full-size replica is on display and can be seen in the Treasures Gallery, its pages seamlessly cobbled together.
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