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Tabula Novarum Insularum...: Munster 1554

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  • Title: Tabula Novarum Insularum...
  • Author: Sebastian Munster
  • Date: 1554
  • Medium: Woodblock
  • Condition: Sharp impression on mostly clean paper, a few very small holes in center fold 

  • Product ID: 308051

The Map that Really Named America (and the Pacific)

Münster’s map of the New World, the first of any note to depict the continental Americas, presenting a remarkably advanced outline of North and South America considering that not much more than 50 years had elapsed since the first voyage of Columbus. He depicted the New World as one landmass, christening the continents after Vespucci by attaching the name America in South America. He obviously had first-hand reports of New World explorations available, his delineation of North America closely following accounts of Verrazano after his voyage of 1524.

Münster also knew definitely of Magellan’s discoveries since he appended that explorers name to the straight south of the mainland. Although he presented a good depiction of the Gulf of Mexico, he mistakenly showed the Yucatán peninsula as an island, and his rendering of Mexico City gave it an erroneous connection with the Gulf. Interior details to the north are essentially nonexistent. Münsters map of the New World is likely the single most widely distributed map of America of the age. His rendering of a single landmass, the confirmation of the name America, and the dissemination of Verrazano (however inaccurate) combine to make it a monumental step in the cartographic history of the region.   The Pacific Ocean appears for the first time on a printed map here, with Magellan’s ship Victoria, the only survivor of five vessels, appearing in the middle. The influence of Marco Polo can be seen with Japan appearing three years before the earliest known contact with Europeans.  

 The map is an excellent example of woodblock engraving, employing the technique of supplying place names using metal type inserted into the wood block. This allowed the names to be easily interchanged as needed for editions in different languages, and this map appeared in Latin, German, French (as here), and other vernacular languages.

 Background on Cartographer

 The German humanist movement of the Renaissance produced many versatile scholars; one of the most prolific was Sebastian Münster.  A born polymath, Münster was appointed to a chair at the University of Basel and became acclaimed across Europe for his impact on wide ranging scholarship. Basel, the oldest Swiss University, and the intellectual center of the German Renaissance, was at that time the home of such luminaries as Erasmus, the foremost humanist, and Hans Holbein, the well-known artist. It was also distinguished as a center for the publication of scholarly books and for woodblock engraving. 

 In 1544 Münster completed his great work, the Cosmographia  Universalis, a complete compendium of all geographical and historical information he had gathered over decades of research. It was hailed as a reflection of all contemporary knowledge of geography, cartography, and the history of the world. As a consequence of it being translated into five languages and re-printed in 46 separate editions, the last over a century after it was first produced, Münster should forever be credited with cementing the name America for the New World.