We recently rediscovered another hidden treasure in special collections, this time in our Early Printed Book Collection. The book is entitled Descriptionis Ptolemaicae augmentum, siue Occidentis notitia by Corneille Wytfliet, and published in Louvain, Belgium, by Jean Bogard in 1597. This is the first edition and first issue of the earliest atlas of the New World. It was published as a companion to Ptolemy’s geography, and has been credited with dispelling many misconceptions about the New World held at the time.
There are 19 double page engraved maps showing areas of North, Central and South America as well as the Caribbean islands. The maps show the coastlines, rivers, mountain ranges, cities, ports, and islands. The map depicting California is particularly significant for the time. Beginning around 1510, there was a widespread European belief that California was an island, separated from the continent by the Gulf of California. This belief persisted well into the 1700s, despite many explorers’ attempts to disprove the view. The map in this work clearly shows California attached to the North American continent, not a separate island.
On the East Coast of North America, there are fairly accurate details around the area labeled Virginia, including Roanoke Island, which had been settled in 1585 though the colony did not last. Canada likewise is fairly detailed, showing the St. Lawrence River, and other features which had been explored in the search for a north-west passage. In between Canada and Virginia, the area we now know as New England is labeled Norumbega, and lacks accurate details of the coastline.
The name Norumbega is significant in that it was a legendary settlement believed to exist in northeastern North America. The French navigator Jean Allefonsce claimed in 1542 that he had floated south from Newfoundland and discovered a city called Norumbega. It was thought to be a large, rich, native city, and the name often appeared in European maps of the area of what is now New England. The map in this atlas shows both a region and a city labeled Norumbega. Scholars through the 1800s attempted to show where the original city was, but no one has ever proved its existence.
Morris Library’s copy of this atlas once belonged to a man named Johannes Soldacrus, who was a lawyer and Secretary at the Council of the Imperial Court, and of the Carmelite Convent in Vienna. There is no date in his ownership statement, but the handwriting is contemporary with late 16th and early 17th century writing, and his marginal annotations appear throughout the text of the book.
We are very excited to be able to give this significant work in the history of exploration and cartography the attention it deserves.