California Literary Review

The Naming of America by John W. Hessler


April 9th, 2008 at 7:53 am

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The Naming of America by John W. Hessler
The Naming of America: Martin Waldseemuller’s 1507 World Map and the Cosmographiae Introductio
by John W. Hessler
D. Giles Ltd., 128 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆

Mapping History

It lurks in the background of our childhood imagination, now and again roaring back in adulthood to remind us of possibilities. A map of the world, that fixture in elementary classrooms, has always been a book masquerading as a flat piece of paper. Like layers of the earth for geologists, maps offer a glinting sample of the past.

And when it comes to the Waldseemüller map, the Universalis Cosmographia that forms the subject of The Naming of America by John W. Hessler, there are earth-shattering discoveries to be found.

Let it be said, up front, that The Naming of America is not a popular work in the vein of Doris Kearns Goodwin or Stephen Ambrose. Hessler’s is a scholarly affair, impeccably printed, where the footnotes are as long as the text, and controversies are discussed with dry impartiality.

Controversy about what, I hear you say? Oh, merely the naming of America and the date of the discovery of the Pacific Ocean.

In 1507, Martin Waldseemüller and Matthias Ringmann were part of a group of cosmographers (or cartographers) working under the patronage of Duke René of Lorraine. Caught up in the spirit of enlightened thought, they strove to build on the groundwork laid by classical geographers like Ptolemy.

Fifteen years after Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and well before Vasco Núñez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama and Ferdinand Magellan rounded his eponymous strait, these two men succeeded in making history with their depiction of the world.

We almost missed it. One thousand maps, composed of twelve individual woodblock sheets meant to be assembled and mounted for viewing, were printed. One survives.

The map, and a similar “globe gore,” whose surfboard shapes could be cut and pasted on a sphere, originally accompanied Waldseemüller and Ringmann’s Cosmographiae Introductio, a treatise on geographical principles. The treatise survived modernity fairly well, but the map, presumably mounted by wealthy buyers, can now only be found in the U.S. Library of Congress.

Universalis Cosmographia

Universalis Cosmographia

To see what the fuss is all about, run your eye over this splendid work of art for a moment. Up at the top, issuing from the mouth of a full-cheeked face, a delicate and detailed world is enclosed within the shape of a kidney bean. Outside the bean, amidst a swirl of clouds, more fat faces – those of the winds – blow their breath on seas still ruled by sail.

Within the bean, in the center, familiar shapes spring out at modern eyes. There’s the modern delineation of latitude and longitude in a swooping grid. There’s Europe and the Mediterranean, densely plotted with the names of its countries and cities. There’s the Arabian Peninsula, the Black Sea, and a remarkably accurate outline of Africa. The cartographers had a little trouble there – they had to punch the kidney out at the bottom to allow for the South African coast.

But as we travel further and further from established trade routes, things become hazier. The Caspian Sea is a blob, Madagascar has acquired an odd right arm, and India, well, India sprawls across the east, stretched and mutated into an obese mermaid’s tail. Now and again familiar names pop out – Java, Cathay – amidst imaginary islands and an eastern ocean scattered with what looks like the flotsam of a broken continent.

And crammed into the lefthand side, taking up barely a quarter of the bean and distorted by their position, two attenuated continents appear, separated by an isthmus, craggy on their eastern coasts, smooth on their western.

There’s not much labeled on these lands. The northern continent has two large islands off to the south, called Isabella Insula (Isabella’s Island) and Spagnolla Insula (Spain’s Island), while the southern continent has a description saying it was discovered under the mandate of the King of Castile. Down in the bottom right block, where the end of the land drops tantalizingly into the edge of the map, the name America.

Thankfully, Waldseemüller and Ringmann were not only brilliant cartographers but also scrupulous recorders. Text boxes both within and without the bean give us an idea of their reasoning. For example, in the top left-hand corner, to accompany their terra incognita, they note:

Many have regarded as an invention the words of a famous poet that ‘beyond the stars lies a land, beyond the path of the year and the sun, where Atlas, who supports the heavens, revolves on his shoulders the axis of the world, set with gleaming stars,’ but now finally it proves clearly to be true.

The new lands beyond the stars, they explain, have been discovered by Columbus, a captain of the King of Castile, and by Americus Vespucius, and extend “about nineteen degrees beyond the Tropic of Capricorn toward the Antarctic Pole.” Here, they say, “a greater amount of gold has been found than of any other metal.”

Meanwhile, at bottom right, in a box that is curiously unlike the design of its right-hand counterpart and full of white space, they go a little further:

A general delineation of the various lands and islands, including some of which ancients make no mention, discovered lately between 1497 and 1504 in four voyages over the seas, two commanded by Fernando of Castile, and two by Manuel of Portugal, most serene monarchs, with Amerigo Vespucci as one of the navigators and officers of the fleet.

And amongst the discussion of latitude, longitude, climatic zones and wind direction in Hessler’s translated English text of their introduction, they explain that:

The farthest part of Africa, the islands of Zanzibar, the lesser Java and Seula and the fourth part of the earth are all situated in the sixth climate towards Antarctica. The fourth part of the earth we have decided to call Amerige, the land of Amerigo we might even say, or America because it was discovered by Amerigo.

Here, then, is the first surviving instance of the word America. Amerigo Vespucci was clearly a hero at this point – he even makes a portrait appearance at the top, next to a round mini-map of the western sphere, with Ptolemy watching over the eastern on the other side. A tiny wasp (vespa in Latin), buzzes above his shoulder.

Yet for reasons unknown, Waldseemüller changed his mind afterwards, and dropped America from his subsequent maps. Controlling the spread of the Cosmographiae Introductio, however, was impossible. The name stuck.

So far, so clear. But how did these cartographers know of the existence of an ocean before the Pacific’s “official” discovery around the years A.D. 1512-1513?

There are a whole host of “maybes” here and Hessler goes into them. Maybe, for instance, the cartographers knew something that we don’t. Here’s what they say in their introduction:

The earth is now known to be divided into four parts. The fourth part is an island because it has been found to be completely surrounded on all of its sides by sea. Just as there is only earth, there is only one Ocean, yet it is made up of many different seas…

“Now known” and “has been found,” Hessler points out, indicate some kind of recent discovery, though he notes that documentary evidence for what it might be is slight.

What we often forget is that while the 15th and 16th centuries are a time of fierce European rivalry for the gold of unexplored territories, they are also centuries of individual speculation. Balboa, Ponce de León, and Magellan may have claimed their firsts, but if you were a captain making exclusive and profitable bargains with native tribes in terra incognita, would you be anxious to announce your success? Perhaps Waldseemüller and Ringmann knew how to lay hold of some of these shadowy charts. Evidence from the map and globe gores themselves is similarly shadowy, and as a minor criticism it would have been nice to see Hessler talk a little more about it.

Why, for instance, if they claim the fourth part is surrounded by sea do the cartographers drop the end of South America out of the kidney bean and slice their globe gore at that precise point? Why the blank space, the different lettering, the name Amerigo Vespucci and not Americus Vespucius in the bottom text box?

Why, too, are the two continents joined in the mini-map next to Vespucci’s portrait and separate in the top left block? Why the different lettering of his name as compared to Ptolemy’s? Were these last minute additions? Or were certain woodblocks altered afterwards? There may be simple explanations, but they are not included.

Indeed, just from looking at the map one gets the strong sense of hedged bets. Maybe there’s an isthmus, maybe there isn’t, the cartographers seem to say. Logic and mariner descriptions would suggest that a large sea lies between “India” and “America” and has to flow from the Atlantic somewhere – but let’s just add some ocean swirls to indicate a size unknown and extend the southern tip to avoiding ruining the layout.

Hessler points out that it’s impossible to walk in Waldseemüller and Ringmann’s shoes, but it sure is fun to try. Imagine being a cartographer in 1507, where failure and fame went hand in hand. Any day a messenger or mariner might come riding up to your door with evidence for a new city, a new island, a new continent. It’s like playing football with a nomadic end zone.

They teetered on the fulcrum, these wise men. One step back, and they’re medieval, mixing classical poetry and astrology with scientific conclusions and dreaming of fabulous unknown lands; one step forward, and they’re modern, using the most up-to-date methods to enclose their world in a grid of reason.

The Naming of America is not so much a book to read as it is a memento of childhood pleasures. It reminds us of a time when we still savored the exotic taste of places in our mouths – Siam, India, Africa – and dreamed of terra incognita, of pirates and treasure, of falling over the edge of the world. When parts of our earth were still untouched by satellites and surveyors, when each morning held the promise of discovery.

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