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Stock# 72495

True First Edition of Munster's Geographia. One of the Most Important Cartographic Works of the 16th Century.

A handsome example of one of the most important and rarest atlases of the 16th century, a true first edition of Sebastian Münster's Geographia printed in Basel in 1540.

Münster's 1540 Geographia deserves a number of superlatives. First, it established the convention that a world atlas should include world and continental maps. To that end, it was the first atlas to include specific maps of the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia. This change was in no small part influenced by the first circumnavigation of the globe by Ferdinand Magellan in 1522. The Geographia was the first printed work to render latitude and longitude in their now-standard degree-minute-second form. And it was the book that ushered in a series of "modern"-style world atlases culminating in the 1570 Theatrum Orbis Terrarum of Abraham Ortelius.

The Sources of Münster's Geographia

First compiled by Greek polymath Claudius Ptolemaeus in the 2nd-century, the Geographia was a gazetteer of the geographical and cartographical knowledge of the Roman Empire. It passed in manuscript form, almost entirely lost to history, until, in the 13th century it was rediscovered and the maps for it were redrawn by the Byzantine Greek monk Maximus Planudes.

Münster's text has its origins in the Latin-translation of Ptolemy by Willibald Pirckheimer, who in turn relied on the notes of Johannes Regiomontanus.  Pirckheimer's translation was first printed in the 1525 "Fries" Ptolemy. The text for the Fries Ptolemy was substantially corrected by Michael Villanovanus (Servetus) in 1535, and it is that corrected edition from which Münster took much of his text.

Münster's 1540 rendition of Ptolemy's Geography is a continuation of the tradition of map-illustrated printed Ptolemy atlases that began in Bologna in 1477. In the 16th century, that tradition was advanced by the 1507-08 Rome Ptolemy and the woodcut-illustrated atlases of Bernardus Sylvanus (1511), Martin Waldseemuller (1513 and 1520), and Lorenz Fries (1522, 1525, 1535, and 1541) all of which augmented the ancient cartography of Ptolemy with modern maps. Münster continued this practice and extended it still further, publishing for the first time a set of continental maps, including a specific map of the Americas (the first such printed map).

The woodcut borders on the verso text on some of the maps have been attributed to Hans Holbein, two are signed with Adam Petri's monogram.

The Influences of Münster's Geographia

Writing in Imago Mundi in 1962, Harold L. Ruland had the following to say of Münster:

When the name Sebastian Münster (1489-1552) is mentioned in cartographical writings, it is frequently connected with some superlative, such as:

1. The first to introduce a separate map for each of the four then known continents, Europe, Asia, Africa, America,
2. The first separately printed map of England,
3. The earliest map of Africa available,
4. The quaintest map of America of the 16th Century,
5. The oldest woodcut obtainable of Scandinavia,
6. The first to quote his authorities for the "modern" maps,
7. The first cartographer to copy the Carta Marina of Olaus Magnus,
8. Münster, Mercator, and Ortelius, three of the greatest cartographers of a great age

Leaving aside the redundancy and subjectivity of some of Ruland's statements, the broad thrust is true, and even incomplete.

Münster's 1540 Geographia also contains the first appearance of a fundamental cartographical convention in print; namely, the use of minutes and seconds to denote fractional degrees of latitude and longitude. Nordenskiold (Facsimile Atlas, page 24) provides the following commentary on that issue:

In his introduction Münster further declares that he changed the old Ptolemaic manner of denoting geographical latitude and longitude, so far as to replace the fractions of degrees by minutes and seconds; as for instance 40°½ or 38°½ ⅓, by 40° 30' and 38° 50'. This very useful reform had already been introduced for astronomical data in manuscripts of the Almagest; but so far as I know, it is first employed for the indication of geographical latitudes longitudes in the text to the map of Scandinavia of 1427 by Claudius Clavus.

Interestingly, Münster did not include latitude and longitude graduations on many of his new modern maps (latitude is rendered on some but not all) an oversight which was briefly and crudely remedied in the 1552 edition of the Geographia.

Münster's Geographia and, from 1544, his Cosmographia dominated the cartographic landscape of northern Europe into the 1570s. It reshaped how other publishers and mapmakers thought about constructing an atlas. In Italy, the format pioneered by Münster was taken up by Giacomo Gastaldi in his La Geografia di Claudio Ptolemeo of 1548 (which acknowledges Münster in the title) and later by Ruscelli. In the Low Countries, the atlases of Mercator and Ortelius owe much Münster's Geographia.

Mapping the Americas in 1540

The Geographia includes three maps depicting the Americas. Namely the modern world map (Shirley 77, first state), "Schonlandia XIII Nova Tabula" (the map of Scandinavia showing "Terra nova sive de Bacalhos" seemingly extending from the top of Norway westwards), and "Novae Insulae XVII Nova Tabula" (Burden 12, first state), the earliest known map to show the Americas as a separate continent; on the recto is an account of Columbus's discoveries.


While later editions of the Geographia and Cosmographia appear on the market with some regularity, the 1540 is a storied rarity. In 2014, an example sold at Sotheby's for the GBP-equivalent of $78,375.

Condition Description
Quarto. 16th-century ¼ blind-tooled pigskin over oak boards (expert remboitage; all leaves re-tabbed, clasps lacking). 48 double-page woodcut maps (including 27 ancient maps and 21 modern). aa4, *6, a6, b6, c5, [blank], A-N6, 48 double-page woodcut maps, Aa6, Bb6, Cc8 (i.e., complete). (Few small wormholes especially at the beginning of the book. Small ink stain to the centerfold of the Americas map, otherwise VG+ throughout.) Early ink manuscript on the front and back pastedowns. Ink "A.S." on the title.
Adams P-2224; Alden & Landis 540/22; Burden 12 (first state); Burmeister 155; JCB (3) I:127; Nordenskiold 2:210; Phillips Atlases 365; Sabin 66484; Shirley, British Library T.PTOL-8a; Shirley 77; Ruland, Harold "A Survey of the Double-page Maps in Thirty-Five Editions of the Comographia Universalis 1544-1628 of Sebastian Munster and in his Editions of Ptolemy's Geographia 1540-1552" Imago Mundi, Volume 16, (1962).
Sebastian Munster Biography

Sebastian Münster (1488-1552) was a cosmographer and professor of Hebrew who taught at Tübingen, Heidelberg, and Basel. He settled in the latter in 1529 and died there, of plague, in 1552. Münster made himself the center of a large network of scholars from whom he obtained geographic descriptions, maps, and directions.

As a young man, Münster joined the Franciscan order, in which he became a priest. He then studied geography at Tübingen, graduating in 1518. He moved to Basel, where he published a Hebrew grammar, one of the first books in Hebrew published in Germany. In 1521 Münster moved again, to Heidelberg, where he continued to publish Hebrew texts and the first German-produced books in Aramaic. After converting to Protestantism in 1529, he took over the chair of Hebrew at Basel, where he published his main Hebrew work, a two-volume Old Testament with a Latin translation.

Münster published his first known map, a map of Germany, in 1525. Three years later, he released a treatise on sundials. In 1540, he published Geographia universalis vetus et nova, an updated edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia. In addition to the Ptolemaic maps, Münster added 21 modern maps. One of Münster’s innovations was to include one map for each continent, a concept that would influence Ortelius and other early atlas makers. The Geographia was reprinted in 1542, 1545, and 1552.  

He is best known for his Cosmographia universalis, first published in 1544 and released in at least 35 editions by 1628. It was the first German-language description of the world and contained 471 woodcuts and 26 maps over six volumes. Many of the maps were taken from the Geographia and modified over time. The Cosmographia was widely used in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The text, woodcuts, and maps all influenced geographical thought for generations.