Waldseemüler's Carta marina, Understanding the Ancient World in a Single Glance
Maps have always evoked a distant intimacy of sorts; the Carta Marina hints at an ancient vastness, full of monsters, as perceived by Waldseemüller’s fascinating gaze.
Martin Waldseemüller’s map dates back to 1507. It was the first map to ever use ‘America’ to describe the newfound continent. It is a modification of the second projection of Ptolemy’s map, which was extended to fit-in the high altitudes of the Americas. The complete title of the map is Universalis cosmographia secundum Ptholomaei traditionem et Americi Vespucii aliorumque lustrationes [The Universal Cosmography according to Ptolemy and the discoveries of Americo Vespucio and others]. One of the ‘others’ was naturally Christopher Columbus. A single copy of this map still exists, and it currently hangs in the American Library of Congress in Washington D.C. But the famous German cartographer also drew another map in 1516, named the Carta Marina, which may not be as well-known as the first, but does have a close relation and incredible aesthetics.
Waldseemüller’s second map is full of descriptive texts and drawings of actual rulers. Its littorals are based on a nautical letter by Nicolo de Caverio of Genoa circa 1503. One of Waldseemüller’s sources was Pierre d’Ailly, a French cardinal, theologian and cosmographer who wrote the book Imago Mundi, also known as the Image of the World, in 1410.
The eye that invented this cartography imagined marine monsters and Indian mythologies, women in flames, rhinoceros, kings that are bigger than continents, idiosyncrasies, narratives and political supremacies. After all, maps allow for the simultaneous, phantasmagorical apprehension of the extent of the physical world and its cosmogonies. Through the eyes of Waldseemüller, the Earth gathers every single carbon left by the others, all the knowledge of empires, oceans, and heavens. His Carta Marina, overall, is a remix of both fantastical and official testimony of the world.
The Carta Marina contains the legend that describes the inhabitants of the New World, which was probably borrowed from the Mapamundi by Johannes Ruysch. It also illustrates King Manuel of Portugal riding a sea monster close to the Southern coast of Africa, a symbol of the Portuguese control over the marine route between Africa and India. In addition to the latter, the map presents us with a drawing of Noah’s ark resting on top of mountains in Armenia, probably based on similar images from other nautical maps of the time. In the place of India, the Carta shows a drawing of ‘suttee’, the Hindu practice of a widow self-immolating herself in her husband’s burial pyre. The Carta also includes the image of a rhinoceros, which according to some was taken from Albrecht Dürer’s famous etching; however, this particular rhino resembles a piece by Hans Burgkmair.
Waldseemüller was one of the great collectors of disperse and remote information, he fathered a narrative sense of the Earth known to his contemporaries —a notion of a world which perhaps, hasn’t changed too much.