Waldseemüller, Martin

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(b. Radolfzell, Germany, 1470; d. St.-Dié, France, 1518 [?]). georgraphy.

Waldseemüller (he aslo used the Greek form, Ialocomylus) studied theology at Freiburg im Breisgau, was ordained, and later became canon of St.-Dié, when he settled at the court of Duke René II of Lorraine. The duke’s secretary, Gauthier Lud (or Ludd), gathered a small circle of humanists at the court during the opening years of the sixteenth century; calling themselves “Gymnasium Vosagense,” they collected and published information on the new world then becoming known through the voyages of discovery. A writer, cartographer, and printer. Waldseemüller appears to have been the most versatile member of the group.

The first, and most important, publication of Lud’s group was a slender volume dated 25 April 1507: Cosmographiae introduction cum quibusdam geometriae ac astronomiae prinicipüs ad eam rem necesariis. It consisted of a general introduction to cosmography and a Latin translation of the report on Amerigo Vespucci’s four voyages. The volume also contained a map and globe gores, representing knowledge gained through the latest discoveries. In a passage appearing on the verso of leaf 103, Waldseemüller suggested that the fourth part of the world should be called the land of Amerigo, or America, since it was discovered by Amerigo Vespucci. To reinforce his suggestion, his maps printed at the time had the name “America” on the southern part of the New World. The maps were soon sold out and lost from view, the sole surviving copy not being discovered until 1901; but the little book made a lasting impression, and Waldseemüller did indeed christen the New World “America.”

During the rest of his life, Waldseemüller continued to produce maps entitled “Carta marina navigatoria” (1516); and, most important, a set of maps for a new edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia. Printed at Strasbourg in 1513, this edition is justly called the first modern atlas, for in addition to the traditional Ptolemaic maps, it included twenty novae tabule that brought the Geographia up to date. Of these Waldseemüller designed eleven, including an important world map showing the New World but naming it “Land of the Holy Cross,” as if the cartographer recognized that Vestpucci was not the discoverer of America after all.


A facs. ed. of the Cosmographiae intoductio, with English trans. by J. Fischer, F. von Wieser, and C. G. Herbermann, was published as monograph 4 of the U.S. Catholic Historical Society (New York, 1907). An excellent facs. of the 1507 world map was published by J. Fischer and F. R. von Wieser: Die ältests Karte mitdem Namen Amerika… 507 und die Carta marina …1516 des M. Waldseemüller (Innsbruck. 1905).

Waldseemüller’s “Cart marina,” repr. after his death, is the subject of a monograph by Hildegard Binder Johnson Carta marina—World Geography in Strassburg. 1525 (Minneapolis, 1963).

George Kish

Martin Waldseemüller

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Martin Waldseemüller

The German geographer and cartographer Martin Waldseemüller (ca. 1470-ca. 1518) was the first to suggest that the newly discovered landmass in the New World should be called America.

Martin Waldseemüller was born at Radolfzell on the Bodensee and matriculated at the University of Freiburg in 1490. Much of Waldseemüller's early life is obscure. He first comes to light as a member of the group of humanist scholars and geographers which thrived at the court of Duke René II of Lorraine and influenced later-16th-century German interest in geography. News of the discoveries in the New World traveled quickly to transalpine Europe, and Alsace and Lorraine soon became important centers of interest and study in the discoveries and their consequences.

When copies of the letters of Amerigo Vespucci arrived at the court, they generated even more interest in the New World, and in 1507 Waldseemüller published a volume called Cosmographiae introductio, which contained a description of the New World as well as a translation of Vespucci's letters. Seeking a name for the new lands, Waldseemüller (who had not then heard of Christopher Columbus) suggested that they be called America, after Vespucci. Although Waldseemüller later suggested a revision when he became aware of Columbus's role in the discoveries, his original suggestion had become too popular. America remained the common designation for the new continents, and Waldseemüller retained the nickname "the godfather of America."

Also in 1507, Waldseemüller published another work which was to have immense influence on later cartography, his great world map. This woodcut map, engraved on 12 blocks, became one of the earliest examples of humanist interest in New World cartography. In the same year Waldseemüller also constructed a globe. For the next 30 years these were the standard examples of their kind. In 1511 Waldseemüller made a large-scale map of Europe and in 1513 did new maps for the great Strassburg edition of the works of Ptolemy.

J. H. Parry characterized Waldseemüller's work as follows: he was "an important transitional figure in the history of cartography. He was not an original scientist, but an encyclopaedic and intelligent interpreter. His maps, his globe, and his Cosmographiae introductio form an impressive body of old and new geography which to some extent anticipated the equally popular and still more fruitful work of Mercator." Waldseemüller was also an example of an intellectual type whose work in the 16th and 17th centuries would contribute to the popularization of the considerable body of knowledge about the world and man which had to be spread, absorbed, and acted upon by an increasingly larger public.

Further Reading

There is no biography of Waldseemüller in English. Good accounts of his era and early cartography are Ronald V. Tooley, Maps and Map-makers (1949; rev. ed. 1952), and J. H. Parry, The Age of Reconnaissance (1963). □

Martin Waldseemüller

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Martin Waldseemüller

c. 1470-c. 1521

German clergyman and cartographer who coined the name America for the New World. Waldseemüller read of Amerigo Vespucci's explorations in a 1504 letter. Adept at inventing names, including his own, he named the newly discovered continents in honor of Vespucci in Cosmographiae Introductio and on a world map, both in 1507. His map was widely distributed, and thus two continents came to be known by the name of a relatively minor Italian navigator.

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