Libraries and Hours Ask a Librarian

Olin & Uris Libraries

Olin: Open until Midnight
Uris: Open until 11pm

First Maps of the New World

The four maps presented above are not only fascinating works of cartography; they are important in the process of tracing the history of the mapping of the New World. They also help us better understand  the controversy surrounding the name America.

Juan de la Cosa was a Spanish cartographer, conquistador and explorer. He owned and was master of the flagship of Columbus’ first voyage in 1492. The vessel shipwrecked that year on the night of December 24-25 at the Bay of the streets on the north coast of present-day Andover. On Columbus’ second voyage, in 1493, de la Cosa was mariner and cartographer on the ship Colina. On Columbus’ third voyage, in 1498, de la Cosa was on the ship La Niña. On his fourth voyage, in 1499, de la Cosa was the first pilot for the expedition of Alonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci, and with them was among the first to set foot on the South American mainland on the Gulf of Paria. made several maps of which the only survivor is the famous map of the world, the Mappa Mundi of 1500. It is the oldest known European cartographic representation of the New World. Of special interest is the outline of Cuba, which Christopher Columbus never believed to be an island.To the left, in the narrowest part of the parchment, the figure of St. Christopher symbolizes Columbus’s role as a bearer of Christianity and the glorious Admiral.

The Cantino planisphere (or Cantino World Map) is the earliest surviving map showing Portuguese discoveries in the east and west. It is named after Alberto Cantino, an agent for the Duke of Ferrara, who successfully smuggled it from Portugal to Italy in 1502. The map is particularly notable for providing the Italians with a fragmentary record of the Brazilian coast and that of much of the Atlantic Coast of South America long before other nations even knew South America extended so far to the south. The geographical information given on the Cantino map was copied into the Italian-made Canerio (or Caveri) map shortly after the Cantino map arrived in Italy and the Canerio, in turn, became the primary source for the design of the newly discovered western lands on the highly influential wall map of the world produced by Martin Waldseemüller in 1507 under the auspices of Rene, Duke of Lorraine. This old map, made-up by 6 glued parchment sheets, can currently be found in Modena, Italy, at the Biblioteca Estense.

According to John W. Hessler the Cosmographiae Introductio, by Martin Waldseemuller and Matthias Ringmann, can be considered one of the most important texts in the history of cartography and even the history of the Americas. The cause of the attention stems from the mention on the title page of two maps. One of them is Waldseemuller’s famous 1507 World Map, and the other was a printed globe. The exact circumstances of the map’s creation and the geographic sources used to illustrate its unique vision of the world remain unclear. Measuring approximately 8 feet by 4 feet, it was produced on 12 sheets that when placed together, form a single wall map. It shows for the first time the New World separated from Asia and reveals the existence of the Pacific Ocean. It presents a radically new understanding of world geography based on the discoveries of Columbus and Vespucci; the continents of North and South America are represented with a shape that is geometrically similar in form to the outlines we recoginze today; and most importantly, it displays the name America for the first time on any map. On the sam page that describes the shape of the new continent Waldseemuller explains why he named it America: he describes “a fourth part of the world” discovered by Vespucci, which Waldseemuller names America in his honor. It is certainly the availability of this text, more than the map itself, that led to the persistence and the use of the name.

This world map on two sheets is an early work of the famous Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator (1512–94). Only two copies of the map exist: this one from the American Geographical Society Library, and one at the New York Public Library. According to Nicholas Crane, Mercator planned to use his new map as a progress report on exploration. He specifically pointed to three areas, instructing in the central cartouche the map’s viewers to study “India”, “Sarmatia” and “America.” Ever since Waldseemuller had separated America from Asia, a northern landmass had floated off the island of Isabella that he had labeled “Terra ulteri incognita.” Depicted not much bigger than Java, it had been marginalized by map projections designed to illustrate Africa, Asia, and Europe. The double cordiform projection however, allowed Mercator to place this unkown land in the foreground, where it looked bigger than Europe. He could hardly allow such a large landmass to appear without a label. Although naming it after Spain’s pilot major may have been influenced by the proximity of the Spanish court, it is certainly logical to give it the title, “Americae pars Septentrionalis” – North America. Thus, the most modern map of the Lower Countries confirmed that America was not only separate from Asia, but that it had a northern relative who was larger than Europe, and that both Americas belonged to Spain.