The commission of wealthy Genoese merchants: a milestone of cartography marking the transition from medieval to modern

Mappa Mundi 1457

Italy — 1457

Mappa Mundi 1457

Mappa Mundi 1457

Italy — 1457

  1. A mixture of a conceptual mappa mundi and a practical portolan chart used by sailors

  2. 43 legends, strange creatures, sea monsters, portraits of rulers, sailing ships, and 300+ cities fill the page

  3. The map was rumored to have been owned by Christopher Columbus and taken with him on his journeys

Mappa Mundi 1457

Alternative Titles:
  • Portolano 1
  1. Short Description
  2. Codicology
Short Description

One of the most important maps in the history of Europe marks the transition from medieval to modern cartography: the Mappa Mundi 1457 represents several firsts both with respect to design and décor. Although it those responsible for producing the colorful world map remain anonymous, it is believed to be a commission of the Spinolas, a prominent Genoese mercantile family with extensive economic ties to Asia. The splendid world map would have hung in their home as a display of their wealth and sophistication, rather than being used for practical purposes. Nonetheless, it is rumored that Christopher Columbus once owned the map and may have brought it with him on his journeys of exploration.

Mappa Mundi 1457

The science of cartography advanced by leaps and bounds during the 15th century as European explorers collected ever more information about the world and that information was interpreted by scholars interested in the problems of geography and its accurate depiction. Cartographers from Portugal, Spain, and Italy were the leading minds of their time and looked back to ancient cartographers like Ptolemy (d. ca. 170) while also making their own advances in the field, such as the increased use of grids. The Mappa Mundi 1457 is a work that marks the transition from medieval to modern cartography and represents a number of firsts both with respect to design and décor, including the first depiction of the three-masted European ship on a map. A Genoese flag indicates the origins of the work, and thus it is also known as the Genoese World Map of 1457 or Portolano 1, its shelf mark.

A Transitional Work

The 14th and 15th centuries are considered to be a transitional period in the history of cartography. This fantastic cartographic work bridges the gap between the traditional mappa mundi, which was east-oriented and more of an expression of the medieval Europeans’ world view rather than serving as a practical representation of world geography, and the more realistic and detailed portolan charts of the Mediterranean and Black Sea coasts used by sailors and merchants. By contrast, the Genoese World map is north-oriented, reflects the world as it was then known (sans the Americas) and there is no depiction of the Earthly Paradise and a general lack of Christian imagery altogether. It takes on the rare but not unheard-of form of an oval, possibly because the world was generally believed to be the shape of an egg, possibly as a reference to the mandorla, the almond-shaped nimbus in which Christ is often presented in medieval art, or possibly to simply make it easier to fit East Asia into the map. Aside from 300 toponyms, two scales can be found in the margins with 50- and 100-mile increments as well as a system of rhumb lines in the style of portolan charts, which indicates at least an attempt at spatial accuracy.

Fascination with the Exotic

Although more accurate than a typical mappa mundi, this colorful and artful work was nonetheless intended to be a display piece, likely commissioned by the Spinola family – prominent Genoese merchants whose coat of arms appears on the map. The family enriched themselves through trade with the East and thus particular attention is paid to Asia. Renaissance scholars were fascinated with exotic wonders and marvels, as such this map features many strange creatures and sea monsters that are rendered in rich colors. Forty-three legends ranging from Gog and Magog to Alexander the Great to Prester John are depicted throughout the map alongside relative accurate representations of rivers and mountains. Particular attention is paid to recent and contemporary Mongol rulers. Rather than relying on Marco Polo, the map relies on the travelogues of Niccolò de' Conti (c. 1395–1469), an Italian merchant who travelled to India, Southeast Asia, and Southern China.

A Colorful History

Although the cartographer and artists responsible have not been identified, there are indications that at least one of them was Catalonian. Nonetheless, the text of the map is written in a combination of Latin and Italian. It is believed that this richly adorned map came to the Portuguese court in 1474 before coming into the possession of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), who brought it with him on his sea voyage. However, this claim has never been proven and today the map is the property of the Italian government and is housed in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale of Florence.

Codicology
Alternative Titles
Portolano 1
Size / Format
1 map / 79.5 × 39.5 cm
Origin
Italy
Date
1457
Language
Script
Gothic Textualis
Content
World map
1 available facsimile edition(s) of „Mappa Mundi 1457“

Mappa Mundi 1457 Facsimile

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Mappa Mundi 1457 Facsimile

1 volume: Exact reproduction of the original document (extent, color and size)
Publisher
Istituto dell'Enciclopedia Italiana - Treccani – Rome, 2008
Limited Edition
750 copies
Commentary
1 volume by Juan Gil, Gino Benzoni, and Angelo Cattaneo
Language: Italian
More Information
Reproduction of the entire original document as detailed as possible (scope, format, colors). The binding may not correspond to the original or current document binding.
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