Category Archives: portolan charts

The World Map between Workshop and Laboratory

It’s not easy to detect how workshops transmitted protocols of mapping or the content of maps before authoritative practices for recording geographic knowledge  Partly because of the difficulty to describe the transmission of knowledge in manuscript maps, and partly because of the foreign nature of terrestrial continuity in these maps, historians have tied the techniques of engraving with an ability to delineate and effectively demonstrate a geographic space that viewers could process and comprehend.  Tools of engraving afforded a flexible graphic syntax to represent the discoveries of the New World and diffuse the Ptolemaic models of mapping expanse on a uniformly bounded graticule of parallels and meridians from the early sixteenth century, but had earlier afforded a systematic symbolic structure to organize the terrestrial world.  Manuscript world maps based on Ptolemaic cartographical models vaunted their ability to orient viewers on the indices that embodied a continuous bounded expanse.  Yet the inventive abilities associated with the uniform graticule of parallels and meridians gained such demonstrative force in ways that were informed by a rich Mediterranean tradition of nautical charts, often discounted because of the association of engraved maps and modernity.

Yet the nautical charts were adapted in experimental ways as a foundation for assembling a record of terrestrial expanse.  Indeed, charts first registered shifting knowledge of the inhabited world, and a means to symbolize the expanse of an inhabited world:  indeed, the genre of nautical charting first described the inhabited world–the “ecumene“–as a format able to represent and indeed process the settlement of a terrestrial expanse greater than most viewers could imagine.


hmartellus world map


This small “world map” illuminated in Florence about 1490 was been described by Peter Barber as one of a critical map in world history because of how it registered Portuguese travels around the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, and expanded the distance from Lisbon to the coast of China to 230°–expanding its share of the inhabited globe.

Yet rather than use spatial conventions for transcribing expanse, this small map,  adapted the conventions of nautical charts to do so–conventions that note coastal ports, promontories, estuaries, or coastal cities to map the settled world, rather than chart routes of travel.  But this small map, revising Ptolemaic cartographical dogma to accommodate Portuguese descriptions of Africa’s coast after Bartholomew Diaz’s rounding of what became known as the Cape of Good Hope, seems less designed for orientation than it envisions a comprehensive  coverage of the earth’s surface in the reduced format of a sheet about 200 by 120 cm.:  its elegant coloration suggests the reduction of a tradition of globe-making; indeed, Martellus  includes the newly mapped Cape as violating its lower ornamental frame, as if boasting about its greater comprehensiveness as a record of the known world’s surface; ports on the southern tip of Africa, way stations for sailors to southeast Asia, expand the world beyond a classical frame of knowledge.

Although the map is taken as evidence of its suggestion of a maritime route to the East that may have reached Columbus, who would have been encouraged by its apparent expansion of Eurasia to 230°, beyond earlier world-maps and beyond its actual size.  Although the map includes no graticule, a decidedly later map by the same cartographer with a coordinate grid also expanded the coast of Africa beyond the parameters of its frame, as if seeking to accommodate nautical information in an existing format:




Neither map tells us much directly about practices of mapping, but both raise questions about how nautical charts were adapted in deluxe manuscript world maps and about practices of transferring coastal locations in charts to terrestrial maps:  the first smaller image is perhaps more decorative or emblematic, and reveals minimal attention to islands or ocean expanse beyond Eurasia, but it similarly works to shape provisional knowledge of the terrestrial globe from heterogeneous sources.

The development of a uniform graticule of parallels and meridians would be privileged as a graphical form to chart the uniformity of terrestrial expanse.  But its adoption followed sustained experimentation in a tradition of manuscript mapping that is often neglected–but which provided a sort of laboratory for the expansion of a map of the world’s inhabitation, as well as a cartographical craftsmanship in which the mapmaker accommodated information without a set conventions and in makeshift ways.  This post returns attention to how the tradition of charting, associated with workshops, improvised forms to illustrate terrestrial expanse, often with minimal use of graticules of Euclidean derivation.

Manuscripts that synthesized nautical charts maps to fashion descriptions of the settlement of an inhabited world, unlike the oceanic expanse and locations of ports that were noted in nautical charts:  the material construction of such world maps offer stunning evidence of the plastic nature of mapped knowledge and the modern use of charts, by adopting existing cartographical formats to invest new knowledge-claims in maps, both by compiling a corpus of individual maps and redrawing extant cartographical forms, even though they do not follow such a clear protocol of bounding a uniform distribution of terrestrial expanse in the manner of global projections on a rigorous Ptolemaic model of conformal mapping.

The world map that opened the so-called “Medici atlas“–a sequence of eight maps that suggest aims of encompassing terrestrial expanse–reveals how maps acted as compilations of cartographical forms to experiment with recording terrestrial expanse in the same city where Martellus worked and enjoyed wide popularity.


Medicean Atlas


It’s difficult to know how these sequence of nautical maps in a single codex in Florence’s adopt a Genoese nautical chart to present a new model of map making, revising formats of charting widespread in port cities like Genoa to record sea-routes in order to provide a comprehensive pictorial rendering of inhabited space–the world map included not only the cities Ptolemy noted, but cities mentioned by Marco Polo, the Venetian traveller, as the Delhi Sultinate, and texts of the geographer Ibn Battuta, and charts.  It amplified its content through the addition of a sequence of additional maps, also of nautical derivation, of the Italian peninsula before manuscript maps of the Aegean, Black, Adriatic and Caspian Seas, each including cities and the last showing the landlocked closure of the Caspian sea, that oriented viewers to extra-Mediterranean geography with far greater precision than earlier world maps.

As well as revealing interest in the compilation or collation of evidence in maps, its revision of the template of an Africa unable to be circumnavigated and a closed Indian ocean probably responded to considerable interest in late fifteenth-century Genoa in regions of “Africa nondum cognita,” suggesting a clear interest in new working practices of mapmaking.  Alexander von Humboldt, who knew the map well, took it as evidence of a medieval knowledge of Africa’s circumnavigation–so difficult was it for him to separate the map from a register of what was known.

Perhaps the expansion of Africa to the Cape of Good Hope was drawn atop the existing map when the true form of Africa was known, or even added to the original chart in ways that emulated later prototypes, and in essence kept the cartographical compilation “up to date”:  if the case, suggested by the coloring of the map beyond an inked outline of the continent, it would suggest a new use of the map as a canvas that was altered at the same time as transmitted in fixed protocols or techniques.  It would also suggest a process of re-visioning the inhabited world by revising the pictorial content of the map to foreground its descriptive abilities.

Why was the manuscript “atlas” made, what readers did it address, and how did it construe geographical expanse?  Did it try to consciously convert the inhabitation of coasts so emphasized in portolan charts to descriptive and representational ends?

Is it representative of the expansion of the tradition of charting to newly communicative ends as a demonstration of worldly settlement?  The term “atlas” was devised by Mercator to describe a collection of maps, and its application to this volume of maps is, strictly speaking, anachronistic–the collection of maps are widely referred to by the term used by the Dutch cartographer and engraver Abraham Ortelius, under Mercator’s influence, in 1570 to describe his collection of maps, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, as an atlas–the compilation of maps exploited the comparative use of nautical charts to organize a record of cosmographical scope of comprehending the world’s expanse.  But the term is appropriate to describe this codex of maps, since it captures the persuasive ends of presenting a sequence of nautical maps of terrestrial expanse to offer claims of complete geographic coverage.

The world maps showing Africa as surrounded by sea predates by almost a century Portuguese circumnavigation of its cape.  The distinctive world map in the “Laurentian atlas”  clearly suggests the navigability around the continent and passage from the Atlantic ocean to Indian ocean–and considerable knowledge about the shape of Africa for an atlas of eight sheets dated 1351, but probably composed around 1370.  It is difficult to judge whether the map was drawn in its current fashion at that date–a time when few sailing maps extended south of Sierra Leone–or whether the original map of a Genoese chart-maker was redrawn, as some have argued, to comprehend later Portuguese nautical discoveries in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean.  The African coastline in the map included no toponymy on the coastline below Cape Bojador, the southernmost point of most earlier voyages.  Was an earlier chart revised, better to comprehend shifts in terrestrial space, earlier than the Martellus map pictured above, to better incorporate new nautical knowledge by extending the reach of Africa beyond Cape Bojador?


Painted Expansion of Atlas?


The map designed in the format recalling a chart and without any attempt to include indices of measurement or orientation may reflect the considerable interest in routes of trading to the East independent from land-travel. But also staked broader claims as a “world map” of terrestrial coverage in persuasive ways, evident in how it expanded the known limits of the continent to create a new image of inhabited expanse–using the chart as a canvas in ways that reflected some early fifteenth-century interest in assembling a map of the inhabited world.


Medicean Atlas


In place of the format of a nautical chart, the “world map” suggests a bounded expanse and form of distinctly modern appearance that has often disconcerted several readers.  (Charles de la Roncière wondered with bemusement at the prescience “de la forme reelle de l’Afrique avant le periple Portuguais” in the world map.)   It seems to have been redrawn in the fifteenth century to incorporate Portuguese discoveries, to register recent discoveries of alternate rendering of Africa’s distinctly modern form, beyond an ink line that the paint conceals.  Indeed,  no toponyms appear on the map south of Cape Bojador in the Sahara–the southernmost point of most nautical charts–in ways that seem to confirm the imagined form of Africa within the chart.  And the prominent location of  some of the Canary and the Azores in the Atlantic reveal subsequent alteration of the map on the basis of Portuguese charts, as if to update and revise its original form.  The revision of the genre of nautical mapping for new ends of comprehensive terrestrial coverage–in this case, by repainting its very surface–suggests a redesign of familiar formats of charting for new claims of geographic coverage to make a point about terrestrial expanse as the first translations of Ptolemaic treatises advanced a model of cosmographic–as much as cartographical–expertise.

The world map is clearly a compilation of varied forms of knowledge and geographic thought.  Despite the vaunted limitations on geographic knowledge of the later middle ages, this mid-fourteenth century world map reveals a striking synthesis of geographical knowledge to illustrate terrestrial expanse.  The volume seems to purposely compile existing nautical charts in a single volume, in the manner of an atlas, to satisfy demand for a record of global comprehensiveness; this map probably drew on Arab sources for its southward extension of eastern Africa down the Muslim Swahili coast.   Some emendation of the map is evident, moreover, detectable in the competing hands of an upright humanist script and more straggling cursive east of the Caspian Sea.  A nautical chart of Italy immediately follows the world chart in the codex, a map focussing only on its coast to the exclusion of its interior save the most prominent lakes:


ITaly as Nautical Compilation


This portolan chart suggests, however, a distinctly terrestrial subject, as much as a compilation of sea-routes.  And as a synthesis of the sequence of six nautical charts that complete the volume, its collation or compilation of charts is uniquely modern in presenting a comprehensive geographic record.  Its comprehensive view of the continent echoes the early fifteenth-century world map of Albertin de Virga, dated 1411-15, whose totalistic content it precedes in its synthesis of nautical charts to depict the inhabited world’s expanse–and which could have offered a model for its emendation–shortly after the first translation of Ptolemy’s manual of world-mapping in Rome.  Did Ptolemy’s newly translated treatise prompt such an early synthesis of available mapping forms to describe terrestrial–rather than nautical–expanse?




The newly persuasive nature of assembling nautical charts presented something of a canvas to stake global relations.  This world map presented sites for the exchange of meaning, but also a visual laboratory to configure terrestrial space,  transferring coastal lines from portolan charts to prepare open spaces of terrestrial expanse to be surveyed.

We often cast nautical charts as both impressive and regressive in contrast to terrestrial maps, because they leave the interior topographies so bare.  The inclusion of a more detailed African coast from the beautiful Portuguese Dourado portolan charts of the later sixteenth-century, for example, drafted in Goa around 1570, whose thickly-packed toponyms hug the continent’s north-west coast, listing ports and riverine mouths which seem the only areas able to be mapped or of interest.  It leaves the terrestrial interior unknown in ways that recall Joseph Conrad’s alter-ego Marlow, and d his attraction to the unknown African interior  in “The Heart of Darkness.”


Dourado Portolan, NorthWest Africa


The chart reveals something of an incommensurability between a known shoreline of coastal settlement and an interior, that was oddly perpetuated through the 19th century, where its limited notion of terrestrial coverage gained colonialist ends.  For printed maps of the mapping of continent limited to coastal African ports s to emptiness of the mapped interior–without any acknowledgement of local toponomy–in maps created the sort of “large, empty spaces” Marlow claimed to have seen, in maps “from the latest authorities” drafted in London in 1805, or the Lincoln & Edmonds 1819 map of the continent, both of which might have inspired Marlow’s voyage to Colonel Kurtz:

Africa Map 1805 %22From The Latest Authorities%22

Lincoln & Edmonds 1819 Africa Map


But if the chart is seen as a conservative force in world mapping, it was also a fertile tradition of its own.  Indeed, the notation of parallels and meridians in portolan charts popular from the middle of the sixteenth century in Europe suggests a clear concern in mapping new lands as well as encounters with coasts–much because they fit less clearly with mapmakers’ expertise.

This is evident, to switch subjects of cartographical attention, in the mapped image transmitted in Portuguese portolan charts of the coast of Brazil, similarly striking because of how it foregrounds the remove of coastal cities or hydrographic records of the Amazon from knowledge of inhabitation of the continent’s interior.  This nautical chart accommodated the practice of mapping on a graticule of parallels and meridians, even if comparable imaginative license is taken with the topography of the interior.


Duarado Brazil close-up


Indeed, the second of the seventeen maps in this ‘Dourado’ portolan map an interior strikingly similar to the lake on which Sir Walter Ralegh mapped the imagined city of El Dorado on the imaginary Lake Manoa in 1595, as fed by multiple freshwater ingresses; Ralegh’s map reveals less fantasy in projecting the voyage to El Dorado than a recycling of the very sailing charts he consulted in drawing up his plans to sail to Guiana.  A comparison suggests the staying power of the tradition of the Spanish and Portuguese nautical charts Ralegh so frequently consulted to plot his ill-fated expedition to an imagined city he detailed for viewers at the very center of his chart:



Ralegh’s re-use of nautical charts  created something of a laboratory to assemble the means to envision terrestrial expanse in the early fifteenth century Mediterranean world.

The portolan was, in multiple ways, a particularly versatile and inventive form.  It maintained a similar inventiveness across cultures in the Mediterranean, adopted into a tradition of Ottoman mapping through Portuguese prototypes.  Much as the ‘Medici atlas’ suggests a new mapping of the oceanic enclosure of Africa, the re-use of nautical charts for cosmographical ends is evident in the below image of world expanse.  The map was used to illustrate a Renaissance manuscript of the thirteenth-century cosmographer, lawyer and physicians Al-Qazwini’s “Wonders of Creatures and Strangeness of Beings” [Aǧāʾib al-maḫlūqāt wa-ġarāʾib al-mawǧūdāt], also stored in the Biblioteca Laurenziana.  The map below retains conventions like a cinnabar Red Sea sketched below the Holy Land, spider-like lakes and ports crowded inland that seem to perpendicularly hug the shore, the description of tripartite continents of Asia, Europe, and Africa below testify to its terrestrial coverage.  Scattered trees, fill unknown lands and almost random rows of mountainous barriers mark the limits of known Africa–an cosmographical record of  the inhabited three continents of the world Al-Qazwini had described in the tradition of classical geography, rooted in describing terrestrial inhabitations, rather than climactic zones or schematic spatial divisions–notwithstanding the depiction of a bright crimson Red Sea.




Geography meets cosmography in this world map, deriving from nautical charts.  The image of planetary eclipses in the same elegantly illustrated volume suggests a similar cosmographical intent in this deluxe compendium, that echoes the sense of the terrestrial map as a mediation of abstractly purified knowledge, now removed from the craft of the nautical chart-maker’s craft.




The cosmographical scope of the image in the thirteenth-century encyclopedia re-used the format and conventions of nautical charting to make cosmographical claims, similarly to the re-drawing of the Genoese chart in the mid-fifteenth century for making newly comprehensive claims.

Indeed, one can detect something of a similar use of records of nautical charting for cosmographical mapping in the adoption of Portuguese charts in the fragment of a 1513 map that the Atlantic the Ottoman admiral Piri Reis presented to the Ottoman Sultan Selim I in 1517.  The fragment discovered in the shelves of an Istanbul’s  Topkapi palace in 1929, drawn on gazelle parchment, incorporated four Portuguese portolan charts, eight Ptolemaic maps, and some twenty mappae mundi, according to the admiral’s inscription, in a luxurious map of expansive proportions, of which only the sheet depicting the New World and western Africa survives:

Piri Reis

In the decades after its discovery, this map was taken as grounds for grandiose claims about pre-Columban geographic knowledge–claims with limited validity.  For Piri, the map’s surface provided a field to combine an image of global expanse in a complete whole.  He worked, he tells us “from eight Jaferyas of that kind [e.g., Ptolemaic maps, which he dated to the age of Alexander the Great] and one Arabic map of Hind [India], and “from four newly drawn Portuguese maps which show the countries of Sind [Pakistan], Hind and Çin [China] [all] geometrically drawn, and also from a map drawn by Qulūnbū [Columbus] in the western region” or islands of the new world, so that by “reducing all these maps to one scale this final form was arrived at, so that this map of these lands is regarded by seamen as accurate and as reliable as the accuracy and reliability of the Seven Seas.”  He took the testimony of seamen as the standard of trust, but the value of a format “geometrically drawn” suggested both its comprehensive and cosmographical value–a main purpose, no doubt, of the presentation map given as a luxury book to Sultan Selim I–making it all the more quixotic that the director of the palace library, Halil Edhem, handed it over amidst a bundle of discarded materials to  Gustav Adolf Deissmann when Deissamn searched for non-Islamic material in the Topkapi.  (So suggestive is the map’s situation of islands and accumulation of detailed coastal promontories that it was taken as grounds for a lost “pre-classical” culture of mariners familiar with Antarctica for Charles Hapgood or of the mathematical calculation an azimuthal projections made with active extra-terrestrial assistance by Eric von Däniken from a spaceship located above Cairo; theories that misread the map as an actual projection had little basis, but are nicely rebuked by the cogent case made for its nautical origins on the Turkish 10 million lira banknote.


(The fragment of a lost manuscript map depicted to the left gained such wide traction precisely because of its elegant  argument for ordering the known regions of the world.)

The nautical chart provided by its very open-ness a basis to expand a canvas of the inhabited world before conventions of map projection insisted on the world’s bounded nature.  The flexibility of the format allowed the assimilation of a varied range of sources and authorities–from Marco Polo to Ibn Battuta, as it were.  We can appreciate the open-ness that the re-use of nautical charts as canvases in contrast to the very different nature of the world map in another manuscript of Al Qazwini’s treatise, now in the National Library of Medicine, painted in around  1537  by unknown illuminators in western India.  The map is far more schematic–if not traditional–form, removed from the tradition of charting:  the image of the world is replete with marine sinuses and undulating rivers that link bubble-like lakes, with a bulbous Horn of Africa pointing to the overlapping waves in the oceanic expanse of the Arabian sea.

al qwazwini  1537 w india


The vitality of a manuscript tradition of mapping provided something of a laboratory for the material re-imagining of an earthly space in which increasing physical details were readily inscribed.

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Filed under Africa is a Continent, Mappaemundi, Mapping Africa, mapping the ecumene, Nautical Charts, portolan charts, protocols of mapping

Mapping Land and Sea in Venice (and Elsewhere), ca. 1500

The medium of single-line engraving provided an expressive medium for organizing the continuity synthetic maps of land and sea long before trans-Atlantic travel was available to most.  Mapping beyond one’s place or region is a specific area of expertise; it is not surprising that it is a difficult competency to define.  It’s long been observed that the manner in which engraving produced an exactly replicable visual statement brought a variety of levels of expertise to bear on the map, both as a repository of collective visual memory and a coherent visual statement designed to orient readers to the notion of a uniform space.  But it’s interesting to consider the local differences in how a coextensive notion of space was understood to be composed of mapping the integration of land and sea:  and the understanding of the political power of the Serenissima–and the authority of the Venetian senate–as extending “onto the salted waters [sopra le acque salse]”–suggested a unique model of imagining worldly rule that uniquely inflected the construction of a cartographical space.

The transmission of the concept of a map of uniform coverage–one first expressed by the second-century Greek astrologer and mathematician Claudios Ptolemaios [Κλαύδιος Πτολεμαῖος], bequeathed to us as simply Ptolemy, provided a template to illustrate the expanded edges of the inhabited world in the editions successively translated in early modern Europe considerably before maps of land were fully integrated with maps of sea.  Translation of the forms by which Ptolemy mapped an inhabited terrestrial expanse not only to superseded the inhabited world as Ptolemy had described it and imagined it, but broached a different model of continuity within visual form:  epistemologically distinct spaces of travel that corresponded to different forms of mapping were joined in a Ptolemaic planisphere, as were the distinct competencies of mapping, in what might be profitably examined and studied as a ‘trading zone’ of varied forms of technical skill.  In Venice, perhaps, more than in other sites, the city offered a site connected by sea to other regions, and was a bit of an active trading zone of linking maps of water and land as Ptolemaic maps attempted, less constrained by territorial bounds, and more attentive to unifying the different metrics and scales of global mapping than many other engravers of global maps.

The image of the Venetian ties to the Mediterranean world and Gulf of Venice were rearticulated in maps, ordering a relation to a global expanse by nautical charts that had enjoyed broad currency in the city, and provided a cosmographic authority to articulate Ptolemy’s authority as a description of a terraqueous expanse.


1.  Mapping Land and Sea

Techniques of artistic engraving offered a matrix in which to synthesize mapping forms from the fifteenth century, and the medium increased a synthesis of formats of mapping, as well as a the demand for maps as reproducable forms.  As much as benefiting from Ivins’ useful characterization of the innovative ways that print afforded “exactly reproducable graphic statement,” engravers’ skills provided a way to transmit the map as a graphic form.

The Dutch engraver and cartographer Mercator in 1569 described his map as a synthesis of geographical maps and nautical charts:  in so doing, he modernized the projection of the map’s surface as a continuous surface.  In a unique and inventive way, Mercator assembled a record of terraqueous expanse on parallels and meridians to address a large audience of readers by boasting of his ability to bridge the distinct media of nautical charts of the ocean with geographic maps–whereas the Ortelian “Typus Orbis Terrarum” of 1570 directly below displayed traveling ships, riverine networks, and maritime expanse on curved meridians, Mercator’s projection distributes an inhabited expanse on perpendicularly intersecting meridians and parallels.  But both maps advance cartographical expertise as preparing a surface that could be uniformly scanned by viewers as a proportional and uniform distribution of the inhabited world.


Mercator Close-Up


Mercator did not explain the mathematics of a uniformly mapped space.   But the unique projection he devised gained broad authority by the seventeenth century as a means to visualize global relations.  Although the Mercator projection ensured that the loxodromic lines of nautical travel, denoted in charts by rhumb lines, would perfectly intersect with meridians, the straight parallels construed “ad Usum Navigantium Emandate Accomodate” was not adopted for sailing or for plotting voyages until the ability to measure longitude at sea–partly since he did not explain his method for calculating the “true course” on straight lines, but also since the media of terrestrial maps were so distinct from nautical or navigational carts.  But the combination of registers for noting nautical and terrestrial space, or imagining expanse on ship and on land, provided a major shift in maps’ graphic design and epistemological claims.

The gradual supersession of the autonomy of  sea-charts facilitated increased claims of realistic representation–or reality effect of mapping land and sea in a continuous frame of reference.  The combination of geographic and nautical charts to record of the known world in ways shifted how the world is known depended on acceptance of the descriptive potential of maps, as much as their accuracy or the use-value they gained to navigate in an era when calculation of latitude at sea depended on the sighting the altitude of the sun above the horizon and due course rarely achieved.  But the Mercator projection integrates land charts and marine charts to provide totality of global expanse.  This was the first age of globalism, and it could be readily understood.  The cognitive basis of maps as vehicles seems concealed in Cornelius de Jode’s presentation of Mercator’s projection as a “Totius orbis cogniti Universalis descriptio” or record of the known world in 1589, a decade after its appearance:  it offered tools for knowing the inhabited world as well as a record of the known world.

A similar visibility of the world’s surface was advanced in Cornelius de Jode’s later compendium of global coverage, which synthesized the conventions of nautical charts with the conventions of terrestrial mapping to create a convincing understanding of relationships between nautical travel and terrestrial expanse.

MErcator 1579

Such supersession of the conventions of mapping had to an extent previously occurred in the combination of results from different mapping formats in a unified cartographical space.  Yet even before Mercator devised this projection, sixteenth-century maps had synthesized the content nautical maps had increased the claims of realistic representation–or reality effect–in printed maps.  The graphic and pictorial detail and abundance of signifiers that was invested in Ptolemaic projections had increasingly shifted the status of the map from a schematic register which lay at remove of one from space, to a compelling synthesis of terrestrial relations for its viewer:  and the map became a surrogate able to stand in metonymic relation to a place it described, stood at the center of  modern claims of maps as forms of visual relation to space that could be inscribed with meaning.  Indeed, the combination of registers of terrestrial and nautical cartography compellingly joined areas of practice that had been kept previously separate formats of spatial descriptions, if not incommensurable registers of qualitatively different registers to chart spatial continuity.

Was this change in attitudes to the map partly enabled by the combination of registers of terrestrial and nautical cartography?   From previously separate formats of spatial descriptions, if not more significantly incommensurable registers of qualitatively different forms of space, the map’s surface became understood as a way to register motion through a uniform space and encounter places on a determined path of travel.  The use and status of the map as both a register and descriptor of expanse was already evident in the integration of nautical charts and Ptolemaic maps Bernardus Sylvanus designed in Venice after 1508, which, despite the notorious absence of coverage of North America and reduced coverage of the globe, had previously described a terraqueous unity in compelling–and readable–ways by explicitly combining what had been seen as incommensurable orders of registering expanse.

Sylvanus PLanisphere--close up

The legibility of the 1511 projection of Sylvanus was both very contingent and local in nature, despite the universalizing viewpoint it prepared of the inhabited world.  When Sylvanus, hailing from Eboli, possibly also an illuminator of erudite texts, undertook a newly illustrated printed edition of the ancient geographer Claudius Ptolemy’s  Guide to World-Mapping, known in the Renaissance simply as the Geography, he decided to create a more updated edition of comparative maps deriving from nautical charts collated by sailors and the set of maps transmitted in codices of the Ptolemy’s work of global geography.  The plans for a new Venetian edition had recently been abandoned, although several plates for it had been made and perhaps engraved by 1508, probably including a new world projection.  In confronting problems of modernizing the Ptolemaic maps, Sylvanus foregrounded the integration of islands and coastlines compiled in nautical charts in the maps transmitted in Ptolemy’s geographical treatise, translating the conventions for land-mapping into representational conventions from the graphic arts and advances of two-color typography:  the birds perched on the cornices of his map of Italy, the sixth plate of Europe, may echo the modern bird’s-eye view of the peninsula he offered, using nautical maps to present the configuration with a sense of naturalism often foreign to early printed Ptolemaic maps.

Sylvanus Italy--Europe 6

2.  Oceanic Space

The treatise that the second-century geographer titled a “handbook for drawing world maps” was both a technical guide and a compendium for drafting land maps.  But in Venice, a city of maritime trade, Ptolemy’s promise to collate and list a database of all the places in the inhabited world’s surface had potential appeal as incommensurate with the chart used to decide or compare nautical routes of travel, and posed a specific challenge to synthesize mapping forms.

These charts provided an alternate source of information that promised both to refine and expand the ancient geographer’s encyclopedic claims that led him to list names of ancient cities and noteworthy cities or rivers exceeding 10,000 in number–if the richness of Ptolemy’s text led erudite readers to consult his book with their manuscripts of Herodotus or Livy, as Bernardo Machiavelli–father of Niccolò–their elegant terrestrial maps they more often addressed learned readers and armchair travelers as surfaces often read in relation to other ancient texts, rather than graphic descriptions of expanse.  Indeed, their printers did not aim to address a larger audience of readers.  Yet even when presenting accurate place-locations in coastlines that resemble charts, the maps struggled to offer an easily readable surface.

sugar hillls in Spain

The synthesis of a more legible cartographical space was foreign to earlier cartographical traditions.  The history of the transmission of medieval maps is considerably complex–as are the techniques of varied forms of map making.  Elizabeth Edson argued information from accounts of travelers, traders, and sailors became accomodated in world-maps from the early fifteenth century, joining travelogues that both expanded the content and challenged the parameters of earlier symbolic world maps.  The inclusion of information from travel accounts and nautical charts not only expanded the surface of maps, but posed complex problems of integration on parallels and meridians–a reproducible grid–and elicited potential graphic models for spatial representation over a century after its textual translation that lent formal authority to the world map.

The alternatives for such a synthesis were not clear.  The considerable questions that surround the transmission and construction of earlier manuscript charts, often drawn on sheepskin to guarantee their preservation and illustrate their value, are raised by the unclear relations between how the maps were transmitted and copied–if not created–given the unclear questions about copyists reliance on the intersecting directional lines that seemed sketched over their content in tracing coastal shorelines and locating islands, or how the skein of lines apparently determined from compass-bearings provided guides for nautical travel.  These maps were produced predominantly in port towns, as this Mediterranean chart executed in Alexandria by Jehuda Abenzara (or ben Zara), coastlines are crowded by names of coastal ports written perpendicularly to the shore, linked by a network or web of potential sea-routes that demand close reading and intense preparation by specially trained scribes:

Jehada Abenzara

In port cities like Alexandria, chart-makers regularly synthesized and collated a sort of collective memory of varied routes of travel that might be on board any arriving ship, in the hope of piecing together these local records of coasts or island-charts to synthesize more expansive networks of trade with a degree of accuracy that minimized cartographical distortion with a precision that geodetic observations had not allowed.

The chart synthesized a form of collective memory, if the protocols by which its contents were transmitted are not clear:  the organization of a synthetic record of travels provided little more than symbolic reference to inhabited interiors, however, which in essence remained “off the map.”  Rather than a representation of terrestrial space, it primarily provided a record of the location of ports and idealized potential lines of nautical–rather than terrestrial– travel.


The spatial mapping of coastal cities in the Mediterranean, and situation of coastlines in a broad nautical expanse–both in relation to both equinoctial lines and vertical bars of latitude however provided an alternate orientation to the network of the web of loxodromic lines of the compass rose.  The below schematic version of a portolan chart, signed by Juan de la Cosa of c. 1500, provided a distinct frame of reference and spatial indices to enumerate points of landing and prominent capes in the New World at different latitudes for its readers.

Wrote de la Cosa's c 1500 map



The parchment portolan chart stored in Madrid’s Museo Naval and made in the port city of Andalusia, Puerto de Santa María, was prepared for competencies of a restricted audience, with specific interpretive tools in mind–whether they were kept by captains, or by trading houses is unclear, as is the primary techniques they use to demonstrate relations of space.  By the fifteenth century, elegantly decorated versions became prized possessions among even landlocked elites–probably in copies that obscured or hid their own mercantile provenance and were designed to stake boundary lines of exploration or colonization in the New World, by demonstrating the boundary line of Tordesillas.  But although the competencies of mapping these documents enlist to render expanse are opaque, their synthetic construction have provoked continued investigation of their formal manipulation or symbolic construction of mapped space.

Some of the relevant underlying schema of the networks and constellations in charts have been identified, but their operative value is not known–were they of use for copyists in Salamanca, Barcelona, or Genoa, or were these keys that allowed them to be read?  The construction of scale lay in the relation among focal circles, wind roses, and loxodromic lines, as in this reading of the Cantino Chart.


Spatial position is not much of an apparent interest, however, so much as the collation of alternative networks of travel–or, in the case of some charts presented by the Spanish or Portuguese, to illustrate the meridian that demarcated colonization of the New World at the Treaty of Tordesillas.  The image of nautical continuity was a huge attraction for the humanist geographer Martin Waldseemüller, but his 1516 “Carta Marina” based on Portuguese marine charts like the so-called Cantino chart constituted part of his broader cosmographical project, but this image, discovered only by the Jesuit Josef Fischer around 1901, constituted an alternate model of cosmographical learning to his large world map of 1507, 4.5 to 8 feet, provided a wall-map whose comprehensive character was less successful in making claims for its legibility, if it invested greater artistic skills in converting the format of nautical charting to a legible form that Waldeseemüller had the projection engraved in the same dimensions.  This map printed on high-quality hand-made rag paper was only found in one sixteenth-century bound volume, but was a complicated investment, even more so than the cosmographical map that Waldseemüller described as having been printed in 1,000 copies.



Somewhat oddly, the map did not include the image of “America” surrounded by oceanic waters that distinguished the lavish cosmographic wall-map he had printed in 1507, and whose accompanying treatise described America as “an island . . . surrounded on all sides by sea,”  in his Cosmographiae Introductiomost probably because its sheets reflected the content of sea-charts–even if it superimposed an equi-angular grid that had little relation to the graticule employed in the terrestrial wall-map he had titled a Universalis Cosmographia.


Oceanus Occidenatils


The two large wall-maps produced at the University of Vosges, then in the Holy Roman Empire, both only recently acquired and restored by the Library of Congress, enshrined opposed if  incommensurable models of world-geography at the very time Sylvanus prepared his own edition of Ptolemy’s precepts of geographic map-making and study of global geography.   Did the lavishly produced “Carta Marina” offer a counterpart to the geographic theorization of expanse that Waldseemüller had advanced in his cosmographical writings?  The ordering of Venice’s position in relation to a gulf, and to the expansive genre of island books or isolari printed in Venice and in Italy, provided a new way of describing Venice’s position in the world, and global continuity at a relatively early age.


3.  Envisioning the Continuity of Terrestrial Geography

The location of geographical in the continuous coastlines of manuscript nautical charts was hastened by a demand to process the over 12000 identified sites Ptolemy specified as able to be mapped in a format  which conformed to viewers’ expectations for representing spatial continuity.  And Sylvanus seems to confront this difference shift in collating nautical charts with other mapping forms in Venice around 1510,  in what seems a uniquely local manner to read a map’s universal claims.

The detailed coverage of the world’s surface in sixteenth-century Europe increased not only the coverage or precision of maps, I would argue, so much as the claims of realistic representation–or reality effect–of maps in critical ways.  Yet changing understanding of the map as a medium, as well, provided Bernardus Sylvanus with grist to collate nautical charts in a set of new conventions that created a uniformity among data of diverse provenance previously regarded as qualitatively distinct if not incommensurable orders of spatial description.  Although his exacting transposition of ancient names into modern outlines of land-masses ran against the critical project of comparing the ancient and modern worlds, the uniform conventions of maps he made presented a distinctly uniform continuous surface in images from charts.

For charts were less concerned with describing or denoting spatial location, than determining (and collating) potential routes of travel:  the conceptual mapping of routes of travel was rarely invested with descriptive force or value; its competency reflected applied knowledge.  The growing authority of the terrestrial map as a comprehensive description, however–one of the deepest of modern claims of maps as competencies rooted in visual design, rather than nautical knowledge–arose from the combination of registers of terrestrial and nautical cartography, previously separate formats of spatial descriptions if not more significantly incommensurable registers, in a sort of a trading zones of semiotic conventions from varied areas of life, which bridged or linked hitherto incommensurable formats to denote expanse.

As the rich spatial information contained within the medium of the chart was transposed to the surface of terrestrial maps,  something like a wrestling with epistemological claims for knowing space and locations seems apparent in the maps included in treatises of global geography first translated in the fifteenth-century, most particularly in Claudius Ptolemy’s second-century Guide for Drawing Terrestrial Maps, whose maps Renaissance editors of the treatise had increasingly invested with increasingly comprehensive ends–increasingly relying on the toponymically crowded but crisply defined coastlines transmitted in charts to blend seamlessly with inland areas.  The accumulation of local and pictorial detail to combine an over-abundance of signifiers altered the distinction between the land map and nautical chart, raising truth-value claims about the chart as a representation that stood at remove of one from the world that this post can only begin to suggest:  increasingly, the map became a place that could be inscribed with meaning, or became a register from which to relate to foreign lands, if not a substitute for them.  The diminishing authority of the chart lay partly in a limited ability to determine position at sea, but also a limitation of the ability for encoding further information in its content that would satisfy its audience.  Edward Wright observed the errors of sea-charts as a basis for calculating position in 1599:


A word or two about this complex treatise, abundantly overflowing with strange toponyms that elicited readers’ curiosity even if its content were difficult to translate into the standards of eloquent expression to which many of its humanist readers were habituated–leading some to indicate Strabo as–to quote Isaac Casaubon–the “summo scriptore, quod praeter acuratissimam totius orbis nunc cogniti descriptionem, tanta doctrina, tamque varia omnium rerum scientia refertum est, ea denique arte contextum . . .

Ptolemy’s expansive catalogue of locations had long demanded to be given a visual form.  The question of their visual coherence led some of his later editors to rely on nautical charts that included places Ptolemy had not indicated, but the nautical chart provided little analogous framework of coherence by which to grasp their situation in a continuous expanse.  The geographer Angeliki Tsorlini has recently employed digital technologies to map relative locations defined by the terrestrial coordinates in Ptolemy’s treatise in ways that reveal the very compelling map of Mediterranean cities his treatise would have offered.  Most of the cities are ports, located along the shore, to be sure, but a considerable number remain inland cities located with apparent relative precision, with minimal significant distortion for much of Italy, the Adriatic, and Greece.  The copious abundance of familiar locations and interest in their clustering must have increased demand for their depiction.

Place Names from Ptolemy in Modern Map Projection

In the first codex that arrived in Rome, found by Maximous Planudes in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century, the abstract ordering of the situation and topography did not pose an intellectual problem of viewing space (Burney 111; British Library).  Despite the formal appearance of the island of Taprobana, thought to perhaps represent Sri Lanka, the red lines of parallels of latitudes and meridians of longitude in which Ptolemy argued geographic mapmakers could usefully divide the world for readers on measured units, provided limited claims to mediate a naturalistic image of expanse.

Maximous Planoudes' Taprobana

Planoudes was careful to note the precise location of places on spatial coordinates, but the metric values of locations were not presented as lying in exact correspondence to their spatial situation.  The illustration of cartographical images that expanded later codices of Ptolemy’s treatise worked hard to provide maps that were commensurate with the over 1200 place-names–including mouths of rivers, promontories, mountains, or landmarks–contained in his geographic compendia were sought to be illustrated in authoritative form.

As the work reached a large audience in manuscript, terrestrial space was presented in schematic terms, the maps seem to wrestle with the abstraction of space, as if in ways that could not be imagined in visual or pictorial terms as a surface that could be scanned, as is evident in this map of German lands in one codex of the Geography, which enumerated towns and rivers in a new abstract form, listing inhabitants and towns as in the Ptolemaic manner, with minimal recognizable guides or explicit orientational clues about their spatial situation and topographical location, even when that region lay on the margins of the Roman world:
Magna Germania forests in Swabia

Yet the land-locked nature of these regions made the legibility of expanse less concrete.

Even in areas that claimed continuity with the ancient world, the production of Ptolemaic treatises curiously included modern views of Mediterranean cities in several deluxe of codices illuminated in Florence, as if to expand the treatise’s qualitative coverage of European cities in a rhetorically persuasive image for readers–these images had less regard for the systematic terrestrial coordinates Ptolemy proscribed than for preserving noteworthy sites in each place, or offer a ‘chorographic’ complement to Ptolemy’s explicitly geographic concern.


4.  Symbolic Syntheses of Mapped Space

The question of what sort of graphic synthesis was provided in a geographic map is broadly tied to Renaissance visual culture, but posed particularly pressing questions in port cities that compared Ptolemy’s precepts with maps of nautical expanse.  Bernardus Sylvanus assembled engraved maps for his edition of Ptolemy shortly after the plans to print an edition of the treatise in Venice collapsed or failed, for reasons of skill or financing.  But a huge shift occurred in the production of maps that made such authoritative regional claims as depictions had already occurred, reflected in the preponderance of their incision, illumination, and distribution in centers of visual cultures in northern and central Italy, central Germany, and the Netherlands:  the specific forms of overlap between nautical and terrestrial methods in sites from Venice to Rome to Nuremberg created a rich repertory of maps with expansive truth-claims as forms of depiction.  His work came on the heals of an existing experimentation with combining cartographical registers of description in a universal register of mapping habitations of terrestrial space, evident in the 1507-8 world map of the Roman edition of Ptolemy, designed by the northern engraver Johannes Ruysch, and contemporary to the plans for a Venetian edition of Ptolemy’s treatise.

The manner that this 1507 world map mediated the legibility terraqueous expanse as a continuous surface might have offered a model for Sylvanus’  integrating of mapping forms:  for the Ruysch projection is in ways a restatement of cartographic expertise.

Rome 1507


The black-and-white outlines of the copperplate incision helps foreground the legibility of toponyms and textual panels alike that lie on the map’s curved meridian lines, as the stippled surface of oceanic expanse suggests the fact of its comprehension in the map–a comprehension rendered evident to viewers by the unveiling of the new form of a circumnavigable Africa and India, as well as the introduction of the newly discovered capes, rivers, and islands of the Americas:



The historian of cartography David Woodward argued that cartographical competence reveals a growing “rationalization of space” around 1492.  In ways, we have begun to remove cartography from a professional genealogy that places a premium on rationality–such a claim is concealed within the creative combination of forms of diverse sources mapmakers have long imaginatively integrated in synthetic designs.  But the limitations on the ‘rationality’ of the map–or the grounding of its authority in its rationality–demands future research for how mapmakers who amplified the local qualitative content of cartographical media.

Taking a step further backward in time, we can perhaps appreciate how the designers and illuminators of maps of maps included in manuscripts of Ptolemy’s treatise seem ambivalent in their use of parallels and meridians as a framework for defining a cognitive relation to expanse or for recording a cognitive relation to place:  for they treat the graticule of the map more as a frame of reference by which to register terrestrial position, than as an enabling format for graphic representation:  the iconic portrayal of place in early maps as clusters of houses that positioned against the blank ‘space’ framed by coordinate system or patches of forest tries to bridge Ptolemy’s ancient model for denoting a uniform abstraction of terrestrial expanse on Euclidean precepts and the ability to transcribe space.  Illuminators, few of whom are known,  invested maps with very limited mimetic qualities from the 1450s and 1470s to communicate their continuity:   the new interest in regional maps as registers lead illuminators to position clusters of houses with peaked roofs and taller towers in dense proximity to each other to distinguish areas of settlement, beside clustered areas of forest growth–as the Black Forest in Bavaria–that provided some vague reassurance of the correspondence of space.  Some of the owners of such maps added places near their own residence, or areas that they knew, omitted in the printed editions or codices they owned, as if to give the maps an expressive value that they feel they lacked.

Added cities of Hamburg and Lubek

Bohemia in 1477 Ptolemy

Did the second-century geographer’s “handbook for drawing world maps” have different implications in Venice, a city of maritime trade and considerable diversity, where nautical maps were more prevalent than maps of terrestrial expanse by the early sixteenth century?
4.  Back to Bernardus Sylvanus in Venice, ca. 1500
The shift in Venetian culture for locating place in a map’s expanse is reflected in the collation of a set of independent views of neighborhoods to create a dramatic imagined synthetic view of Venice as seen from above in a wall-map composed from six large individual woodblocks and large rag sheets.  The master of perspective Jacopo de’ Barbari designed the detailed view by taking he city’s coasts a a frame in which to distribute its built and inhabited expanse:  heads of winds of each direction frame the view, recalling the spokes of a wind-rose and the disembodied heads of putti who surround most early printed Ptolemaic maps, magnify the city’s coastlines and maritime surroundings, revealing the complexity of its physical plant as if the city were something of a microcosm of the inhabited world, and to showcase the expansive position of Venice on the Adriatic.  The view situates the “forma urbis” not only as a built space but in realtion to the surrounding sea, dotted with individual boats and a regatta:  in the distance, one sees the Alps to the north:  the city appears as a microcosm of global expanse, as the depiction of its inhabitation in each rione of Venice stands as a graphic surrogate for the mapping of a miniature world.
The particular detailing of a sea as continuous with coastlines and inhabited world provides the informed viewer with something of a metaphor for the unity of land and sea in world-mapping, revealed in Jacopo’s attention to both wind-heads round the city and to a regatta that braves Adriatic winds, exploiting his attention to the finely engraved lines of the wavy waters:
Barbari Regata
What sort of view did Jacopo de’ Barbari compose in this elegant multi-sheet wall map?  The view is often compared to the elevated “bird’s-eye” perspectival views of the “forma urbis” of Renaissance cities, but rests on a synthsesis of an imagiend or virtual view from individual surveys of the city:  one recent digitization of the view of “Venetia 1500” helped reveal the synthetic unity Jacopo took pains to created a uniformity of urban space from individual surveys as an illustration of considerable skill of rendering an almost planimetric space for viewers to scan as a continuous surface that extended to the surrounding oceanic sea:
Gridded view of Jacopo's Venice
The multi-sheet map, whose production required three years, exemplifies a Venetian appreciation of elevating a record of collective perceptions by combining map-making and perspective with particular virtuosity.
Each of the six sheets provided detailed records of the city in what Fortini Brown has called an “eye-witness style,” but a imported mapping records to a continuous picture-frame that pushed the cartographic metaphor of transcription to transcend a single fixed perspective.
Barbari Close-Up with Tritone
The luxury print of multiple sheets provide a surface into which the viewer can descend into specific neighborhoods or regions that are immediately recognizable:  the continuity of its content were thematized in another recent digitization of the map created by the Correr Museum:
But the lines of the Venetian lagoon and Adriatic suggest the clearest inclusion of a sense of maritime space in the map–an illusion that was echoed in the corpus of Sylvanus maps.  For Jacobo de’ Barbari created a model for viewing the coherence of urban space that responded to a challenge for ordering the unity of terrestrial and nautical space.  When Bernardus Sylvanus intended to expand the cartographical corpus of Ptolemy’s Geography in Venice around 1508, he consciously and proudly incorporated information from the surface of sailors’ nautical charts into the land-maps denoted by spatial coordinates in earlier editions of Ptolemy’s treatise, creating a unified legible cartographical surface and using printer’s red to place cities in a continuous landscape–if often situating ancient names of place from Ptolemy’s work within the modern coastlines of nautical charts, in ways that went against the scholarly tradition of comparing ancient and modern geography by juxtaposing “ancient” and “modern” maps, but also advanced a single cartographic record as authoritative and unique, shading coastlines to suggest the maritime field in which he placed new nautical discoveries–and limited America, famously, to the Columban islands to the ahistorical exclusion of all North America.


Rather than enabling spatial travel, the world map of two sheets noted place-names in a distinctive printer’s red that stand out from rolling hills, framed by etched lines of waters on their coasts as if in imagined relief:

Sylvanus expanded Mediterranean with nuatical maps

The map’s space was treated as a continuous surface, defined by the coastlines from modern nautical charts, if the toponomy was often ancient in origin, treating the cartographical surface as a uniform register of inhabited lands:

Sylvanus Spain Coast


Little biographic information is known about the production of the maps of Bernardus Sylvanus da Ebola, though he has been possibly identified with an illuminator.  But he clearly exploited, even more than his predecessors, the semiotic synthesis that print allowed in Venice.  This is evident both in its combination of text and woodcut imagery in this two-sheet map, and the overlay of a graticule, equatorial bar, and wind-heads, combining conventions of different mapping media more explicitly than even earlier editions of the existing maps of the Ptolemaic corpus.

The introduction of islands and coastlines not in most all of the maps editors of the previous five printed editions of Ptolemy’s treatise on world-mapping (a sudden burst of editions which we can label Bologna 1477; Rome 1478; Ulm 1482; Berlinghieri 1482; and Rome 1507), presenting more clearly identified coasts and islands–as the ‘isole fortunate’ off of Africa’s western coast, although it omits the New World–but are often of limited geographic accuracy. The distinct use of type to balance the legibility of a map crowded with toponymy by two-color ink adopts the innovation of the material production of books to create a surface easily read by its customers–and he invited readers of the maps he organized as a comparison between the maps Ptolemy described and the versions corrected by modern nautical charts to “compare Ptolemy’s words with navigations themselves” and decide for themselves, using two-color printing to facilitate an intensive reading of the map’s surface, and in the attention that he gave to islands in the Mediterranean, as the Balearic islands off the coast of Spain, where the etching of lines suggest the surrounding seas that hit their rocky shores.



The significance of the line in the medium of engraving has been argued to facilitate the conventions of uniform mapping of terrestrial expanse, allowing engravers to exploit the geometric formats of Ptolemaic mapping in graphic form in particularly expressive ways, the expressive value of the Sylvanus maps derived from their synthesis of conventions of map-making in a continuously readable form–one that created new attentiveness, indeed, to the encryption of information from the surface of the map, both in the map of the world’s surface and the individual tables editors helped prepare for Ptolemy’s treatise.

This must have responded to an increase in what might be called geographic curiosity.

The universal coverage of the maps Sylvanus prepared for Ptolemy’s manual of global geography was constructed from a very local place, and reveals the local availability of island books or isolari in Venice, as well as nautical records of the Mediterranean and Adriatic that were available in abundance in the maritime city, which were carefully integrated within the system of parallels, meridians and equinoctial lines for readers to pour over, with attention to areas like Spain’s Mediterranean coast or Greek islands in the Adriatic, depicted by a similar accuracy reminiscent of charts, as are its inlets and bays.

Greek Island Sylvanus

Sylvanus illustrated the division between Africa and Asia, the origins of the  Nile and shores of the newly-mapped Red Sea for readers to consult, probably in relation to available maps, by means of a similar etching of graphic relief:

Africa and Origins of Nile

The material surface of Bernardus’ maps synthesized a range of semiotic conventions that viewers would have been quick to recognize as a combination of a material landscape and a map:  one of his Italian readers was quick to include images of the towns in the Marches in the map of Italy and the Adriatic, depicting both the towns of Monterubbiano and Moresco i in ways comparable to the iconic perspective views of cities.

Sylvanus' Adriatic

The additions suggest a dramatic increased in the graphic materiality of the map as a pictorial register.  Print are allowed men as Bernardus or fellow-engravers and editors of maps in Florence, Rome, and Antwerp to invest the map’s surface with new claims of legibility as a reproducible record.  But it is also very possible that Bernardus’ sustained engagement with a project of printing he hoped would be far more successful derived from the prominent status maps already enjoyed in other visual media.

The interest of maps as depictions reflected a deep appropriation of Ptolemy’s instructions to his own second-century contemporaries to craft a map “ad oculorum aspectum commensurabilis“–the transmission of this precept to later mapmakers to create a surface that would appeal to their readers’ eyes, if not also the tacit presuppositions for viewing a continuous space in a detailed and harmonious form.

5.  A tradition of fifteenth-century Venetian cartographers had incorporated nautical charts to illustrative or pictorial ends in inventive ways, in attempts to give greater expressivity and comprehensiveness to the Ptolemaic planisphere or nautical chart:   a 1448 world map designed with great care by Giovanni Leardo framed by the months of the year and astrological signs (Verona, Bibl. Civ., Ms 3119); Fra Mauro’s famous circular map uniquely synthesized Portuguese charts, a unique matter given that it was in fact commissioned for Portugal’s monarch, without a graticule; it recalls an ellipsoid world map of 1457 constructed on the principles “of cosmographers” without a uniform graticule, and filled with textual legends, fanciful iconography, and perspective city views.  None privileged the geometrical order of a uniformly continuous surface or a format of projection from terrestrial cartography, however, or bridged different semantic registers in the manner of Sylvanus’ maps.

The Ptolemaic model provided an authoritative basis to fashion a surface that could be readily scanned as a uniform distribution of expanse by around 1500, and in Venice shifted the attitudes of viewers to mapped space.  By the later fifteenth century, the Venetian Senate had commissioned the repainting of territorial maps of the lagoon of Antonio de’ Leonardi from his nephew Sebastian along parallels and meridians by “Ptolemy’s doctrine” that Isabella d’Este and others Isabella d’Este sent painters to copy, marvelling at its proportions and scale.  The painted map received praise as “così perfetta nelle sue misure [so elegant and well-proportioned]” that “diversi Principi [several princes]” had commissioned copies of it for their own enjoyment and pleasure before its 1577 destruction, Sansovino boasted among his catalogue of the city’s artistic treasures.[i]

Although the map is now destroyed, and cannot be pictured, it constituted something of a model for the multiple maps now present in the Palazzo Ducale, painted to replace it, and for the maps of the Veneto that Christoforo da Sorte created in its private chambers–as well as, perhaps, Egnazio Danti’s monumental remapping of the peninsula in colored paint.  The much-admired peninsular map may have provided a model for integrating the format of nautical charts with maps of geographic content by men like Sebastian Cabot, piloto for the Casa de la Contratacion in Seville who created a new world map–or the map-engraver and engineer Giacomo Gastaldi, who from 1546 synthesized multiple elegant wall-maps that refined cartographical expertise; Gastaldi’s work with the geographer Giovan Battista Ramusio led him to design comprehensively detailed pictorial wall-maps as that of South-East Asia.

gastaldi 1548

Gastaldi-prat of Asia

But we might also start from the 1511 modern map of the peninsula that Sylvanus designed:

Sylvanus Sexta Tabula with ms addition of city views


Did this lost expansive painted map of the lagoon that extended to the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian sea, and their islands, provide a model for uniting terrestrial and nautical maps that men such as Bernardus Sylvanus sought to generalize for a larger audience in printed form?  The reader of Sylvanus’ printed maps from Fermo sought to make the text his very own, adding his own qualitative views of the cities that he knew, in ways that register a distinct relation to the map as a continuous surface. 

When the great cartographer Vincenzo Coronelli mapped the geographical situation of Venice in a broader gulf from the mid-seventeenth century, he described the place of Venice in the expanded gulf in his 1688 global atlas–placing Venice in relation across the Gulf of the Adriatic to the islands of its empire, which bordered on the expanding Ottoman by shifting boundaries, as if to affirm its own domain of the seas that opened along its shores.

Golfo di Venezia

As if overseeing an expanse that might be translated into varied scales, the dominion of Venice was defined across maritime expanse, not by territorial bounds, but in the cartouche from which the emblem of the lion of San Marco serenely oversaw its content.  From the margins of the map, the winged lion that Coronelli cleverly located in the cartouche that looked over the expanse of the Gulf, overseeing the expanse from beneath its dogal crown, beneath six bars of scale of mapping that alligned each of five standards with maritime leagues.



[i] Gallo, “Le mappe geographiche del Palazzo Ducale di Venezia,” Archivio Veneto ser. V, 32 (1943): 47-54. Sansovino, Venetia, citta nobilissima et singolare (Venice:  Iacomo Sansovino, 1581), fol. 122, “era una tavola d’Italia così perfetta nelle sue misure, che diversi Principi ne domandarono l’essemplare.”

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Filed under engraved maps, globalism, portolan charts, Renaissance engraving, two-color typography