Monuments in New Worlds: Mapping Columbus in America

10. For far too often, historians have treated the epistemological claims of cartographical projections as implicit properties–rather than examining their conscious masking of the “limits of perception” by treating maps as images.  The highly emblematic image of the ambitious Florentine mapmaker Amerigo Vespucci engraved by Stradanus condenses the aspects of divine revelation, conversion, and providential indication of the New World implicitly staked in Columbus’ narrative of discovery staked for European readers–a point that the humanist cartographer Martin Waldseemüller made for readers in his Cosmographia by claiming of the fourth region of the world that since it was discovered by Vespucci, is named after him–“quam quia Americus invenit, Amerigem quasi America terram sive Americam nuncupare licet”–as if almost denying its existence prior to appearing in maps Europeans might read.  In a counter-reformation setting, the engraving celebrates the Christianity that led Vespucci to mediate the location of the New World in ways that later generations could read.

Stradanus Vespucci as Columbus

The image of the seeker who has been led by the stars to the New World condenses the similar emblems condensed in Stradanus’ even more famous copperplate print showing Vespucci first viewing the reclining unclothed personification America, more conquistador than cartographer:  as he stares grimly ahead, seemingly arrived from a caravel, is the naked crowned embodiment of America rising to greet him, or beckoning to invite him to join enter the hammock in which she reclines, amidst a setting of rich foliage, in an apparent an invitation to sexual congress that prefigures his translation of her riches into cartographical form?  If it seems that she invites the sexual violation from the mapper who bears a rigid upright crossed staff in his right hand and a compass in his left, one might do well to remember that the embodiment of the continent celebrated the historical accomplishment of the Florentine cartographer as much as an allegory of voyages of discovery to the New World.  (“I am not the wheatfield,/Nor the virgin land,” was Adrienne Rich’s rejoinder to this iconography of embodiment and discovery.)

Vespucci Views American Landscape

Jan der Straet, “Americen Americus retexit & semel vocavit inde semper excitam” Antwerp, 1585.

A similar frisson of contact was rehearsed in early modern maps that formulated the problem of mediating an imagined proximate relation to the New World, and indeed of locating the New World in relation to the subject-position of a map-reader.  For all maps constitute forms of embodiment–and embodiment of meaning–as Stradanus took the embodiment of America, already familiar from Ortelius had ten years previous embodied the continents on the frontispiece to his Theatris orbis terrarum (1570), the first modern “atlas” figuring “America” as an archetypal “Indian” queen, half-reclining, if armed with arrows and bow–armaments stripped of the continent’s personification who appears in almost inverted form in Stradanus’ later print.


11.  Even as these images stake claims for geographical discovery, Stradanus’ engraving of Vespucci as guided by the stars’ providential alignment in the south, also offered the central emblems of his craft–an astrolabe and divider–even as it situated him within a recognizable landscape and expressing devotion to the crucifix, rising from his study and the tools of his trade to acknowledge the discovery of the New World as if he was a visionary divinely inspired, rather than by his craft.  The image celebrating the skill of the cartographer celebrates his ability to bridge old world and new by the ingenious tools of his craft:  while he remained in Florence, the image forged a link between New World and Old through distinctively Old World emblems of learning, study and devotion.

Much as Stradanus paired Vespucci and Columbus in his highly pictorial atlas Americae Retectio (1585)–“Quis potis est digni pollenti pectore carmen/Condere pro rerum maiestate hisque repertis?”–linking both through Lucretius’ praise for the ambitions of undertaking any description that attempts to reveal comparable intricacies, majesty, and wonder of the created world, the figure of Vespucci was condensed beneath a banner of sovereign possession and a cross of conversion, but in which the astrolabe Vespucci holds proves the means by which he comes to encounter America, this embodiment of the New World.  Michel de Certeau aptly described the erect armored traveller as ready to write his history on the body of the other, Stradanus’ condensation of Vespucci and Columbus as a stoic pilgrim who approaches the reclining unclothed figure who seems to proffer her fruit and riches, half rising and half reclining, in what also elides a celebration of Stradanus’ own inventive abilities, the figure of Vespucci in the Nova Repertae employs the astrolabe to constructs his destination by finding the southern cross, in the manner that Vespucci described himself as using a mariner’s astrolabe in 1499 while sailing to America, Stradanus gave central place to the spherical astrological astrolabe as the rational tool for staking his relation to the New World.

The far more dramatic image of Columbus crossing the Atlantic that Stradanus drew by hand showed the navigator balanced delicately on a ship’s prow braving the ocean and heading west on stormy seas, surrounded by the sea monsters he braved encountering on the inhabited world’s edge, openly acknowledging the steep risks and triumphs of cross-Atlantic sea-travel.

Columbus on Ship to New World-Stradanus, c. 1589 (Bib Med Laurenziana)

Biblioteca Laurenziana Medicea

For all since maps are collectively made documents, whose selective synthesis from different sources are often mediated or translated into curiosity, forms of mapmaking respond to the specific needs of users as much as timeless metrics of accuracy or exactitude:  the practice of most data visualizations help process our place in a society and culture where we are ever more increasingly quantified.  And the practice of mapping correspond to a variety of needs.  For the woodcut images of place that accompanied Columbus’ printed “letter” to his sovereigns that described his encounter (and “discovery”) of the islands of the New World, the producers of the incunable De insults super inventis faced the problem of illustrating actual proximity to the world the letter described.  The landscape Columbus conjured in it of a “fertile” land of “may great and beautiful rivers,” “a great diversity of trees [including] seven or eight varieties of palm which in height and beauty, just as with the rest of the trees, herbs and fruit, easily excel our own,” and “vast woodlands and plains very fruitful and very fit for planting,” aimed to establish both the proximity of what he saw to the European world, as much as its difference–Columbus noted only at its very close that the same land “abounds with spices, with gold, and with metals,” peopled with individuals of “no great diversity in appearance,” but who “always go naked, just as they were brought into the world,” and would be ripe for conversion.

The description of how “the inhabitants of both sexes always go naked, just as their mothers bore them, except some women, who cover their pudenda with some leafy frond or cotton skirt” stuck in the imagination of readers, but evoked not only lust but an image of a pre-fall world across the oceans in ways Columbus knew would not able to be resisted as sites of conversion and potential colonization, expectations he seems to have credibly sewn.

Contact with long haired indigenous
De Insula hyspana

If curiosity of the New World and its inhabitants fed the production of contemporaneous world maps, which we are often all too prone to judge by questions of their accuracy and assimilate to criteria not different from our own, as if to ascertain how clearly their their contents were informed by geometric precepts, or the chronological revisions in their content, we neglect the practices maps of different period make in charting a known space.  For if it reflects Columbus’ testimony of encountering unselfconscious inhabitants skilled in communication, eager to trade, as a land that is “desirable, once seen, that is never to be relinquished,” problems of naming, staking a clear relation to and placing on a cognitive map are all wrestled with in the images inserted to the widely published “Letter” that narrated the first voyage to the New World–which almost diminish the role of the caravels by which he sailed there, as they create a promise of direct observation in themselves.

For while maps of the discoveries have been provocatively presented as grappling with the existence of a continent not previously known, the practice of mapping on coordinates of latitude and longitude are all too often treated as operations that were designed for the ready understanding and digestion in maps–bracketing processes of translating claims for discoveries and preparing a mapped view too readily cast as a rational tools of processing distance or space, let alone oceanic travel.  Can one see the making of maps as a more complex practice of rendering the far-off in terms that might be more readily interpreted?

12.  We might begin from appreciating maps less as the sole medium for stating or affirming the existence of a new continent–and indeed registering its presence–by taking the practices of translation concealed in maps’ fabrication as less readily accomplished by the encoding of place in a terrestrial projections, open to uncertainty and even debate, asking how projected maps came to designate a relation to a place that lies at an almost unimaginable spatial remove.

The earliest images of the New World fed a curiosity for a coherence of global settlement and diversity were as important an engine for their creation as the legibility that they offered for presenting a distribution of coherent proportions or scale:  the ways that maps acted own claims to power over space and place by embodying a coherent space as often depended on the coherence that they created as the accuracy of rendering routes of arrival or the exactitude of locating place across oceanic divides.  For the map consciously and explicitly sought and strove to create a stable sense of meaning in a spatial network, it depended on creating a sense of the meaningful nature of the indexicality of space, in other words, and as a form of producing the legibility of space through a network of indices.  How that indexicality functioned in situating the New World in a clear matrix of referentiality was by no means clear, when the otherness and remove of the New World was by no means clear.

Gores Of Waldseemuller, 1507

Gores of Globe by Martin Waldseemüller, c. 1507

Before the map gained clearcut epistemological authority as a representing regional coherence and spatial contiguity, the problem of mapping the New World turned on the credibility of staking a relation between the reader and a far-off place as a site of encounter with inhabitants, with a convincing reminder of voyages to islands in far-off seas, and interestingly conjoined the possibilities of religious proselytization with economic exchange, re-imagining a harmonized notion of contact that was more directed to problems of domination, enslavement, and taking possession in ways only beginning to be re-examined, but might be condensed in the radical renaming the very islands where the Columban expedition arrived and whose “discovery” Columbus sought to claim as his own, and not only by extension of the Spanish monarchy.  The much-cited punning in which Columbus indulged of his first Christian name–“Christo ferens”–magnanimously celebrated his personal role of bearing Christianity to the New World by poetically magnifying the personal role he played in conversion of unknown lands and naturalizing the individual agency by which he did so.

13. For places are the recognized sites from which meaning pours at full force from maps, rather than pre-established.

The places that were illustrated in the first maps of the New World maps are surprisingly interesting and seductive because they conjure a place where few had visited, and seem to provide access into the cognitive tools brought to the process of discovery.  The politics of location were somewhat surprisingly important in the very first images of the New World, as were the political relations of regions, considerably before the forms of planispheric mapping enjoyed clear epistemological authority, the letter in which Columbus described how he came to “plurimas Iu[n]sulas innumeris habitatas hominibus” and took “possession” of them “for our most fortunate monarch,” when no dissent was voiced [“contradicente neminem“]–what seems preposterous was a formula, less optimistic–or outright preposterous or comical–than it was inherited from canon law.  The absence of objection prefaced the decisive act of renaming of the islands “Guanahanyn” by Christian names in a privileged “Western” cartographical re-writing of space.  (The lasciviousness that were widely attributed to the disordered appetites of New World denizens was not only evidence of the fact that they were in need of rule, in fact, and of the ordering of instincts that the Christian monarchy would be able to provide–the magnified sexual appetites of native s were a repeated touchstone of Columbus’ letters and the early printed accounts of the discoveries, both evidence of the need for governance and otherness as much as a source of pleasure, tapping into European fantasia, and became something of a metaphor for the concrete experience of contact.)

What we recognize as a map rarely accompanied or illustrated the narrative of renaming or fantasy of naming in the seven editions of the letter printed Latin translation.  But the images accompanying most effectively served their own clear ends of mapping and functions of effectively orienting readers to the recently discovered unknown by inscribing locations within a mapped space, even though the very maps that they created were by necessity improvised.  As much as foreground the site of contact, however, which Columbus described, foregrounded in the frontispiece as a focal point that may evoke the sacramental exchange of chalice and wafter and suggest the evangelizing project to which Columbus’ letter repeatedly returned, the figuration of these new shorelines evoke the epistemic claims that engravers increasingly invested in early printed maps–and even the placement of words on a surface that indicates both spatial and terrestrial expanse, as the “Insula hyspana” against which lap the undulating waves of rolling seas that seem to have led Columbus’ caravel across the Atlantic, and in which a small skiff arrives at an island never before mapped but newly named as a part of the recently expanded Spanish state.

Insulis in mari Indico 1494

Osher Map Library

The unimaginable geographical remoteness of the islands claimed to be Spanish–and subject to Spanish sovereignty–must have necessitated something like a map.  But to depict an unknown wilderness not able to be efficiently mediated by what we acknowledge and call cartographical constructs.  An absence of  familiarity with mapping forms among a large audience of readers was remedied by offering an assemblage of strategies to include the new in the old, and which might be cartographical in a proper sense of writing an unknown space:  the context of triumphalism that began from an image of Ferdinand’s ceremoniously armed royal body gracing the title page of a book in which the letter circulated seems of sufficiently capacious authority to comprehend both the recently conquered city of Granada, which a panegyric by the court humanist Sebastian Brandt glorified within the same volume that the famous letter appeared.

The placement of the letter–quickly translated into Latin in a pamphlet dedicated to the expanding realm of the Spanish monarch, who had united the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile–extended his domain of rule to the islands that the Genoese mariner first described.  Much has been made of the formulaic nature of the announcement that the mariner ostensibly made on the open seas:  but the declaration ceremoniously effectively linked the place where he had arrived to the authority of the spatially removed sovereign in necessary if performative ways.  In the root meaning of “performance” of effecting, bringing into being, and completing, the letter was a performance of taking ownership and possession of the islands before they were actually mapped.  While a map was secondary, in other words, the letter provided the performance that the map later enacted across space.

Such modes of inscribing regions in print are rarely considered pertinent to projects of rendering of map data in vector tiles and graphics libraries, or construction of GIS maps on the layers of a webmap, but the flexibility with which woodcuts improvised models of inscribing a distant place are particularly compelling–but they suggest the novelty of the cartographic inscription as a notation of place, even as the surprisingly limited prominence of maps interfoliated in editions of the letter contrast with the prominence and authority that we regularly assign maps as if transparent records today.  For the woodcuts perform a set of operations for bringing the remote land that Columbus described in his letter to the eyes of its reader as the letter circulated among European audiences, offering the only first-hand testimony of the New World to supplement his account.

The images provided a check or counterpart to the suspicion or alarm the “gente de razon” probably felt before the customs of eating, costumes, and practices of greeting and welcome encountered in the islands, as they mediated and prepared readers the first images of these new lands and their relations to the far off lands whose inhabitants had no clear place in their mental horizons.  In the “letter” he adressed to his sovereign, allegedly composed on his return from the New World in one of the caravels he commanded to traverse the oceans, he reported how he had first believed, when he arrived at the islands of Santa Maria Conceptions, Ferdinand, Isabella, Hispaniola, San Domenico and Isabel to have arrived at the continent of Cathay.  He only realized, after seeing the absence of towns or cities on its shores, to send two of his men to explore it over three days, searching to see whether it had a ruler, and judged it to be a “place” without “government [regimine] that was, in fact, unknown–and, given the rustic costumes of its inhabitants, was implicitly open for re-inscription in a new model of sovereignty and inclusion in a map.  Even as he judged the shorelines of the island he circumnavigated at some 322 miles, drawing a “map” was both not possible and anyway somewhat beside the point to convey its trees and hills that seemed to be still in Spring even in November, and the marvels of its wildlife and apparent wealth of metals.

The images situated some seventy pages into the book recreate the experience of encounter for readers even as they bridge the remoteness of the transoceanic travel, effectively carrying news from the New World much as Columbus traversed the oceans in the caravels under his command.


The arrival of images of the New World and fashioning of maps of the discoveries is among the most intensively studied and persistently attractive aspects of early modern cartography:  the approximations of the unknown continent’s shores not only created a sensation of novelty, but set the stage for the re-embodiment of geographical landmasses in an innovative whole.  That the images in early editions of Columbus’ letter do not employ strategies of hydrographic mapping is not surprising–such strategies of picturing space were familiar to few as a basis for reckoning extent.  The images provide a basis to register the remove of New World inhabitants by bringing them into the language of reason by which their place in the world might be clearly inscribed.

The woodcut images rather suggest a variety of strategies to lend legibility to the landing of Columbus on the other side of the Atlantic.  Instead of mapping the undefined routes by which he had arrived across the seas or the places he encountered and which he had named, they establish a qualitative sense of the places of the world over which possession was taken by Columbus–“cui aetas rostra multi debet.”  They do so to help situate the content of the Latin translation of the Columbus’ letter announcing the discovery of the islands to the Spanish sovereign Ferdinand.  While printed and widely disseminated in some seven editions from 1493 in Latin translation, the woodcut images “map” the claims for their discovery in intriguing ways, dominated by tools of landscape rather than hydrographic maps, or with the indices that are associated with the ancient geographer’s Ptolemy’s project of mapping the “inhabited world” or ecumene.

When Tzvetan Todorov claimed–if in ways that were quickly contested–that the Columban voyage might be interpreted marking a point when “men discovered the totality of which they are a part, whereas hitherto they formed a part without a whole,” he made a powerful point about the map as ordering the semantic field of a global landscape.  The claiming of place provided a more potent and conceptually compelling figure in the woodcuts designed to accompany the letter in printed form in ways that stand as an alternate map, however, rather than the picturing of the world.  The bridging of both shores was itself a sort of confirmation of his regal authority to unite two coastlines, and an image of the numinous authority by which Columbus had himself carried on his caravelle to the New World.  Rather than mapping expanse in a global fashion, the letters  the earlier concepts of a whole existed, the place across the oceans established the justification for the voyage itself.

From the synthesis of biblical histories with recent Ptolemaic maps in ways that tried to systematize and process a large ancient corpus of geographic texts for a large audience of readers to the deluxe codices of comprehensive works of world geography that were adorned with images, the format of the map assumed a new autonomy both as an invitation to innovate and expand, and even more to a vehicle by which to view far-off lands with an immediacy that would not have been otherwise possible–or would have lacked the tactile immediacy that landscape possessed.

Ferd II of Spain observes New World

The role of landscape in the first illustrated edition of the letter evoked the presence of and investing immediacy in the far-off and remote.  The images, included in the first printed copies of the letters of Columbus, so striking for the multiple narratives that they are able to hold, and indeed the several narratives that can be woven about the discovery of the New World which Columbus was himself particularly careful to create, are the subject of this post, for they offer an early hint both of the limits of the literacy in reading maps and the role of maps in communicating and diffusing geographic knowledge.  The stories that were woven about locations gained endowed with a far greater immediacy than in a nautical chart or a planispheric projection of terrestrial expanse, and invested with far greater power as social acts even as they were difficult to invest with the epistemic claims to mediating a record of first-hand observations.

6.  The act of mapping relations between place provided a basis to convey oceanic travel not only, as Todorov asserted, by semantically describing “the [global] totality of which [men] are a part, whereas hitherto they formed a part without a whole.”  It is striking that frontispieces to early versions of Columbus’ letters describing his successful voyage to “islands in the Indian sea [mari indico],” published in an illustrated edition of the landlocked city Basel from 1494, focus on the point of contact and exchange that followed arrival on the shores of a renamed the “Spanish island” Santa Maria Conception, epitomized by an encounter between clothed and unclothed:  woodcuts printed in editions of the letter suggested the bountiful landscape located there in strikingly qualitative terms by the accumulation of local details of fruits, metals, and buildings, rather than place it at a given longitude or latitude or map its distance from Spain in a global map.

The presence of images in this edition of the letter of 1494, how offers important ways to map the relation of readers to the place of discovery.  The letter rather described the discovery as an amplification of the majesty of royal rights, in a gesture toward worldly empire that did not require a map to stake claims.  The frequent printing of the letter beside a history of the conquest of Granada by Innocent IX’s chamberlain, the humanist Carolus Verardo, created a context of the expanding frontiers of the Spanish monarchy, and a praise of the monarch Ferdinand, king of the Spains, i.e. Castile and Aragon, “besieger, victor and triumphant,” and fit the discovery of the islands within a form of imperial praise. The congratulatory fulsome panegyric dated May, 1492 emphasized the monarch’s power rather than provide geographic information–though the humanist Sebastian Brandt may have combined praise for the island’s discoveries to the victory over the city of Granada, the book presented the new islands as a culmination of this so fortunate conquest that liberated the city from saracens.  For Brandt took as promising the likelihood that the “cunctus nostris sub legibus orbis/Iamdudum foret [the world will be soon joined by our laws]” as would befit an empire.

Although the title page to Brandt’s panegyric identified Ferdinand’s royal power as “Hispaniarum regis . . . & regni Granatae,” and united the coats of arms of Granada, open halves of a seeded pomegranate, with the lions rampant and castles that united Castile and Léon, claims to sovereignty over the New World did not rest on a universal claims to authority of classical lineage–as would be later carefully cultivated by heirs of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V–despite the imperious gesture of Ferdinand made from the throne and the evocation of a new Holy Roman Empire, worthy of Maximilian I.


The 1492 panegyric, although printed with the letter of Columbus in seven editions, was indeed originally intended to address the victory over Granada, described as liberated to the Christian world, to which the letter of Columbus that narrated his discovery of the New World was added as if to further augment the monarch’s fortunate triumph.  It is not difficult to see the New World islands being included in a new map of worldly power, rather than a geographical map.   The augmentation of Ferdinand’s domain as a polycentric entity that had united not only the two Spains (Castile and Aragon) to Granada, but a complex including Sicily and the Kingdom of Naples to which the New World islands could be joined, in a policentered state headed by the monarch who, from his early marriage to Isabella I, had cultivated his claims to worldly sovereignty–becoming Réy Catolico of Aragon, and from 1468 King of Sicily, from 1474 jure uxoris King of Castille and after the conquest of Granada and completion of the Riconquista, of a Spain from which he expelled all Jews as if to increase his sovereign identification with the Catholic church.

The gesture of imperium that the Spanish monarch had made when he indicated the islands of the New World from his throne in the image that is the header to this post resonate with his assumption of imperial rule echoing the Roman empire.  Its claims to imperial authority of a military conqueror conjure with the broad claims to sovereignty expressed he expressed over multiple lands, and the praise of his victory in Grenada was effectively extended to the New World, as he had originally charged Columbus to search for a route of passage to Asia.

Rex hyspanie

Osher Map Library

In what might be seen as an early awareness of the centrality of the Colombian exchange–what for Alfred Crosby constituted diseases, crops, and animals, as well as objects, but for Todorov revealed an inability to realize differences–the woodcut below foregrounded the act of exchange at its center and focal point, as a chalice is offered to the unclothed native inhabitants, one of whom holds a circular object.  As if to connote the arrival of a circular host or a monetary coin, the presentation of the chalice resonates with the implicit project of conversion–unstated if evident in the letter–and the introduction of monetary exchange, as if to present the project of contact with the inhabitants of the previously unknown islands to a broader audience.

 For Todorov, the discovery of the “other” denied natives’ status as subjects, but treated them as uncivilized and lesser subjects–evident in this woodcut only in the clearly unclothed status of the island’s dwellers. The collective classification as willing subjects, but as of nuclear customs, must have made them in need of rule and conversion–so remote that their discovery as subjects are rarely acknowledged–that created the basis for the cognitive bizarreness of claiming sovereignty over a people that denied any social organization among them:  the illustration of a Colombian exchange lay here in a presentation of gifts, as if it were a recognition of rule over such remote peoples. The relation of the costumed sailors who disembarked from the offshore caravel in the foreground, who contrast to the unclothed natives crowding the shores and rocky shoals in the image of encounter by the now-tired topos of discovery:

Columban exchange

Osher Map Library

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Filed under American history, Columbus, commemoration, Voyage of Discovery, whiteness

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