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Ancient mapping - Ptolemy to Waldseemüller

This year it is 500 years ago that the Ptolemy's 'Geography' edited by Martin Waldseemüller was published.
Below is a summary of Ancient cartography, and a fine listing of maps from the famous 1513 atlas by Waldseemüller, among other Ptolemaic maps from the 1522 edition.

See available Ptolemy / Waldseemüller maps

Ancient mapping.
Earliest direct evidence of mapping comes from the middle east (1000 B.C.). These ancient Babylonian clay tablets depict the earth as a flat circular disk. In ancient times, Chinese cartography was more advanced than their contemporaries. Their maps were accurate and detailed compared to other ancient maps. The Greeks (200 B.C.) understood that the earth was a sphere. Eratosthenes accurately calculated the circumference of the earth using angle measures.
Great progress in mapping was made by the ancient Greeks. Herodotus produced a map of the world that stretched from Gibraltar to India; Permenides (450 BC) developed a system of latitude and longitude for locating places. The Romans were also interested in map-making. They had their whole empire surveyed and had a 21-foot map made showing roads, towns, rivers and province bounderies. With the disintegration of the Roman Empire, the art of map making came to a standstill until Al-Idrisi, a 12th-century Arab geographer, compiled one of the greatest medieval works of descriptive geography with a 70-section map of the world for the King of Sicily in 1154.

Claudius Ptolemy (87-150) was an Egyptian astronomer and geographer living and studying in Alexandria. Alexandria was not only the home of the greatest library of any period, but was also one of the most important trade centres between west and east - here Ptolemy could not only study ancient authorities, but could also consult contemporary travellers and merchants.
From this wealth of accumulated knowledge, Ptolemy composed his "Geographia", a work of considerable genius, which dominated the whole of the Christian and Moslem world for 1,500 years (Tooley).

Ptolemy (150 A.D.) defined in Geography the elements and form of scientific cartography. In spite of his errors (he maintained that the sun revolved around the earth, and calculated the earth as 3/4 its actual size), Ptolemy was far ahead of his time on how scientific research should be conducted. He proposed a system of projections and coordinate systems that are still used today. Had Ptolemy taken the value of the circumference of the Earth worked out by Eratosthenes then his coordinates would have been very accurate. However he used the later value computed by Posidonius around 100 BC which, although computer using the correct mathematical theory, is highly inaccurate. Therefore instead of the Mediterranean covering 42° as it should, it covers 62° in Ptolemy's coordinates.
Books 2 to 7 of Geography contain the coordinates of about 8,000 places, but although he knew the correct mathematical theory to compute such coordinates accurately from astronomical observations, there were only a handful of places for which such information existed. It is not surprising that the maps given by Ptolemy were quite inaccurate in many places for he could not be expected to do more than use the available data and, for anything outside the Roman Empire, this was of very poor quality with even some parts of the Roman Empire severely distorted.

Ptolemy used data from most of his predecessors, particularly Marinus of Tyre. He used information from reports of travellers who gave such information as "after ten days travel north we reached ...". In order to estimate distances from such data, Ptolemy had to estimate the difficulty of the terrain, how straight the route the travellers taken had been, and many other unknowns. Given the way that he gathered the data it is certainly not surprising that the maps were inaccurate but they represented a considerable advance on all previous maps and it would be many centuries before more accurate world maps would be drawn.

Although the cartographic content of the Ptolemaic atlases and maps was standard, certain editions are worthy of comment:

  • 1477-       the first edition with maps. Copper engravings.
  • 1482-       Ulm Ptolemy. The first edition printed north of the Alps, with four modern maps added. Printed from woodblocks.
  • 1513-       Published by Martin Waldseemuller, incorporating 20 new maps, including the second map to focus on the discoveries of the New World. Woodblocks.
  • 1522-       Illustrated with woodblocks cut by Laurent Fries, careful reductions of Waldseemuller’s maps.
  • 1540-       Sebastian Munster’sa issue of Ptolemy’s maps; subsequently re-issued in a variety of books of classical geography - attractive woodblocks.
  • 1548-       The first Italian text edition, the first miniature edition in copperplate of Ptolemy’s Geography, including several new maps by Gastaldi.
  • 1561-       Gastaldi’s maps re-issued, in a slightly larger format, by Ruscelli and Valgrisi in Venice.
  • 1578-       the first issue of Mercator’s version of Ptolemy’s maps - intended as a companion to his Atlas of the Modern World. Numerous re-issues. For the 1698 edition, the plates were re-worked, substituting a new cartouche within the map, containing a second title.
Martin Waldseemüller.
Waldseemüller was born some time in the 1470's in Radolfzell, Württemberg, in Germany. He began his education at the University of Freiburg in 1490. In 1507, he moved to Saint-Dié in Lorraine, France. Here, according to Hébert, Waldseemüller became a member of a small intellectual circle called Gymnasium Vosagense. He died in France in 1522.
He was the author of the wall map of 1507, which named America for the first time. In that same year it is believed he completed the maps for an edition of Ptolemy's 'Geography'. It was not until 1513 though that it was published.
Martin Waldseemüller, a highly accomplished scholar of geography, merged the science of mapmaking and the art of printing in this 1513 atlas, one of the most groundbreaking documents in the history of cartography.
He intended this atlas as a new edition of Ptolemy's Geographia. In the group of Ptolemaic atlases this one is very important because it incorporates 20 modern maps which were not based upon the tradition of Ptolemy. Waldseemüller's use of a quadratic plane projection, was also a noteworthy advance.
Johannes Schott was the printer, and the drawings were done by Martin Waldseemülller. The editors of the text were Jacobus Aeschler and Goeorge Uebel.
The text itself was a revision by Mathias Ringmann based on d'Angelo's translation from ancient Greek conflated with another text by Picus della Mirandola.
Rene Duke of Lorraine, an art and science patron of the Renaissance period, made it possible for Waldseemüller to draw new maps in addition to copying those of Ptolemy. Waldseemueller abandoned Ptolemy's projection in favor of one based on rectilinear meridians and parallels.
Although these newly drawn maps were completed in 1507, Waldseemüller's patron died in 1508, and it was not until 1512 the work could be printed.
In addition to the twenty-six classical Ptolemaic maps, this atlas was accompanied by a supplement of twenty new maps that was published as a separate volume.
In a forward written by Äschler and Übel, we are told that that the map of the New World was drawn according to the newest and most reliable information, the source of which is identified as "The Admiral".
Researchers today believe that "The Admiral" is Columbus and for that reason call this atlas the "Admiral Atlas".
This atlas was printed using the same woodcut maps but with a few minor text corrections on the Schott press in Augsburg with Übel acting as editor.

Most maps have a watermark of a triple pointed crown.

Laurens Fries.
Lorenz (Laurent) Fries was born in Alsace in 1490 or thereabouts, describing himself on one occasion as from Colmar. He studied medicine at university, or rather at universities, as he seems to have had a peripatetic education, apparently spending time at the universities of Pavia, Piacenza, Montpellier and Vienna.
Having successfully completed his education, Fries established himself as a physician, at a succession of places in the Alsace region, and finally setled in Strasbourg, in about 1519.
By this time Fries met the Strasbourg printer and publisher Johann Grüninger, an associate of the St. Die group of scholars formed by, among others, Walter Lud, Martin Ringmann and Martin Waldseemuller. Grüninger.
The major project that Fries and Gruninger worked on was a new edition of the Geographia of Claudius Ptolemy, which was published by Johann Koberger in 1522. Here again, Fries evidently edited the maps, in most cases simply producing a reduction of the equivalent map from the 1513 edition of the Geographie Opus Novissima, printed by Johann Schott.
Fries also prepared three new maps for the Geographie: maps of South-East Asia and the East Indies, China and the World, but the geography of these derives from Waldseemuller's world map of 1507.

Lorenz (Laurent) Fries was born in Alsace in c1490. He studied medicine at university, and established himself as a physician in France before settling in Strasbourg, in about 1519. There Fries met the printer and publisher Johann Grüninger, an associate of the St. Die group of scholars formed by, among others, Martin Waldseemüller. For the next five years, from about 1520 to about 1525, Fries worked in some capacity as a cartographic editor for or with Grüninger, exploiting the material that Waldseemüller had created from Ptolemy. Unfortunately, there is little evidence to help gauge the exact nature of the relationship.

Fries' first venture into mapmaking was in 1520, for that is the date found on a map of the World, bearing his monogram. The map was a reduction of Waldseemüller's wall-map of the World, published in 1507. The major project that Fries and Grüninger worked on was a new edition of the Geographia of Ptolemy, which was first published in 1522. Fries evidently edited the maps, in most cases simply producing a reduction of the equivalent map from the 1513 edition of the Geographie Opus Novissima. Fries also prepared three new maps for the Geographia: maps of South-East Asia and the East Indies, China and the World, but the geography of these derives from Waldseemüller's world map of 1507.

In 1525, Fries was forced to move on as he had exhausted the existing body of Waldseemüller's works. For whatever reason, his departure marks the end of his cartographic work, and he again turned to writing medical text books, which occupied him until his death in 1531 or 1532. The 1535 and 1541 editions of Fries’ Geographia are printed posthumously.
Karrow noted "Grüninger had high hopes for this edition, one of the grandest products of his press in a period when it was not known for producing grand books. The edition suffered, however, from a great many textual errors ... Nevertheless, the book sold well enough to justify a new edition three years later..."
Instead, it would appear that Grüninger sought to recoup his investment by preparing an improved edition, and to this end, he sought the assistance of Wilibald Pirkheimer to re-edit the text, using the notes of Johannes Regiomontanus.
The new edition was ready in 1525. As Karrow notes, the press-work was not of a high standard, and Pirckheimer was generally dissatisfied with the finished book.

After Grüninger's death in 1531, the business was continued by his son Christoph, who seems to have sold the materials for the Ptolemy to two Lyons publishers, the brothers Melchior and Gaspar Trechsel, who published a joint edition in 1535, before Gaspar Trechsel published an edition in his own right in 1541.

Servetus and Calvin.
These two editions were edited by Michael Servetus (or Villanovus), a Spanish doctor resident in Lyons. In those difficult times, Servetus was accused of heresy. One piece of evidence used against him was a passage on the reverse of the modern map of the Holy Land, which said that "Palestine was not such a fertile land as was generally believed, since modern travellers reported it barren". Unfortunately, this not Servetus' original view, but was a passage repeated from the 1522 edition.

This charge seems to have counted against Servetus for, when he was burnt at the stake, Calvin ordered that copies of the book should be burnt with him.
Fortunately, it seems that Calvinist authorities may only have burnt a few token copies !


We offer the following Ptolemy / Waldseemüller maps

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Author: Paulus Swaen ©2017