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Feature

The framed 1507 Waldseem?ller map next to a globe.

The printed area of the world in the framed gores map is shown on 12 series of shapes (a.k.a gores) that allow it to be formed into a 4.5 inch globe. Cartographer Martin Waldseem?ller assigned the word "America" to a sliver of land barely known to exist at the time. (See the second gore on the right in the "larger image.")

Putting America on the map

Exhibit at U's James Ford Bell Library features 500-year-old world map

By Pauline Oo

November 20, 2007

In 1507, German cartographer Martin Waldseem?ller made history. He created two maps that outline the continents of the world as we know them today: a small map with 12 series of shapes, called gores, designed to be cut out and pasted onto a sphere, and a 12-panel wall map. Through December 31, you can view the 9.5-by-15-inch gores map--estimated to be worth more than $1 million--at the University of Minnesota's James Ford Bell Library on the Twin Cities campus.

The map, part of the U's permanent collections, is the centerpiece of "The Map That Named America, 1507-2007: An Anniversary Exhibition," which presents an array of documents related to Atlantic explorations of the 15th and 16th centuries. The documents include a first edition of Cosmographiae Introductio (the book printed to explain Waldseem?ller's map), a letter in Christopher Columbus's own handwriting to a Spanish queen, and astronomical tables for calculating planetary positions.

"[Waldseem?ller's] map is extraordinary because it is the first to include the word 'America,"' assigned to land that we now call South America, and the first to depict these newly discovered lands as separate from Asia," says Marguerite Ragnow, library curator. It's also the first map to project Earth using a full 360 degrees of latitude--as opposed to the hemispheric depiction that had become the norm--and to represent the Pacific Ocean as a separate body of water from the Atlantic.

Experts believe 1,000 copies of the gores map were originally produced, but only four are known to have survived. (The Library of Congress has the only surviving copy of the wall map.) Minnesota industrialist and U graduate James Ford Bell, also the founder of General Mills, bought a copy in 1954 for an undisclosed amount of money--and this is the map featured in the exhibit. (Bell donated his rare book and document collection, which included this map, to the U in the 1950s.) The three other copies of the map reside in European collections. One of those copies--the only one not on a complete sheet of paper, but rather, cut along its jagged edges--was auctioned at Christie's in London in 2005 for approximately $1 million. The Bell Library's map is printed from a single woodblock on watermarked paper and measures 15.35 by 9.44 inches. If cut and pasted on a sphere, it would form a globe about 4.5 inches in diameter.

"The 500th anniversary of the Waldseem?ller gores globe raises important questions," adds Ragnow. "For example, how has the meaning and connotation of the word 'America' changed in the 500 years since the creation of the map? What does 'America' mean today? The exhibit's emphasis on the map that named America brings the relevance of these issues into the 21st century."

Go back in time: 2-for-1

The Waldseem?ller gores map is on display in the Bell Room, a reading room right out of the 16th century. The room has a combination of original architectural elements, reproductions, and period antiques, including four large stained-glass windows depicting English country life, a 200-pound two-tiered brass chandelier, and a stone fireplace complete with the legendary St. George and the dragon he slayed.

The map was printed the year after Columbus's death, and it invokes the written accounts between 1497 and 1504 by Italian merchant Amerigo Vespucci, who deduced that the land to the west of Europe might be distinct and not the eastern coast of Asia, as Columbus thought. Waldseem?ller decided to label the new continent America, a name that stuck. Maps up to that point either had shown America as an eastern extension of Asia or had conveniently run the western edges off the maps, thus evading the question.

The Waldseem?ller map is one of the University of Minnesota's 30,000 rare documents kept in the vault of the Bell Library collection that focuses on pre-modern-era trade. Each night, during the exhibit, the map is returned to the vault, which has its own temperature and humidity controls--set at 65 degrees Fahrenheit, 50 percent relative humidity.

"The Map that Named America: 1507-2007" exhibit is free and open to the public. Souvenir mousepads ($5) and mugs ($9) are available. The gallery hours are Monday through Wednesday and Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. The James Ford Bell Library is on the fourth floor of Wilson Library at 309 19th Ave. S., Minneapolis.