An American Treasure Turns Up at Ludwig Maximilian U. of Munich

In a lesson for researchers everywhere, a new version of the famous map from which the Americas derive their name was discovered days ago in the library of Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.

The document, found in a volume at the U. of Munich Library, shows the name "America" applied to the continent now known as South America. (Photo by U. of Munich Library)

In 1507, the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller first used the name “America” for the New World in mistaken honor of the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who he thought had discovered the continents.

Waldseemüller and his colleague Matthias Ringmann produced sets consisting of the large map, an introduction to the principles of geography, and smaller maps. Those smaller maps were distinctive for the novel way in which the globe was depicted, using 12 segments, each tapering to a point that could be arranged on a sphere about 11 centimeters in diameter. About 100 of the sets were produced and only one copy of the original large map is known to have survived. That version was given by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany to the Library of Congress in 2007, following its removal at the request of the chancellor’s office from a list of German cultural treasures that cannot be sold or exported.

The map recently found at Ludwig Maximilian, one of only five smaller copies of the segmented map known to exist, was tucked between two printed works on geometry from the 16th century in a volume that had been rebound in the 19th century.

“The newly discovered sheet differs in a number of details from the copies that were already known, and can therefore be regarded as unique,” Sven Kuttner, curator of the library’s department of early printed books, said in the university’s announcement. Those details include differences in style of hatching and lettering. According to Mr. Kuttner, the paper’s watermark indicates that it may have been printed after the first edition of 1507, somewhere in Alsace.

Like many of the older works in the university’s library, the map was removed to a rural storage area for safekeeping during World War II. Although the library was devastated by air raids, the map and other volumes survived. Now, in time for the Fourth of July, the university has placed a digital version online.

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