We are open to the public by appointment. Contact us via phone or email to schedule your visit.

Map Maker Biography: Martin Waldseemüller (c. 1470 – 1520)

 Universalis Cosmographia 1507

Martin Waldseemüller was a brilliant German humanist, academic, cartographer and cosmographer. In the early sixteenth century he and a colleague published one of the most important maps in the history of cartography, the Universalis Cosmographia, dated 1507. 

Born near Freiburg in 1470, at some point he and his family moved to the city proper, where he matriculated at the University of Freiburg in 1490. At university he studied cosmography with the renowned scholar Gregor Reisch, author of Margarita Philosophica, an early European encyclopedic work (first edition 1503) containing enormous amounts of knowledge. This work in Latin brought together in its twelve chapters the topics of higher learning which were considered necessary for the erudite, educated person of the sixteenth century. It was widely used as a textbook for both private studies and in universities throughout Europe for decades.

In the geography section of this work, Reisch included a Ptolemaic map depicting the Indian Ocean completely surrounded by land. Despite the inclusion of this map in his book, Reisch  remarked that there was in truth not land there but seas, seas in which were islands never conceived of by Ptolemy. Perhaps these observations regarding Ptolemy, whose work was regarded as sacrosanct, influenced the young Waldseemüller, emboldening him in his own future work in cartography. 

Tabula Moderna Indiae 1513

Though little is known of his personal life, it is known that somewhere between 1490 and 1500 Waldseemüller lived and worked in Basel, Switzerland. In Basel he studied the art of printing woodcut illustrations with a well-known printer. While there he also did some publishing of his own and undertook research in the hope of eventually publishing a revised edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia, the only book concerning geography known to have survived the classical period. Following his time in Basel, he moved to a small town in France, where his work as a cartographer would soon bring him widespread recognition. 

On moving to the small town of St. Dié in the mountains just southwest of Strasbourg, he began working with a small group of humanists and printers known as the Gymnasium Vosagense, which included the Alsatian-German humanist, scholar and cosmographer, Matthias Ringmann. Together with their colleagues, the pair developed an ambitious plan to republish Ptolemy’s Geographia. Their edition would include not only 27 definitive maps of various parts of the world as Ptolemy had described them, but also 20 new maps showing the discoveries of modern Europeans, all drawn according to the principles laid out in the Geographia. It was to be a historical first, and it was introduced by the publication of a small textbook entitled Cosmographiae Introductio, which was intended to aid in the understanding of the new map of the world on which they were working.

The project was financed by René II, Duke of Lorraine and was compiled following some years of research of ancient classic works in Latin and Greek (Ringmann was a specialist in the languages). Included in the works used for reference was a translation of a letter originally penned by Amerigo Vespucci himself describing his voyages and discoveries, and including some embellishments by its Venetian publishers, which had come into the possession of Ringman in 1502.

Following their research, Waldseemüller and Ringmann came to the conclusion that the land explored by Vespucci was not Asia, that it was in fact a new fourth part of the world. Thus they determined to create a map to introduce to Europe the idea of this four-part world, depicting the Americas as one contiguous continent which would be named from that time forward - America - after the great Italian explorer and navigator, Amerigo Vespucci. The plans they laid out to depict the continents of the Americas are in shapes that are geometrically similar to the outlines we recognize today.

The map was to be printed from carefully carved wood blocks on twelve separate sheets, which, when pasted together, would measure 4.5 by 8 feet. It is thought to have been the largest map of its time. By April 1507, printing of the map had begun, and it was reported that in all, one thousand copies of it were issued, of which only one copy is known to have survived, now residing at the US Library of Congress. The map Universalis Cosmographic was a cartographic milestone which would forever change European understanding of the world. 

According to what was known about the world at that time, and specifically the Americas, it should not have been possible for these scholars and mapmakers to produce such a map, for although Waldseemüller and his colleagues had studied the translated version of Vespucci's discoveries, this does not explain how they came to produce a map including the Pacific  Ocean. Balboa did not catch sight of the Pacific till 1513 and Magellan did not sail around the southern edge of the continent till 1520. Sources as of yet unknown, perhaps forever lost, must have been available to them, and studied by them in order for the globe in its entirety to be mapped with such remarkable accuracy. Their World Map is not only one of the most important maps in the history of cartography but is the first known to have used the name America.

Provenance and discovery of the map

While preparing to publish their monumental map, Ringmann and Waldseemüller were also in the process of writing an explanatory text which would accompany it. This text in Latin, the Cosmographie Introductio, is considered one of the most important in the history of cartography. On the title page are mentioned two maps, the famous World Map is mentioned as plano (flat), and the other labeled soliodo (round) which was a printed globe gore designed by Waldseemüller, thought to be the first of its kind.

The small book was printed in two editions under the same patronage as that of the map, the Duke of Lorraine, and copies of it survived. It was these small books which, in the eighteenth century, stirred interest as the maps described therein were not yet known to exist. Thus began a search by scholars and collectors alike, which lasted till 1901, when the maps  aforementioned were finally found in a family owned castle library in Germany, by a Jesuit historian and cartographer.   

These surviving examples exist because German priest, astronomer and mathematician Johannes Schöner purchased a copy which he kept, along with other important works of Waldseemüller including the map "Carta Marina" and globe gores by him, in a portfolio which formed part of his collection. On his death in 1569, his collection went to the George Fuggar family, and a descendant of his was known to have sold the entire collection to Emperor Ferdinand III of Austria in 1653.

The collection consisted of over 20,000 books, maps and manuscripts and was presented to the Austrian Royal Library. At some point Schöner’s portfolio became separated from the collection and came into the possession of the family of Prince Waldburg-Wolfegg and was placed with their library holdings in Wolfegg Castle located in Baden-Württembe. There it stayed unknown to scholars until rediscovered at the start of the twentieth century by Jesuit historian and cartographer Professor Joseph Fischer in Schloss Wolfegg, Germany. His findings are among the most significant in the history of cartographic scholarship in the modern era.

In the summer of 1901 Father Fischer set out for the Wolfegg Castle. A professor of history and geography, he had been searching for nearly a decade for maps showing evidence of early exploratory voyages of Norsemen in centuries past. An unusual map of Greenland had been found at the castle which he wanted to study. On completing his study of the map, Fischer began to systematically search the entire library, spending two days studying maps, prints and rare books. On the third day he went to the castle’s south tower, which held the only collection he hadn’t already seen. Very soon he found a large folio with wooden covers bound together with finely tooled leather. Gothic brass straps held the folio closed. Fischer opened them and on the inside cover found a bookplate bearing the date 1515 and the name of the folio's original owner: Johannes Schöner. "Posterity," the inscription began, "Schöner gives this to you as an offering."

On opening the portfolio, Fischer found treasure - not only the giant world map of 1507 and the later Carta Marina of 1515, but also a rare 1515 star chart engraved by the inimitable Albrecht Dürer.  All were in pristine condition. Fischer soon realized what he had found, and reported to his mentor, a renowned German geographer, who confirmed that the maps were indeed the long sought after maps of Waldseemüller.

Though the discovery sparked much interest, the portfolio with its invaluable contents remained in the Schloss Wolfegg library for slightly more than  another hundred years until 2003, when the Library of Congress purchased  the maps, which are now on permanent display in the Library’s Jefferson building. The 1507 World Map is considered one of the most important to have been created in the long history of cartography. 

Carta Marina 1516 (portion)





Older Post
Newer Post

Leave a comment

Close (esc)

Join Our Newsletter

Interested in maps, prints, and upcoming related events? Sign up for our newsletter for fresh NWC inventory and announcements.

Age verification

By clicking enter you are verifying that you are old enough to consume alcohol.


Shopping Cart

Your cart is currently empty.
Shop now