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
Renaissance sophisticates sneered. How could a sleepy little backwoods town like Saint-Dié in distant Lorraine, deep in upland pine forests, home to flax weavers and log sawyers, presume to rival the great centers of humanist learning at the beginning of the 16th century? Saint-Dié seemed too poor and remote for glory and fame. Yet under the ambitious patronage of the young Duke René, a group of learned men gathered, around the town’s printing press and cathedral library, to undertake an audaciousproject—overly rash, by the standards of the town’s resources. They proposed to bring out an updated edition of the most acclaimed geographic text of classicalantiquity—Ptolemy’s Geography, compiled in the secondcentury ad—and to supplement it with the new knowledge of the planet revealed by recent and current explorations. Eventually, the project collapsed. The scholars died or dispersed, and the focus of Ptolemaic research moved away from Saint-Dié. Meanwhile, however, the effort had changed the world by generating two maps of enormous influence andsignificance—the work of jobbing humanists who probably had been fellowstudents.
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Felipe Fernández-Armesto is a history professor at the University of Notre Dame. His books include Amerigo: The Man Who Gave His Name to America (2007) and 1492: The Year the World Began (2009).more from this author >>