In the cool summer of 1901, a Jesuit priest named Joseph Fischer was searching through the small libraries found in the country houses and ancient castles of the old noble families that dot the German hinterlands. One day, in the tower of one of those castles, tucked deep into the forest outside the tiny village of Wolfegg, he happened upon a book that would change the history of cartography forever.
That book, now known as the Schöner Sammelband, contained the only surviving copies of two of the great masterpieces of Renaissance cartography, the long lost and sought after 1507 and 1516 World Maps by Martin Waldseemüller, both of which currently reside here at the Library of Congress and are on display in the Exploring the Early Americas exhibit. The 1507 map had been talked about in cartographic circles since its creation and was a map that no one had laid eyes on since the late sixteenth century. Known as the “Birth Certificate of America,” it was the first map to christen the continent with the name that would stick to our present day, also revealing a vast Pacific Ocean years before it was to be “discovered” by European explorers.
The mysterious book contained more than just the maps. Between its wooden covers were globe gores, patterns for celestial globes made by the astrologer and mathematician Johannes Schöner (1477-1547) who first bound all of this together into a single book more than 350 years ago.
But there was something else, something that had been removed from book, separated from the rest of the cartographic masterpieces originally brought together by the astrologer. Missing from the book, when it initially came to the Library of Congress, was a rare copy of the first printed star-chart of the Southern Hemisphere by none other than the artist Albrecht Dürer. The chart had been removed from the book before its sale by the owners, who had a love of the work of the German print maker. But after many years, the Library of Congress, just last week, acquired the chart, thereby re-assembling in the Library’s collections all of the materials that Schöner had originally collected and bound together for safe keeping. With Mr. Dürer’s move to Washington, D.C., the Library of Congress has completed one of the most ambitious collecting programs in the history of cartography, re-assembling in one place, after more than 350 years, some of the great works describing the early geography of the Americas.