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COSMOGRAPHIAE INTRODUCTIO

When Amerigo Vespucci returned from the third expedition that he had made upon the personal instructions of the king of Portugal, he entrusted to his sovereign a detailed technical account of the voyage which had led him to explore the Atlantic coast of South America. This document, The New World, was composed between the 7th of September 1502, the date of his return to Lisbon, and the 10th of May 1503, the date upon which he undertook his fourth expedition.

The New World is a rather brief writing. It occupies only a few printed pages, but it was rapidly published by a large number of printers, in Paris, Florence, Antwerp, and also in Strasbourg, in 1505, by Matthias Ringmann. It is not an overstatement to say that this short text truly became a European best seller.

It is this very text which, in 1507, was added to the Cosmographiae Introductio, printed in Saint-Dié-des-Vosges. At the end of the 15th century, this city was the theater of a brilliant intellectual movement. A place of choice belongs to a small group of scholars who manifested their interest in geography: Walther and Nicholas Lud, Johann Viator (Pélérin), Johann Basin Sandaucourt, Matthias Ringmann and Martin Waldseemuller.

Let’s direct our attention to the last two names. Matthias Ringmann was born in 1482 in the Alsatian vineyard country between Barr and Sélestat (Eichhoffen or Reichsfeld, the question remains open). He was probably a pupil in Sélestat’s Latin School, founded by Ludwig Dringenberg. Then he continued his studies in theology and mathematics at the University of Heidelberg, where he met Jakob Wimpfeling (another Sélestadian). Registered next at the University of Paris, Ringmann learned Greek and took Lefèvre d’Etaple’s classes on cosmography, philosophy and mathematics until 1503. It was most likely in Paris that he came upon The New World. Once he returned to Strasbourg, he came to work in the publishing milieu. This was where he met Walther Lud, who had the idea of associating him to his undertaking. Ringmann would indeed become a valuable collaborator: he knew Greek, had studied cosmography, and was especially interested in the discoveries made by Vespucci. In addition, he was versed in the techniques of printing.

Martin Waldseemuller’s place and date of birth are an object of contention among researchers : he was born either in Radolfzell, on the banks of the Lake of Constance, or in Freiburg-im-Breisgau, circa 1474. In 1490, Martin began his university studies in Freiburg, then left for Basel, where he worked in a printshop. It was there that he entered the orders.

How did Lud come to engage Waldseemuller as his cartographer in order to produce the Geographia of Ptolomy? The answer is unknown. Be that as it may, Lud introduced him to Duke René of Lorraine as “the greatest expert” in the art of drawing up maps.

As a matter of fact, between 1507 and 1519, Waldseemuller drew up a large number of maps of exceptional quality, maps which inspired cosmographers for decades. It is to this select group of Saint-Dié that we owe the creation of the Cosmographiae Introductio. The two technicians of the undertaking were Ringmann, who was able to read and translate the Greek texts into Latin, and Waldseemuller, the excellent cartographer.

The Cosmographiae Introductio, as the name somewhat indicates, is the preface, so to speak, to a description of the world. The purpose of this brochure is to explain the great map of the world, the universalis cosmographia drawn up by Waldseemuller.

There is no conclusive evidence allowing one to attribute the authorship of the Cosmographiae Introductio to one or the other of the five members of the select group of scholars in Saint-Dié. In a dedication of the book, Waldseemuller asserted himself as the creator of the map and the globe. It is quite likely that Matthias Ringmann wrote the text.

What conclusion may be drawn? The text of the Cosmographia appears to result from the thoughts and discussions of three individuals: Lud, Ringmann and Waldseemuller. The invention of the name America is most likely the fruit of their close collaboration, to be put to the credit of this group of scholars.

Why were there several editions, at least one (perhaps two or three) bearing a dedication under the name of the School (Gymnasium) of Saint-Dié, but then another under the names of Ringmann and Waldseemuller? It is likely that the printings bearing the name of the Gymnasium were to be distributed in Lorraine and the rest of Europe, while that made with the dedication of Ringmann-Waldseemuller was published especially for the two scholars, as a mark of gratitude and a partial payment for their collaboration. A copy of this last printing was offered by Ringmann in 1510 to Beatus Rhenanus, a former fellow-pupil at Sélestat’s Latin School. It seems reasonable to suppose that this printing was not large and that it was the first. It is possible that the example belonging to the Humanist Library of Sélestat is the only remaining example of this restricted edition in the world. A survey is underway. An “America code” in a sense!

Finally, it is not overstating the case to say that 1507 is the date of a new vision of world geography from at least three points of view. There is:
--the first representation of the “New World” as a true fourth continent (unknown until then to cartographic documents)
--the appellation of this new continent from the name of the navigator who was the first to realize that he had reached unknown lands
--the universal diffusion of the new representation of the world thanks to the art of printing developed by Gutenberg half a century earlier.

 

Mathias Ringmann
as portrayed by Gaston Save (19th Century Painting)

Martin Waldseemüller
as portrayed by Gaston Save (19th Century Painting)

Gauthier Lud
as portrayed by Gaston Save (excerpt)

Printer’s Mark Saint-Dié-
des-Vosges

Amerigo Vespucci