The anonymous, so-called Cantino Map, also known as Cantino Planisphere (or Planisfero di Cantino) is one of the most outstanding examples of European Renaissance cartography. Named for Alberto Cantino, an agent for Ercole d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, and designed in 1502 in Portugal, it shows the most recent geographical discoveries of its time.
Written in Portuguese, the map contains excellent graphic depictions of the eastern coast of Brazil, as well as the African continent, and its inscriptions, written in a red-black gothic script, show us the historical, geographical, and political context of the world right after the Columbian voyages to America.
The Most Updated World Map of its Time
The map is formed by three pieces of hand-drawn parchment joined together, measuring 105 x 220 cm. The stunning illustrations, especially of Brazil and Africa, show the natural characteristics and peoples of the exotic regions, and the cities of Venice and Jerusalem are very prominently drawn.
A beautiful compass rose is drawn in Africa, and the coast of Brazil is filled with vegetation and three curious parrots. A vertical blue line shows the division of the new discoveries between Portugal and Castile according to the Treaty of Tordesillas, signed in 1494, seven years before the map was made.
This planisphere is the most interesting reflection of the Portuguese voyages and discoveries of the beginning of the sixteenth century, and represents the most recent information arrived to Europe both from the New World and the East (mainly India).
It is worth mentioning that the Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral reached Brasil on April 22nd 1500, only two years before the map was drawn, and Vasco da Gama returned from India in 1499, only four years before, so the discoveries that the map shows were very recent indeed.
The sovereignty of the recently discovered lands is clearly indicated, as we can see in the Caribbean (“The Antilles of the King of Castile”) and Newfoundland, making reference to the voyages of the Portuguese ships to the Northern Atlantic (“Land of the King of Portugal”). Thus, a close look to the Cantino Map allows us to see the political situation of Portugal and Castile at a time during which a radically new world was being shaped.
A Map, a Spy, and a Secret Trip
At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Lisbon was one of the most important economic centers in Southern Europe. The city was visited by the delegates of some of the greatest European courts and duchies. One of them was Alberto Cantino, agent for Ercole d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. Cantino was his commercial and political representative. But he didn’t have only those commitments: he also worked for him as a spy.
In December 1501, Cantino paid 12 Venetian gold ducats, a very large sum of money at the time, to a Portuguese cartographer for a map showing the latest geographical discoveries. Some time after the map was completed, he left Lisbon secretly with it and went to Genoa, where he gave it to the Genoese ambassador to Aragon and France.
Finally, the map arrived to Ferrara, and was entrusted to the House of Este, where it stayed until 1592, when it was transferred to Modena. Nowadays, the Cantino Map, one of the most fascinating cartographic works ever made, is held at the Biblioteca Estense Universitaria in Modena.