This manuscript map is, perhaps, one of the most important maps in the history of cartography, since it is the earliest surviving European map that represents America. Created in 1500 by Juan de la Cosa (mid-fifteenth century – 1510), a member of the crew of Christopher Columbus in his two first voyages across the Atlantic Ocean, the map follows the tradition of early modern nautical charts to show a very detailed graphic depiction of the known world in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century.
In this map, we can already see the importance of the Atlantic Ocean as a link between two worlds, Europe and America, which would be a fundamental turning point in human history. This document is the starting point of a new era in the history of European cartography, adding a fundamental space (America) to the representation of the world.
The World Acquires a New Appearance
This map is made on parchment, and measures 93 x 183 cm. According to the inscription below the figure of St. Christopher at the left edge of the map, it was made by Juan de la Cosa in El Puerto de Santa María (southern Spain) in 1500.
The map represents the whole known world at the time, with abundant graphic information in Africa and Asia. The eastern coast of America is shown at the left, painted in green; the islands of the Caribbean are also depicted, with Cuba and La Hispaniola (which nowadays contains the Dominican Republic and Haiti) accurately drawn.
The representation of Europe, Africa, and Asia follows the tradition of nautical charts, with abundant place names along the coastlines and many informative drawings in the inlands. The coasts of Europe are very accurately drawn, and several cities, such as Granada, Venice, and Genoa are prominently depicted.
As was usual in the cartography of the time, we can see various flags along the continent (also in Africa, Asia, and America), indicating the sovereignty over those places, and in northern Europe, several rulers and kings are present. On the other hand, the map also shows ships sailing from Europe around Africa to India.
In Africa, the graphic features are especially abundant. We can see different kings, cities, wind roses, and orographic elements, and the Portuguese explorations of African coasts, which had been progressing for several years before the creation of the map, are also indicated.
Thus, this map is a very interesting reflection of the latest geographic information available at the time. Nevertheless, the imprecise delineation of the eastern coast of Africa indicates the lack of information about that area, which was being slowly explored by the Portuguese during that time. In Asia, we can also see various natural elements and rulers, and a large depiction of the Three Wise Men riding their horses westwards dominates the area.
Nevertheless, the most important feature is America, painted in green on the left part of the map. It shows the geographic information from the first journeys of Columbus in 1492, 1493, and 1498. As already mentioned, this map is the earliest surviving example of the representation of America on a European map. At the western edge of the map, a depiction of St. Christopher is believed to represent Columbus as cristoferens, carrying Christ to the American lands.
Among the abundant decorative elements of the map, the elaborate wind rose located in the middle of the Atlantic is worth mentioning, for it contains a drawing of the Virgin and Child. In fact, Christian allusions are present all over the map, which includes legendary references, such as Prester John in Africa and the Three Wise Men in Asia, to create an image of the world that interrelates the latest geographical information and the late medieval tradition of legendary geography.
This fundamental document is held in the Museo Naval in Madrid under the shelfmark MN 257.
Juan de la Cosa and His Map. A Milestone in the History of Cartography
Juan de la Cosa was an important member of the crew of Christopher Columbus during the first navigations to America in 1492 and 1493, though he participated also in other later expeditions as pilot and cartographer.
In total, he took part in seven expeditions to America, until his death in 1510 from a poisoned arrow shot by a native in the town of Turbaco (Colombia). De la Cosa made his map after returning from a voyage to America with the Spanish sailor Alonso de Ojeda in 1500.
Due to its abundant decoration, it is believed that the map was commissioned by a wealthy person; the identity of the commissioner is not clear, although some scholars like Luisa Martín-Merás have suggested the archbishop Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca (1451-1524), royal chaplain to Queen Isabella of Castile.
The map was lost until 1832, when Baron Charles Athanase Walckenaer (1771-1852), Dutch ambassador in Paris, bought it in an antique shop in Paris. In 1853, Walckenaer’s library was offered for sale by his heirs, and the map was acquired by the Spanish government for 4321 francs. After its purchase, it was deposited in the Museo Naval in Madrid, where it is still located.
We have 2 facsimiles of the manuscript "Map of Juan de la Cosa":
- Carta Mapamundi de Juan de la Cosa facsimile edition published by Egeria, S.L., 1992
- Mapa de Juan de la Cosa facsimile edition published by Testimonio Compañía Editorial, 1988