This spectacular manuscript atlas is one of the most outstanding cartographic works of the sixteenth century. Made around 1555–1557 by the Portuguese cartographer Diogo Homem (ca. 1520 – ca. 1576) and commissioned by Queen Mary possibly as a gift for her husband, Philip II of Spain, the atlas is composed of nine different maps and charts, showing a strong influence from southern European nautical charts. Nevertheless, it is believed that the atlas is incomplete, that it originally contained fourteen maps, but the missing maps were lost or destroyed by fire in 1731.
Diogo Homem was part of a well-known and admired family of cartographers. Born in Portugal, he left the country in 1545 accused of murder, living at different times in England, Italy, and France until his death around 1576. This atlas is an outstanding example of his cartographic and artistic skills, showing the latest Portuguese discoveries.
A Luxury Piece of Cartographic Art
The atlas is made on parchment and measures 75.5 x 57 cm. It consists of nine different maps and charts, although some scholars believe that it contained fourteen originally. The maps included in the atlas are as follows: a circular zonal map, a world map, a map of northwestern Europe and the Mediterranean, two maps of western and eastern Africa, one of the East Indies, and three maps of the Americas, as well as lunar and solar tables.
One of the most remarkable features of the atlas is its lavish decoration, with abundant iconographic details, flags, banners, coats of arms, and compass roses. We can also see illustrations of different peoples, rulers, animals, and cities, as well as ships sailing the oceans and various sea creatures, following the decorative fashions of the cartography of the time.
Following the tradition of nautical charts, most of the coastlines are accurately depicted, with abundant place names all along the coast, and rhumb lines crossing the maps. We can also see a coexistence of contemporary geographical discoveries and the tradition of mythical geography.
In the atlas, the importance of Spain in the political and geographical context of the sixteenth century is clearly visible. Flags and coats of arms of the Spanish Empire are prominently drawn, and, interestingly, the territories ruled by the Spanish crown are much more accurately depicted than other places.
In fact, some scholars have argued that the atlas is closer to a political statement than to a purely geographical one, since it gives great importance to the Spanish domination of the world, minimizing the Portuguese presence in Africa, the Far East, and South America, where Brazil is depicted as a simple coastal strip.
Thus, this atlas is an outstanding work not only because of its artistic features but also for its great value as a tool of information about the political aspirations of the Spanish Empire in the mid-sixteenth century.
A Lavish Gift for the King
The atlas was commissioned by Queen Mary I of England (1516–1558), probably as a gift for her husband Philip II of Spain (1527–1598). But the Queen died in 1558 before the atlas could be completed. Thus, the work never reached King Philip.
Two centuries later, the atlas was sent to the British Museum either as part of the collection of the antiquarian Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) or perhaps as part of the old Royal Library. This atlas is held in the British Library under the shelfmark Add. MS. 5415-A.