In 1507, new world maps were something of a booming business. The Portuguese had been discovering more about Africa for decades, the Spanish had recently found a number of islands, and a larger landmass across the Atlantic, and the English had found a long shoreline to the west of Greenland.
Since Asia was mostly known to be a northerly continent, that last was still presumed to be part of Asia, but the Spanish mainland, in the tropics, was starting to look like something else again. In 1507 a new map was published, designed to put together all the pieces of the world, as they were becoming known. It was a large map, meant to be mounted and used as huge wall map, and it marked the southern landmass “America”, after Amerigo Vespucci, who was known to have visited the landmass a year before Columbus did on his third voyage by a letter written by him that was being reprinted across Europe.
The map, made to be used, largely disappeared, and it was only in the nineteenth century that its existence as the first use of the word “America” for the New World was discovered. Toby Lester’s book is about this map—and everything else that led to it. This begins with medieval mappaemundi, and works its way through Marco Polo, the Italian and German humanists, and the dawn of the Age of Exploration.
It’s a very entertaining and informative book all the way, and gives a good overview of the careers of Columbus and Vespucchi, and explains the letter that has caused much gnashing of teeth over the centuries, and kept Columbus from being a major cartographical feature, even if it did not keep him out of the history books.
It is most likely not written by Vespucci at all. It takes pieces of two of his letters, some details from one of Columbus’ reports, adds sex and cannibals, and did a brisk business for local printing presses across the continent. It’s kind of a early-sixteenth century equivalent to the DaVinci Code.