The Fourth Part

of the World

The Race to the Ends

of the Earth, and

the Epic Story of the Map

That Gave America Its Name

by Toby Lester

Free Press, 462 pp., $30

One of the striking things about the Age of Exploration is the central role that imaginary places played in it. The two young Germans who literally put America on the map in 1507, coining the name and attaching it to a southern slice of new world, also put the medieval legends Gog and Magog and the Kingdom of Prester John on the same map.

Late medieval travelers had looked all over for Prester John’s realm—Asian steppes and mountains, India, Africa. Columbus sailed west expecting to find Cathay and Cipangu (idealized versions of China and Japan) conveniently located on the other side of the Atlantic, and never stopped thinking he had reached their vicinity. Before and after him there were fortunate isles and fountains of youth and seven cities of gold and other mirages to lure explorers on. If it weren’t for illusions, it seems, no one would ever leave the house.

The America map itself took on a fabled aura since for centuries not one of the thousand original copies could be found. Finally, in 1901, as if out of something better than fiction, an Austrian Jesuit professor named Father Joseph Fischer, combing through dusty old volumes in the tower of a Bavarian castle, pieced together sections of a large map found in perfect condition between the beechwood covers of a 16th-century folio, and realized that he had found the missing map, almost 400 years after it was made. The “most sought-after map of all time,” as Toby Lester calls it in this absorbing, suspenseful, and beautifully illustrated history of the map and the voyages, conjectures, blunders, and earlier maps that led to it, was sold to the Library of Congress for $10 million in 2003, at which time it was described as “America’s birth certificate.”

The map was the painstaking work of two members of a circle of scholarly and idealistic Germans in what was then the Duchy of Lorraine. Matthias Ringmann was a humanist in his early twenties who had studied in Italy. Martin Waldseemüller, for whom the map is now named, was a cartographer of about 30. Their world map would synthesize ancient learning and modern discoveries—from the newly resurrected treatise by the second-century Egyptian-Greek geographer Ptolemy to Marco Polo’s matter-of-fact Far Eastern wonders to the recent travels of Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine renaissance man whose descriptions of his voyages on Portuguese ships far down the coast of South America had raised the possibility that what was out there wasn’t the east end of Asia but a new continent in need of a name.

Ringmann was among the first Germans to master Greek, and in his letters and poems he was, like other humanists, fond of inventing new words out of reshuffled Greek words. Lester suggests that Ringmann’s proposal of “Amerigen or America” for the newly discovered land, offered in the book that was companion to the map, Introduction to Cosmography, wasn’t just a tribute to Vespucci. He was also playing on the whimsical Greek echoes of “newborn” and “noplaceland” that bounce off the two coinages. In any case, Waldseemüller chose the catchier of the two, America, for his map—so we can thank him for being Americans rather than Parrotlandians, which might have been the ungainly result if an earlier name for the terra incognita had won out.

What became America was, itself, a largely imaginary place at first. A dubious (or highly embellished) letter of Vespucci’s, given the title Mundus Novus, became a sensational early bestseller across Europe in 1503. It declared, as the title suggests, that the discovered lands weren’t part of Asia but of a new world, unsuspected or considered impossible by all the best ancient and medieval authorities. It then launched the patented formula for modern publishing success by supplying lurid sex and scandals. The natives went naked, their lustful women enlarging mens’ members with the strategic bites of small poisonous animals, and incest and cannibalism were practiced (not at the same time).

But the Arcadian aspects of the letter had more influence. The natives happily did without kings and priests and social divisions and private property as well as clothes. Because of abundant fruit and game, they had no need of farming and didn’t have much work to do. Their rare illnesses were easily cured with local herbs, and they lived to be 150. They were stoically fearless in war and otherwise serene and joyful.

The impact of this view of an uncorrupted, idyllic America was reflected immediately, Lester points out, in Thomas More’s Utopia (1516)—another playful coinage out of Greek, suggesting both “good place” and “no place.” And it’s also at work a little later in Montaigne’s essay “Of Cannibals” (circa 1578). Both of these humanist classics satirically suggest that the intruding Europeans are the savages, not the natives. You don’t have to believe in devout noble savage myths or Avatar to think they had a point: The reader of this book will have his stomach turned by the way the Portuguese, when they reached the Canary Islands, immediately began to dispossess, kill, and enslave the initially welcoming and generous natives, and by the early stages of the same story as it was repeated in Africa and the New World.

But of course, Lester is concentrating on the admirable, earnest, and odd characters who did the exploring, thinking, and mapping: medieval merchants, southern and northern European voyagers, Florentine and German humanists. There’s the fat Franciscan monk John of Plano Carpini, who made his way across Europe, Russia, and Siberia, enduring ordeals by blizzard and hunger and marathon horse rides, to call on the Great Khan of the Mongols, who was terrorizing Europe in the 13th century. He carried with him a highly unrealistic diplomatic overture from the pope advising the Tartars, as they were known, to cease and desist and convert. They laughed at him, but John somehow made it back alive, and his account of the journey turned him into a celebrity. The more familiar stories about Marco Polo, Vasco da Gama, Columbus, John Cabot, and others still offer, in Lester’s retelling, new angles and revelations.

Finally, there are the maps. They quickly went from being iconic medieval devotional objects, dominated by religious symbolism and dividing the world into its three ordained, symmetrical, smoothly contoured parts (Asia, Europe, and Africa), to the meticulous, elaborately colored and illustrated and inscribed maps of Waldseemüller and others that depicted the world in all its seductive irregularity and mystery, and changed the way it was understood.

They are wonderful to look at. You start wishing that the world deserved the beautiful maps that have been made of it. In any case, for those who love old maps and traveler’s tales, Toby Lester’s book is a sumptuous feast in the storied, opulent kingdom of Prester John.

Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.

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