Peter Lewis, Special to The Chronicle
Sunday, December 27, 2009
The Fourth Part of the World The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map That Gave America Its Name
By Toby Lester
(Free Press; 462 pages; $30)
It is the magic of maps that they lift us out of ourselves and deliver us to parts unknown. Fifty years ago, people gasped with delight when cartographers exposed the oceans’ floor by draining away the water. Five hundred years ago, another cartographer finagled with the oceans and turned the world on its head.
In 1507, Martin Waldseemüller and a few of his humanist friends from the Gymnasium Vosagense in Strassburg (now Strasbourg) published a short geographical work called “Introduction to Cosmography.” Accompanying the book was a world map drawn by Waldseemüller. The map had special mojo: For the first time, the New World was given a name – America; but more important, America was surrounded by water, making it a continent all its own.
This was a strange and stunning departure, because we know of no European who had an inkling of the Pacific until Vasco Núñez de Balboa scaled the peak in Darien, and that was years in the future.
So how did Waldseemüller’s map come to be? This is the mystery, and Toby Lester brings a sure, learned hand to its detection. He builds a cumulative tale of rich, diverse influences that he juggles with gathering speed and showmanship until the whir of detail coalesces into an inspired, imaginative piece of mapmaking.
Lester’s bridled enthusiasm motors the story enjoyably forth from the beginning. Europe has emerged from the Dark Ages. Culture, commerce and curiosity are rubbing the sand out of their eyes after years of slumber. Then who should come knocking but a horde of Mongols bent on serious mischief. Ecclesiastical envoys are sent to meet with the Great Khan somewhere in the Eastern vastness, thus detonating the medieval exploration of Asia.
More would follow: Marco Polo to the east, the Irish monk Brendan piloting a coracle to the North Atlantic, Prince Henry’s minions to the south, the crazy Vivaldi brothers due west out the Straits of Gibraltar and never to be heard from since.
The best of what drove these men in the sheer audacity of their progress, Lester sensibly suggests, was the spirit of Humanism, which mid-14th century Italy would distill into a philosophy that sought “to revive the learning and wisdom of antiquity,” and develop a new critical method for studying these works. Francesco Petrarch, the prime mover of Italian humanism, understood that to fully appreciate classical literature, “he needed to understand the geographical context.” (Florentine merchants also appreciated the geographical context as it served the accumulation of wealth.)
And maps would be the cornerstones of geography. In broad strokes, Lester traces cartographic evolution from so-called T-O maps, with their freight of Christian symbolism, to the more fully fleshed mappaemundi, to exquisite marine charts. Thanks to the classical revival, Claudius Ptolemy’s map work – mathematically crafted projections depicting “the known world as a single and continuous entity” – was given a lease on life.
Ptolemy’s projection was both palimpsest of an older, wiser time and the 15th century’s cartographic standard, on which could be placed all the information gleaned during explorations, helping to steer a way forward. For as the 16th century approached, “the expanding imperial ambitions of the Church, the Turkish capture of Constantinople, and the search for new ways to reach the East” would make the clarity of geographical vision all the more important.
Lester pulls on the threads of Waldseemüller’s map and finds an extraordinary braid of influences, stretching back to Aristotle’s system of concentric spheres; Pomponius Mela’s Description of the World, the oldest extant geographical treatise; the works of Strabo and Pliny the Elder. Prester John never makes an appearance, but the search for him yields geographical gold. Christopher Columbus adds prominent color to the story, but it is Amerigo Vespucci who may be the last knot, though his secrets – perhaps pivotal to Waldseemüller’s bold gesture – will not be unraveled.
The unknown is elemental here, and Lester plays it like a stringed instrument. The unknown gave impetus to the humanists. It drapes over all those explorers lost to time: How far did they go, what did they see, who did they tell, why did their news of a far country vanish and what impact did it have if it ever had currency? Did the Portuguese-sponsored Vespucci keep sailing south into forbidden Spanish waters? Don’t know, and with that the alchemy of Waldseemüller’s map remains safely, thankfully out of reach.
Peter Lewis is an editor at the American Geographical Society.