This atlas, attributed to the Portuguese mapmaker Diogo Homem (1521-1576), is a very interesting example of sixteenth-century Portuguese cartography. It is formed by sixteen charts with abundant decoration, showing a lavish representation of the world known at the time. The decoration of the atlas is remarkable, including flags, banners, and the rulers of different kingdoms. Not much is known about this atlas; it is dated c. 1565 and has been attributed to Diogo Homem on the basis of its cartographical and decorative features.
The work is held in the National Library of Russia. Its remarkable illumination and accurate representation make it an outstanding example of early modern cartography, as well as a particularly interesting evidence of maps as artistic objects.
A Work between Cartography and Art
The atlas is formed by sixteen charts, showing the then-known world very lavishly, as well as a wonderful zodiac circle. The decorative elements are abundant all over the atlas; thus, we can see many elements which are usual in early modern cartography, such as compass roses, banners, flags, and coats of arms. This reminds us of the horror vacui, i.e. the fear of leaving blank spaces on the maps, something usual both in art and in mapmaking of the time.
The superb decoration of this atlas shows us also historic events, making this work an interesting reflection of its context. In the chart of South America, we can see the coat of arms of Castile and Aragon in the northern and western parts, while a banner with the flag of Portugal is present in the east, near the Brazilian coast. At the same time, on the bottom of the map, an inscription indicates the discovery of the southern strait by Ferdinand Magellan.
Following the tradition of nautical charts, there are abundant place names along the coasts of the continents. In areas like India and Southern Africa, the Portuguese coat of arms indicates, again, the importance of the Portuguese Crown in those territories. In the chart of the western coast of Africa, the interior of the continent is filled with its inhabitants, and animals including an elephant and a lion are also included.
The world map included in the atlas shows the continents in green, with abundant topographical details and several ships and sea monsters in the oceans. At the same time, much of North America is still blank, indicating the lack of information about those regions at the time.
Diogo Homem, an Outstanding Cartographer
Although he was one of the most prolific cartographers of his time, not much is known about Diogo Homem’s life. He was part of a family of cartographers; his father, Lopo Homem, was one of the most important mapmakers of the sixteenth century, and his brother André was also an important cartographer.
He started to work in Lisbon, but was arrested in 1544, apparently accused of murder. After obtaining a royal pardon in 1547, he lived and worked in England in 1557 and 1558. From 1568 to 1576 he worked in Venice, and became a prestigious mapmaker thanks to the quality of his works.