As geographical knowledge expanded rapidly during the 16th century, lavish world maps increasingly became symbols of status and power. There was no more powerful figure than Philip II of Spain, who had a voracious appetite for maps. From the moment he acceded to the Spanish throne, Philip made use of maps to rule his extensive empire, which included huge colonial dominions in the New World. His correspondence is full of acute comments on the content and accuracy of his maps and he consulted them whenever there was even the slightest geographical context to any military, political, administrative or family problem. He decorated his homes with them – even today framed maps adorn the antechamber to his private apartments in the Escorial palace.
Queen Mary, his wife and queen of England, must have been only too aware of her husband’s passion for maps. In 1555, Philip departed for the Netherlands, which his father was about to cede to him, leaving Mary languishing alone in England. In the hope that a handsome atlas would remind him of their shared dominions and perhaps also of herself, she commissioned a new atlas as a gift for him. For its production she turned to Diogo Homem, who, having fled his native Portugal following his involvement in a murder, was building a substantial reputation throughout Europe and is now acknowledged as the finest cartographer of the age.
One of the most beautiful maps ever made and a fascinating historical document
As we turn the huge pages, we see the world both as it was conceived in the fertile imaginations of the Middle Ages and as it was seen through the eyes of the seafaring explorers of the Renaissance. A prized possession of the British Library, it is without question one of the most important and remarkable manuscripts in the history of map-making.
In The Queen Mary Atlas the world is dominated by the great maritime powers of Spain and Portugal. Ships patrol the seas or do battle with rival fleets. Ornate compass roses gesture enigmatically to the East. Flags and coats of arms jostle with pictorial vignettes of major cities and natural landmarks. Islamic banners in North Africa and the Balkans cast a threatening shadow over the borders of Christian Europe. The increasing geographical knowledge of the time is permeated with myths and misconceptions; monstrous creatures swim in uncharted, non-existent waters; legendary African kings rule from the foothills of mountains. But that is part of the great beauty and charm of this remarkable manuscript.