Why America is called America

A 1507 world map,called the “birth certificate of America”,tells the story of its makers and how they inscribed the name “America” on it

Written by New York Times | Published:March 31, 2013 1:52 am

A decade ago,the Library of Congress paid $10 million to acquire the only known original copy of a 1507 world map that has been called “the birth certificate of America”. The large map,a masterpiece of woodblock printing,has been a star attraction at the library ever since and the object of revived fascination about the earliest cartography of the New World.

The research has also rescued from obscurity a little-known Renaissance man,the 16th-century globe maker Johannes Schoener.

Americans call themselves that today because of the map’s makers,Martin Waldseemueller and Mathias Ringmann,young clerics in the cathedral village of St-Die,France. By incorporating early New World discoveries,their map reached beyond the canonical descriptions of Old World geography handed down from Ptolemy. On a lower stretch of the southern continent,the mapmakers inscribed the name “America” in the mistaken belief that Amerigo Vespucci,not Columbus,deserved credit for first sighting a part of that continent,South America. Or possibly they favoured Vespucci because he held more firmly to the growing consensus that this was indeed a New World,not the Indies (as Columbus so wanted to believe),and because he wrote more colourfully than Columbus about the people he encountered.

The map is also the source of an abiding mystery. How did Waldseemueller and Ringmann already know so well the configuration of South America,before any recorded Spanish or Portuguese voyages around the horn to the west coast? How did they know of the Pacific before Balboa made his sighting in 1513? Hard to believe it was just a guess or futuristic vision of what world geography would come to be.

Five years ago,John W Hessler,a historian of cartography at the library,published The Naming of America,an account of the map’s importance in post-Ptolemy geography. Now,Hessler has dug deeper into the dynamic of the years between Columbus,in 1492,and Copernicus,in 1543. Copernican astronomy was about to dislodge Earth from the centre of the universe,a start to the Scientific Revolution.

His new book,A Renaissance Globemaker’s Toolbox,is not able to solve the mapmakers’ enduring mystery. But it is a richly illustrated delight to the eye.

Hessler leaned heavily on Schoener’s personal archive of correspondence and manuscripts,books and maps. Nothing in the book points up more clearly Schoener’s pivotal place in a world in transition from the medieval to the modern than his residual interest in astrology and his awakening curiosity when he apparently heard reports of a new theory being formulated by a Polish Catholic cleric.

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