Riding the wave


The onset of nautical cartography

Italy, due to its geopolitical position, was the craddle of nautical charts, of which we have specimens from the late Middle Ages onwards. The oldest chart in our possession is the so called Chart of Pisa, anonymous and undated (but attributed to mid-13th century by the Italian medievalist scholar A.B. Motzo), originally found in Pisa, and then migrated to the National Library in Paris.

It is drawn with surprising accuracy, even though disoriented to the east, and represents the Mediterranean including the Black Sea, its place names being very scarce with respect to the rest of the Mediterranean, where place names are plentiful and perpendicular to the coastline, some colored in black and others, perhaps more important, in red. The Atlantic coast beyond Gibraltar is schematic and the south of England barely recognizable. A distance scale is drawn in the neck of the parchment. The drawing lies on a dense network of " rhumbs ", i.e., wind directions, that intersect from intersection points evenly distributed on the parchcment, forming two tangent circles , one in the western basin and the other in the eastern basin.

The Chart of Pisa. Parchment, 1050x500 mm. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, published in Les Portulans: cartes marines du XIIIe siècle / par Monique La Roncière et Michel Mollat du Jourdin, Fribourg, Office du Livre, 1984. The book, accompanied by excellent reproductions of the old maps and charts kept at the National Library of France, is accompanied by comprehensive analytical descriptions.

The total lack of documentation from the centuries prior than the 13th century has caused an unending controversy among scholars, about the credibility of the fact that conquerors such as the Phoenicians, the Greeks and the Romans, are likely not to have felt the need to produce nautical charts. The current thesis is that - in addition to losses due to shipwrecks and the perishable nature of the writing material on board - those ancient navigators may indeed have made charts or sketches in the course of navigation but, since they were "instruments" for the trip in progress, may have not deemed them worthy of preservation.

As it is, of the period between 1200 and 1400 only some 180 nautical charts have survived, largely of Italian production, and we have no elements on which we can assume their actual production, but references - on inventories, chronicles and doccuments - to charts supplied to ships.

The Genoese Republic paid cartographers so that they would not leave the Country and would instruct trainees in that specific art, but in fact a feature of the map-maker was the same mobility typical of mariners. Therefore Pietro Vesconte - likely the founder of a cartographic tradition from then on uninterrupted - moved from Genoa to Venice, as well as his fellow-citizen Battista Agnese, while an equally thriving map-making school flourished in Ancona, where Grazioso Benincasa was born though he mainly worked in Venice - who left us some twenty-two charts produced in the second half of the 15th century. Messina too was a prolific map-making centre in the 16th and the 17th century, mainly due to the immigration of Jewish-Majorcan cartographers.

Paola Presciuttini 2002