Riding the wave


Pietro Vesconte and the Genovese mapping school

The earliest dated specimen is the chart that Pietro Vesconte produced in Venice in 1311, preserved at the State Archives of Florence, which represents the central-eastern Mediterranean basin with the Black Sea. But Vesconte, who states he is a Genovese, although no documents have been discovered tha prove his origins, was probably the founder of a mapping school since he is the author of quite a number of atlases by 1327.

Two are located at the National Library in Paris, made in 1313 and 1320. Two more, dated 1318, are kept one at the National Library in Vienna, inclusive of a calendar and nine charts, and the other at the Correr Museum in Venice, richly illuminated and gilded, with allegorical images, sacred and profane, at the corners of each chart.

On a third specimen kept in Lyon, the date is not readable but the atlas is so similar to the two above, dated 1318, as to make us consider it contemporary. It has been suggested that the anonymous and undated Atlas Luxoro kept at the Biblioteca Civica Berio in Genoa, may, too, be his work.

The maps of the early fourteenth century were thus produced in Genoa, while the first Venetian nautical atlas is of 1321, drawn in the typography of Marin Sanudo where Pietro Vesconte worked for a long time. It is believed that it was to illustrate the Liber mysteriorum fidelium Crucis ... written by Marin Sanudo between 1306 and 1321 to induce the Powers of Christendom to set up a new crusade. It is assumed therefore that Sanudo, a scholar and a traveler, had requested the services of Vesconte to illustrate his books of faith.

However, the Venetian production of the 14th century has the same characteristics of the contemporary Genoese cartography, which supports the hypothesis that Vesconte was called in Venice also by local merchants, active in the fairs held in the Flanders, and therefore interested in his knowledge of the northern coasts. Thus almost a century of Italian production, mostly Genoese, precedes the first chart of Spanish origin, namely the so-called " Catalan Atlas ", dated 1375.

On the other hand, the Genoese Maritime Republic dominated the Mediterranean medieval scenario after its victory on the Pisan Republic at the Meloria in 1284: the Genoese established trading posts along the Black Sea coasts and sailed up the Danube to Poland, thus controlling the salt-road, while their presence is documented in India and China since the beginning of the 14th century.

In the West, from the early 12th century they were called by the Portuguese and by the Catalans to defend their coasts from the incursions of the Moors, while Mallorca became an active Genoese market. Their presence has been documented beyond Gibraltar since 1120 while, according to the chroniclers of the time, the Genoese merchants were powerful to the point that a Flemish edict designed to limit their activities compromised fairs in the Flanders.

In France the sovereigns did not hesitate to entrust the fate of their naval battles to Genoese leaders, including Benedetto Zaccaria (1248-1307), mentioned in several documents as a merchant, a diplomat and a naval leader: in 1297 he was called by the King of France, for whom he probably worked out a scheme of attack for the invasion of England, tasking Vesconte with the construction of the necessary charts.

Chart of southern Mediterranean from the nautical atlas by Pietro Vesconte of 1318, kept at the National Library in Vienna.
It measures 20x20 cm and is oriented with the South at the top. At its center, the usual rose of sixteen winds and, in the upper right angle, the graphic scale.
Shallows around the smaller islands and other coastal details are represented with small colored symbols, while the many place-names are perpendicular to the coastline, and are written in small Gothic letters.
Hydrographic Institute of Navy retains a facsimile reproduction.

Paola Presciuttini, 2002