Clarification to This Article
· A Nov. 17 A-section article about recent research on the map of the world made in 1507 by Martin Waldseemueller and Matthias Ringmann failed to say that Peter Dickson, a historian in Arlington, published an article in 2002 noting the close correlation between the width of South America on the map and the actual width of the continent. That, along with a depiction of ocean to the west of the Americas, suggested to Dickson, and to other historians later, that the mapmakers had geographical knowledge not widely known at the time.

16th-Century Mapmaker Martin Waldseemueller's Intriguing Knowledge

By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 17, 2008

How was it that a German priest writing in Latin and living in a French city far from the coast became the first person to tell the world that a vast ocean lay to the west of the American continents?

That is one of the bigger mysteries in the history of the Renaissance.

But it is not the only one involving Martin Waldseemueller, a map-making cleric whose own story is sufficiently obscure that his birth and death dates aren't known for certain.

Waldseemueller appears to have also known something about the contours of South America's west coast years before Vasco Núñez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama and Ferdinand Magellan sailed around the bottom of the continent. History books record them as the first Europeans to bring back knowledge of the Pacific Ocean.

The evidence of this knowledge is in Waldseemueller's world map of 1507, perhaps the most valuable of the 5 million maps owned by the Library of Congress. It was acquired for $10 million in 2003 and went on permanent display last year.

The map -- in near-perfect condition and with no other known copies -- is the oldest document that applies the label "America" to the land mass between Africa and Asia.

This was, of course, in honor of Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine navigator who had sailed to the New World for the Portuguese. (His first name was Latinized to "Americus" and then feminized to "America.") The act of naming was apparently Waldseemueller's alone; there is no evidence that the term was in use at the time.

New research by John W. Hessler of the Library of Congress has made the mystery of Waldseemueller's knowledge deeper and richer. But it hasn't answered the biggest question: How did he know?

"There is some probability that Waldseemueller knew something that is no longer extant -- information that we don't have," Hessler said.

The researcher, 48, brings a diverse set of skills to the task. He took Latin all through parochial school and college (at Villanova University) and reads the language fluently. He is an engineer by training and is equally fluent in the mathematics of cartography.

In a new book called "The Naming of America," Hessler provides the first published translation of the map's text blocks. He has also done a modern translation of Waldseemueller's book, "Cosmographiae Introductio," printed in 1507 in St. Die, France, where the cartographer was canon of the cathedral. Although Waldseemueller gets most of the credit for the map and the book, he had a collaborator, an Alsatian named Matthias Ringmann, who died in 1511.

In the largest block of text on the map, Waldseemueller writes that many things remained unknown to the ancients "in no slight degree; for instance, in the west, America, named after its discoverer, which is now known to be a fourth part of the world." In "Cosmographiae," he uses similar language: "The earth is now known to be divided into four parts. The first three parts are continents, but the fourth part is an island, because it has been found to be surrounded on all sides by sea."

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