This anonymous and undated manuscript chart is an interesting reflection of late medieval cartography in southern Europe. It is believed that it was made in Mallorca in the mid-fifteenth century, and it shows the Mediterranean coast, as well as northern Africa, part of northern Europe, and the British Isles. With abundant place names over the coastlines of the continents, the chart includes also rich artistic decoration, with depictions of important European and African cities, mountains and rivers, as well as various flags and coats of arms.
The abundance of rhumb lines, the accuracy in the depiction of the continents and the different figures represented in the chart make it a remarkable example of fifteenth-century portolan charts, one of the most important cartographic traditions of late medieval southern Europe, which helps us to understand the transition between the Middle Ages and the Modern period.
Between Real and Imaginary Geographies
This chart is made on parchment, and measures 59 x 76 cm. It depicts the Mediterranean basin, as well as part of Europe and the eastern Atlantic. The southernmost point represented in the chart is Cape Bojador on the coast of western Africa, which was not rounded until the voyage of the Portuguese mariner Gil Eanes in 1434. In fact, the lack of information about those southern limits of the world is indicated by the blank spaces on the west African coastline.
In Africa, a large green band represents the Atlas Mountains, following the formal tradition of late medieval nautical charts, and a series of cities and rivers are also portrayed. We can also see various rulers and kings in Africa, one of them representing the mythical Prester John, who was believed to rule over a utopic Christian land in eastern Africa.
In the eastern limit of the continent, we can see the Red Sea colored with an intense red, and an inscription indicates the passing of the Hebrews through that sea during the Exodus. Thus, the chart combines geographical and religious references.
As is customary in medieval and early modern maps, an interesting coexistence of real and imaginary places is visible in this chart. Thus imaginary references like Prester John, the Atlantic island of Brazil, and the Lacus fortunatus (Fortunate Lake) in western Ireland are portrayed with the same level of reality as other places like European cities. This is a graphical reflection of the malleability of the line between real and imaginary geographies in late medieval mindset.
In Europe, the major cities, such as Granada, Santiago de Compostela, Genoa, and Venice are portrayed, and mountain ranges like the Sierra Nevada in southern Spain and the Alps in Central Europe are also depicted in green.
Several flags and coats of arms indicate the sovereignty of different kingdoms, and a series of heads representing the winds are symmetrically located near the northern and southern edges of the chart.
This chart is held in the Biblioteca Estense e Universitaria in Modena, under the shelfmark C.G.A.5.d.
A New Way of Representing Space
Very little is known about this chart. It is believed that it was made in Mallorca in the mid-fifteenth century, but the lack of information about its authorship, date, and provenance does not impede us to consider it a very interesting example of late medieval portolan charts.
The portolan charts (portolani in Italian) are nautical representations centered on the Mediterranean basin, produced in the late medieval and modern period. The first known example of this type of map is the so-called Carta Pisana, produced in the late thirteenth century. As Tony Campbell has argued, these works are the clearest statement of the geographic and cartographic knowledge available in the Mediterranean at the time.
The less elaborately decorated examples were intended for practical use in navigation, whereas the more lavishly decorated charts, like this one, were produced for collection and displayed by nobles for their enjoyment as pieces of art.
They are usually oriented to the north, and the outlines of the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts are remarkably accurate. As the knowledge of the world increased, portolan charts came to represent broader spaces, and, given their accuracy and utility, they were fundamental artifacts for the expansion of the known world in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
We have 3 facsimiles of the manuscript "Portulan C.G.A.5.d":
- Portolano C.G.A.5.d (map in tube) facsimile edition published by Il Bulino, edizioni d'arte, 2002
- Portolani (set of 3 maps in case, includes C.G.A.5.d) facsimile edition published by Il Bulino, edizioni d'arte, 2004
- Portolani (set of 3 maps in deluxe wooden case, includes C.G.A.5.d) facsimile edition published by Il Bulino, edizioni d'arte, 2004