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The First Modern Map of the North Part of Africa

Nice example of renowned mapmaker Martin Waldseemüller's modern map of the northern half of Africa, published in Strasbourg in 1513.

This is the first printed modern map of the region, showing North and West Africa to the Bight of Benin.

The areas shown here were the first non-European lands reached by the Portuguese and Spanish in their voyages into the South Atlantic. The map illustrates the coastal regions in fine detail. Numerous toponyms radiate inland, showing the extent to which knowledge of the African shores had reached Europe in the early sixteenth century. One of the most visually striking elements of the map is the bright red of the Red Sea. This eye-catching convention became common on manuscript, and later print, maps beginning in the late Medieval period.

There are a few features in the inland parts of North Africa, especially mountain ranges, but there is very little information in the rest of the interior. This reflects Waldseemüller's dependence on sailor accounts, in particular those of the Portuguese—few Europeans had traveled beyond the coastal regions and would not do so until the mid-nineteenth century.

Europeans had at least heard of the various kingdoms in the interior, some of which are illustrated here. The phrase ‘Ethiopia per totum’ refers to older tradition of calling all Africans Ethiopians. Other kingdoms noted are Nubia, known to Europeans through ancient and Biblical sources, Libya, and Regni musameli de Ginoia. The latter is a reference to a portion of the Guinea coast controlled by Muslim traders.

Ringing the Mediterranean are several polities that Europeans knew very well. These include Barbary, a Muslim region and the source of trade goods and marauding corsairs. Farther east are Egypt and Arabia, both sources of trade for Europeans. Judea and Jerusalem are labeled. North Africa is demarcated here as part of a Mediterranean-wide network of circulation and trade.

The Nile River source is shown in part in a lake (Paludes Nili), with two other branches of the Nile shown as having sources off the map, to the east. The large island of Meroe, a source of fascination to Europeans, is also included. Certain biblical scholars, including Josephus (1st century CE), thought Meroe to the be the location of Sheba, where the Queen of Sheba ruled.

Europeans had been interested in the source of the Nile since ancient times. Ptolemy, in his second century Geographia, postulates that the source lies near the Mountains of the Moon, where water flows into two large lakes at the same latitude. This theory came from Diogenes, who supposedly saw the mountains ca. 110 CE. Reference to Waldseemüller’s map of southern Africa, included in the same 1513 volume, shows that he also ascribed to the Mountains of the Moon theory. The branches which flow off the page here find their beginning in the Mons Luna farther south.

1513 Strasbourg edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia

This map appeared in Waldseemüller’s 1513 edition of Ptolemy’s influential Geographia, printed by Waldsemüller’s friend and collaborator Johann Schott. It is likely that Waldseemüller, along with the scholar Matthias Ringmann, started working on the project as early as 1505, but the death of their patron, René II, in 1508 resulted in the closure of their press at St. Dié. Additionally, Ringmann died in 1511. Schott and Waldseemüller finally finished the project in 1513, publishing it with Schott in Strasbourg.

The 1513 edition marked an important shift in the history of cartography because it was the first printing of Ptolemy to incorporate tabulae novellae, or modern maps, in addition to the ancient, Ptolemaic version of geography. The 27 original Ptolemaic maps were accompanied by 20 modern maps, of which this is one. All of its maps were printed from beautifully carved woodblocks made of pear wood. This edition of the Geographia was also the first to be organized so as to separate the ancient from the modern maps, to show how knowledge had changed since Ptolemy’s time fourteen centuries earlier.

This map shows a region important to European commerce at a time when Europeans were beginning to know more about the region. It is a mixture of ancient and modern scholarship and was part of the hugely influential 1513 Strasbourg edition of Ptolemy. Waldsemuller was one of the most important cartographers of the fifteenth century and this map is a vital addition to any collector of Africa, Ptolemy, or Waldseemüller.

Condition Description
Early color, recently retouched. Margins added.
Norwich, Africa #286.
Martin Waldseemüller Biography

Martin Waldseemüller (c. 1475-1520) was a sixteenth-century cosmographer best known for his 1507 world map in twelve sheets, the earliest surviving map to include the name “America.”  He was an influential mapmaker during his time whose work affected many of his contemporaries and successors. Waldseemüller was born near Freiburg, in what is now northern Germany. His family moved to Freiburg proper when he was young and he attended university in the city beginning in 1490.

Waldseemüller gathered information about the New World discoveries and geography from St.-Dié des Vosges in Lorraine, where he was a professor of cosmography under the patronage of René II, Duke of Lorraine. He was a member of an intellectual circle who produced work from the St.-Dié Press. However, the press failed when the Duke died, and Waldseemüller moved to Strasbourg.

He is best known for the 1507 map and another world projection, the Carta Marina published in 1516. He also published an edition of Ptolemy in 1513, in collaboration with Johann Schott, a friend from Freiburg and St.-Dié. Besides his innovative use of the toponym “America”, Waldseemüller was the first to create such a large printed world map, the author of the earliest known printed globe gores, the first to create a published collection of modern maps, and one of the first to create maps from ground measurements. He was knowledgeable in surveying methods and designed a quadrant and other instruments. He returned to St.-Dié late in life as canon, although he continued to return to Strasbourg for work and for carnival. He died in St.-Dié in 1520.

Waldseemuller is generally credited with having named the continent of America, based upon the then current belief that Amerigo Vespucci had been the first modern explorer to reach the continent of America in 1497, during the first of four expeditions to America which were then credited to Vespucci between 1497 and 1504. The report which described the 1497 expedition is now generally believed to be a forgery. Later in his career, Waldseemüller elected not to use the toponym for the continents, preferring to leave them unnamed. However, the name had been taken up by his contemporaries, in large part due to the influential nature of Waldseemüller’s earlier works.