The Fourth Part of the World

This is a scan of Martin Walderseemuller’s 1507 map of the New World.  It portrays the New World, that strip of land on the left, before Europeans knew that there was a separate continent on the other side, the fourth part of the world.  The map labels the continent as “America.”

I’d read about the map and its discovery in 1907 in a book by Toby Lester calld 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.  After reading this fascinating book, I discovered that the Library of Congress purchased the only copy of the map in 2003 for $10 million.  So, when I was in Washington DC, I went to the LoC to find it.

I was pretty sure I’d have to ask to see it, but no, there it was in a dimly lit room at the end of an exhibition called “Exploring the Americas.”  I was the only one in the room, but while I was examining the map and reading the labels a very annoying lady from the museum marched in a guest and told him in an unnecessarily loud voice the whole story of the map: the mystery of including the unknown continent, the naming of America, the disappearance of the map for 400 years.  So he wouldn’t have to read the labels, I guess.  Well, the LoC did pay a lot of money for it, so I suppose the map is their’s to show off. 

(OMG, I just read in the LoC brochure that acquistion of the Waldseemuller map was made possible by the generosity of, among others, David H. Koch.  If you are from Wisconsin, you’ll recognize that name.)

Here is the reading list I gleaned from The Fourth Part of the World, a history of people who thought about the shape of the world and what might be out there:  Aristotle / Homer, the Illiad and the Odyssey / Pliny the Elder, Natural History / Ptolemy, Geographia / M. Polo, The Travels / Virgil, The Aeneid / Roger Bacon,  Opus Magnus / Francesco Petrarch, Letters in Familiar Matters and Lie of Solitude / stories about the Voyage of St. Brendan / Dante / Giovanni Boccacio, poet. 

The web page has an excellent review of The Fourth Part of the World, and close up photos of the map.  Much better than the LoC’s website, which is in stark contrast to the exhibits at the Thomas Jefferson Building.  The LoC website is extremely cumbersome and designed for someone who already knows the answer to the question she’s researching.  On the other hand their exhibits are beautifully designed and labeled and their brochures are lush with photos and comprehensible text.


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