America’s “Birth Certificate”: How Two Cartographers Invented the American Continent

The fact that the existence of a fourth and, above all, separate continent did not correspond to the temporal concept at all is what is actually remarkable for Lehmann when naming America. The fact that Ringmann presents this fact as so natural and proven is extraordinary, because he enlarged the world of that time beyond the imagination of his contemporaries. Christopher Columbus himself was convinced that the islands on which he landed belonged to Asia. His discovery was perhaps spectacular for Europe, but it was not really a turning point. Portuguese and Spaniards had made “discoveries” at regular intervals during the course of the 15th century on their journeys around Africa and Asia.

Ringmann’s succinct remark | In his “Cosmographiae Introductio” Matthias Ringmann notes that the world falls into four parts, the third of which is an “insula”, ie completely surrounded by the sea. As evidence, he only cites that this “conspiciatur”, that is, was seen.

But to find a »New World« drawn in, where previously only an ocean was thought to be, moreover on an immense world map, Waldseemüller’s contemporaries must have appeared to people today like the discovery of an earth-like planet in a distant galaxy – one inhabited as well, because people obviously lived in the countries south of the equator too. It was previously considered, if not impossible, at least highly improbable that the legendary antipodes, the “antipods”, actually existed and that they could even be reached by ship. But that is exactly what the Florentine Amerigo Vespucci described in his travel chronicles, which made these books coveted bestsellers in Europe at the beginning of the 16th century.

A think tank in the Vosges

Ringmann wrote his small but explosive work on Waldseemüller’s map in Saint Dié, 70 kilometers as the crow flies from Freiburg in the French Vosges, the then Duchy of Lorraine. At the invitation of Duke René II, Ringmann and Waldseemüller formed the Vosagense grammar school, a cartographic scholar circle. Their task was to create a new, so to speak, multimedia map series: In addition to the large world map and the accompanying text of the “Cosmographiae Introductio”, it also included a globe segment map, a folding globe that the buyer could assemble according to instructions. This early modern media package alone must have been a sensation for contemporaries.

“In terms of content, Ringmann was number one” when compiling the map material, explains Lehmann; Waldseemüller, on the other hand, was the one who worked out and drew the map. Duke René had excellent contacts in the European power centers and was thus able to provide the two scholars with a large number of partly secret sources. Among other things, the Waldseemüller-Ringmann team was able to fall back on Vespucci’s “Mundus Novus” letter, in which he described the “New World”. On the later Waldseemüller map they made Vespucci the “key witness of their portrayal of America”, according to Lehmann, “but Vespucci never said that America is separate, on the contrary, for him it depended on Asia”.

The private lecturer at the Department of Greek and Latin Philology at the University of Freiburg explains: “Vespucci says in Latin that this is a continent, but the problem is that the term continent, in Latin continens, means ‘connected’, which is why he speaks of one contiguous country «and not as understood in the modern sense of a separate continent.

While Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean in October 1492 and discovered several islands, Vespucci probably traveled to America up to four times between 1497 or 1499 and 1504, the exact details are disputed. On these trips he was able to explore a large part of the east coast of South America, for example from Venezuela to today’s Argentina. He also recognized that the huge land mass in front of him was not offshore islands in Asia, as Columbus had described it, but a “New World” that must be part of Asia. His “Mundus Novus” letter caused a sensation in Europe due to its richly pictorial language. It was reprinted, literarily expanded and falsified. This letter reached Saint Dié in a modified form and was received and translated by Ringmann.

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