This manuscript chart, made by the Catalan cartographer Gabriel de Vallseca (c. 1408 - c. 1467), one of the most important mapmakers in fifteenth-century southern Europe, is among the most valuable charts of that time. Made following the tradition of the so-called Majorcan School of cartography, it depicts the Mediterranean and adjacent regions, including abundant illustrations and explanatory texts. Both the texts and the drawings show the political situation of the time, with numerous flags and banners indicating the sovereignty of each region.
The chart contains nearly two thousand place names, and it is the earliest surviving map in which the Azores, first visited twelve years before, are represented in a modern, accurate way. It is an exceptional document since this is the only late medieval Spanish nautical chart preserved in Spain.
A Superb Combination of Art and Cartography
This chart is made on parchment and measures 75x112 cm. It depicts the Mediterranean, Europe, Near Asia, and northern Africa, as well as part of the Atlantic Ocean.
The chart is framed by a gold-blue strip, and the signature of Vallseca wrote his signature in the left edge of the map.On the reverse of the chart, a note states that it was once owned by Amerigo Vespucci, but it is believed that Vespucci never possessed it, and the note is in all likelihood a forger by a dealer of antiquities to get a higher price for the chart.
One of the most interesting features of the chart is its graphic information, with abundant illustrations of cities, flags, and kings. In northern Africa, we can see the depiction of several rulers, accompanied by explanatory texts, something usual in Catalan-Majorcan nautical charts of the time.
Although the chart follows the cartographic tradition of the fifteenth-century portolan charts, with abundant place names written perpendicularly to the coasts and relatively good accuracy, we can also see traditional and biblical references, such as the Three Wise Men riding westward from the East.
The Atlantic archipelagos are depicted as well; it is the first time that the Azores islands are represented in a modern way. The brown stain visible in the Canary Islands and the Azores has an interesting history: in 1839, the French composer Frédéric Chopin was admiring the chart during his stay in Majorca, when, unfortunately, an inkwell placed over one extreme of the chart accidentally fell, staining it with ink and causing irreparable damage.
The lavish colors and the quality of the drawings indicate that this chart is a very luxurious work, joining cartographic innovations and a clear artistic purpose. The chart was no doubt commissioned by a wealthy nobleman or king.
From Florence to Barcelona
The chart of Gabriel de Vallseca was purchased in Florence by the Cardinal Antonio Despuig y Dameto before 1785. It came into the possession of his heirs, the Counts of Montenegro in Majorca, and it was while the count was showing the chart to Chopin when the accident with the inkwell occurred.
In 1910, the map was put on sale, and bought by the Institute of Catalan Studies, which deposited it in the National Library of Catalonia. In 1960, the chart was transferred to the Maritime Museum of Barcelona, where it is still held under the shelfmark Inv. 3236.