- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 4, 2010


By Toby Lester

Free Press, $30, 463 pages

Reviewed by Lelei LeLaulu

When the Library of Congress in 1993 bought the Waldseemueller map for $10 million, the highest price ever paid for an historical document, Toby Lester, a writer for the Atlantic was intrigued and started investigating why an unheard-of map, produced in 1507, could fetch $2 million more than an original of the Declaration of Independence.

In the resulting page-turner, “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,” Mr. Lester chronicles how a dreamy German youth yearning for the glories of ancient Greece and Rome in a reconstituted German empire, hooked up with a skilled mapmaker to set up a commune of like-minded academics and technicians in the mountains of eastern France, and assembled probably the most influential cartographic document ever drawn.

The map is the first to show the New World surrounded by water and, therefore, definitely not part of Asia. The large, hitherto terra incognito landmass, far to the southwest of Europe, was for the first time given a name that stuck: America. So the Waldseemueller map is indeed America’s birth certificate.

Collaborating on the production of the cartographical treasure were Matthias Ringman, a young, starry-eyed Alsatian poet, and Martin Waldseemueller, an ordained priest from Constance who, despite being a master cartographer. had never actually produced a map before 1507.

Marshalling the group of like-minded German classicists and nationalists in Saint-Die-des-Vosges, a quiet church town in the Vosges hills 60 miles outside of Strasbourg, the team set to work; Waldseemueller would draw the map and Ringman was to pen the accompanying booklet, “Introduction to Cosmography.”

The Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who charted the eastern coast of South America, however, had nothing to do with attaching his moniker to the New World. Ringman’s reasons, outlined in his “Cosmology,” were partly gender based:

“These parts have in fact now been more widely explored, and a fourth part has been discovered by Amerigo Vespucci (as will be heard in what follows). Since both Asia and Africa received their names from women, I do not see why anyone should rightly prevent this (new part) from being called Amerigen - the land of Amerigo, as it were - or America, after its discoverer, Americus, a man of perceptive character.”

The author speculates the classics-besotted Ringman, noted for punning in different languages, especially Greek, may have had some fun naming the largest discovery of land in recorded Western history. The word Amerigen, which means “the land of Amerigo,” is the perceived translation. But Mr. Lester reminds present-day classicists the words could have other meanings, too.

Gen can also mean “born” in Greek and the word ameros can mean “new,” making it possible to read Amerigen not only as “land of Amerigo” but also “born new.” Mr. Lester also opines the name could, additionally, be a wordplay on meros, a Greek word for “place.” Here, Amerigen becomes A-meri-gen, or “No-Place-land.”

Europeans for centuries had believed the world was made up of three parts - the land masses of Europe, Africa and Asia - and they portrayed these continents in numerous ways, shapes and forms. But there were always whispers of a “fourth part of the world,” veiled in mystery, inaccessible and separated from the known world by a huge expanse of water.

While their ignorance of most of the globe was real, medieval Europeans were portrayed as believing the earth was flat, and Mr. Lester asserts this is simply not true. “Thanks to the labors of Arab astronomers and mathematicians, ancient Greek proofs of the earth as spherical had survived into the Middle Ages and were circulating in Europe.”

The Waldseemueller map in 1507 gave the West its first view of its known world, which, up to that point, had been drawn in many different ways by various scientists, scholars and philosophers. The team led by Ringman and Waldseemueller, however, approached their task differently. And, they benefited from a trend that emerged in the mid-1340s, when the European nobility started to use ancient geographical ideas to launch their Atlantic exploration and imperialism.

This dovetailed nicely with a growth of the “humanism” movement that sought to revive the learning, power and reach of imperial Rome.

It was also a time, Mr. Lester notes, when exploration was encouraged by “a Church increasingly global in its outlook and imperial in its ambitions,” which fed into a collective quest for knowledge, power and wealth the likes of which had never before been seen. It was a quest that was “at once mystical, rapacious, evangelical, self-centered, grand, inspiring and often delusional.” And, nothing charts its full course better than the map put together by Matthius Waldseemueller and Martin Ringman in 1507.

A German-speaking Polish scientist was heavily influenced by the Waldseemueller map and the author makes a convincing case for his contention that Nicholas Copernicus, upon viewing the map, was persuaded to publish “On The Revolution Of Heavenly Spheres,” the astronomical treatise that laid out in full his new theory of the cosmos - that the earth moves while the sun stands still.

Ringman and Waldseemueller were ardent humanists and sought to advance their cause by producing a map that incorporated the knowledge of the ancients like Odysseus, Alexander, the second-century Greek geographer and philosopher Claudius Ptolemy who gave the world geography, with the glittering discoveries of later explorers like Marco Polo, Vasco da Gama, Columbus and, of course, Amerigo Vespucci.

The Waldseemueller map thus traces the roots of European history and its push for knowledge, empires and fortune. It marks the birth of a New World discovered in 1492, and the death of the civilization that was there before. Mr. Lester sees the map as a cosmic revelation: “a globe wrenched out of its age-old place at the center of the cosmos and set free, at last, to wobble its way around the sun.”

Meanwhile, fewer schools are teaching geography and one statistic I read estimates that 54 percent of high school graduates in the United States cannot place on a map their country in relation to Mexico and Canada.

Ptolemy weeps.

Make this book compulsory reading in high schools.

Lelei LeLaulu is a development entrepreneur working at the confluences of climate change, renewable energy, food security, responsible tourism and humanitarian assistance.

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