Riding the wave


The planispheres or portolan charts on parchment

The school of Pietro Vesconte does not exhaust the fortunes of Genoese cartography: at the end of the 14th century chart-decorator Francesco Beccario (or Franciscus Becca) together with Jaime Ribes - the name the Jewish cartographer Jafuda Cresques gave himself after his conversion, who was the son of and assistant to Abraham, the alleged maker of the so-called Catalan Atlas - was commissioned to produce four charts, no longer extant, by a Florentine merchant traveling in the Iberian Peninsula.

Later on he was working in Savona - renowned as a "master of nautical charts" and a "genoese citizen", - where he made a chart with a realistic representation of Genoa. A note mentions "the vast diffusion of chart-making, an art which is most popular among the Catalans, the Venetians and the Genoese", thus confirming the close connection between the Italian and Majorcan cartographers.

A descendant of his is probably Battista Beccario, the instructor of Pietro Roselli, active in Mallorca in the second half of the 15th century, but clearly of Italian origin who, in a chart of his dated 1447, states in fact that he works in Battista Beccario's shop.

The latter, in his chart of 1435, pays particular attention to the Atlantic coasts and islands, and provides the first known representation of the mythical Antilia. According to legend, at the time of the Moors' invasion seven Spanish bishops escaped there, and founded seven cities. The West Indies discovered by Columbus are believed to have derived their name from there. In this same chart there is a beautiful view of Genoa, similar to the one on his namesake's chart above, which would not only seem to confirm his descent from Francesco Beccario, but also evidence the importance of that town.

The portolan chart of 1466 by Pietro Roselli, at the James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota. It has the features and decorations typical of that time, including - in particular - the Atlas mountain range, the arc of the eastern Alps, the Red Sea, and vignettes of Genoa and Venice, where the first does not prevail on the second, as if to show that the author is not a Genoese.
The chart, dated 1489, is at the James Ford Bell Library

At the end of the 15th century there works in Genoa Albino de Canepa, of which very little is known except that is a Genoese citizen, as specified in a statement (indicating the year 1480, the author's name and Genoa as the place where it was made), in the neck of the vellum chart kept in Rome, at the Italian Geographical Society; a second chart, shown and described in the late 19th century by Gustavo Uzielli and by Amat di San Filippo, seemed to have been lost.

Evidently sold to a collector, it now belongs to the James Ford Bell Library (thanks to J.-M. Urvoy for this information). It consists of two skins glued to the center and is dated 1489, as stated in the description that the Library offers on its site, making it available to scholars.

The two charts are very similar and in excellent condition, although from the one in Rome a stripe is missing at the right side, where the chart was fixed on the pole on which they used to wrap and bind valuable documents to prevent wrinkles and folds. Also, it has retained the neck of the skin where it is drawn. Both represent the Mediterranean with the Black Sea, and the Atlantic coast of Africa, with a multitude of real and imaginary islands, and part of the North Sea and the Baltic.

The copy, dated 1480, at the Italian Geographical Society in Rome.

The southern coasts are rich with place-names (as usual colored, perpendicular to and on the inside of the coastline) which goes to show the familiarity of sailors, and by extension of Ligurian cartographers, with those areas. The Scandinavian and Baltic coasts, on the contrary, are approximate, while the British Isles follow the usual pattern, in representing England separate from Scotland, and Ireland far larger than its true size. To the west of the latter there is the imaginary Brazilia - "Insulla de Brazil" - while to the south appears, amongst other islands, the equally imaginary but always present Antilia.

The Azores - well known to the Portuguese and, earlier on, probably to the Genoese as well - are misplaced and rather stereotyped in shape, as if the chart drew on earlier examples.

Reliefs are scarce and unrealistic: the Alps are only partially represented and coloured in red, while in the Bell Library chart they are red and green.

The Atlas range in Africa - stretching eastward - is quite different: in the Rome chart it is drawn in the form of green and red scallop-like hillocks, while in the Bell Library specimen it follows a bright green winding pattern, typical of most portolan charts.

Detail of the James Ford Bell Library chart: it displays the West African coast, one of the vaarious wind-roses, the Atlas range, a colourful graphic scale, the usual grid of "rhumbs" originating from intersection points.

Additional evident differences concern the decorative features: the Rome chart has dull and schematic graphic scales, while the "American" specimen has five scales enclosed in showy colourful geometric frames, flanked by multi-colored "curtains". It also presents two brightly colored roses within a red circle, while the Roma chart only has a rather plain one of eight winds, placed in southern Sicily. Viceversa, in the Rome chart there are various lengthy explanatory legends, while in North Africa it shows portraits and names of local monarchs.

Inland hydrography is approximate in both specimens, and rivers are scantily represented, with the exception of the Nile delta, which is outstanding in both charts, accompanied by a stereotyped vignette of Alexandria. In the Rome chart a legend says that the river lies on the border between Africa and Asia, while the Don separates Asia from Europe.

On both charts the geographical representation lies on the usual grid of "rhumbs" departing from intersection points regularly distributed on the parchment, thus forming an ideal circle enclosing the drawing. Both charts include various vignettes of major cities, and Genoa stands out by its realism, with the Lanterna, the lighthouse on the Old Pier and the citadel overlooking the harbour, as if to make it the emblem of the town.

The vignette of Genoa, the arch of the eastern Alps and the vignettes of Venice and Avignon

The site of the James Ford Bell Library offers not only reproductions of the 15th century portolan charts it keeps, but also zooming facilities to appreciate their details, as well as very useful didactic comments.

In 1502 Alberto Cantino, a diplomat in Lisbon of the Este family, presented the Duke of Ferrara with a world map on parchment updated to the latest discoveries, known as the "Cantino chart", which is thought to be an illegal copy of the Portuguese Padrão Real, and therefore not really an Italian product.

Another chart very similar to this one is the chart by the Genoese Nicola Caverio, with a note in the lower left corner, stating that it is "Opus Nicolay de Caverio Iannensis. It is undated but probably contemporary to the "Cantino chart", judging from the geographical knowledge represented therein, thereby being itself considered an illegal reproduction of the Padrão Real.

Battista Agnese, another Genoese citizen active in Venice, produced over seventy nautical atlases between 1536 and 1564, which are the dates that appear on two of his atlases preserved in the British Museum. There is no biographical information about him, but he is considered to be the owner of a cartographic workshop, given the large number of charts which - although unsigned and drawn by different hands - can be traced back to him because of the many definite similarities with charts of unquestioned attribution.

The manuscript reproduced here is an oval globe that registers the progress of exploration in mid-16th century. In Asia, we notice the absence of the Indian peninsula, while mountains are as usual and approximately represented like "mole heaps". The world map, surrounded by twelve putti representing the main winds, seems mainly aimed to draw attention to the Spice Route opened by Magellan with his voyage of circumnavigation, here conspicuously marked in black.

Globe of Battista Agnese, 1543
295x195 mm, polychrome parchment, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

The chart was 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, complete with excellent reproductions of the cartographic holdings of the National Library of France, is accompanied by large comprehensive analytical comments.

Presumably Battista Agnese is the maker of a chart of the Black Sea, including the Strait of Dardanelles and some Aegean islands. Although anonymous and undated, it is almost identical to a chart of the same area, made by Agnese, preserved in Bergamo, and to a third chart included in his atlas kept at the Trinity College in Dublin.

Battista Agnese, mid-century. XVI Parchment 488x350 mm
(Genoa, Civico Museo Navale)

Three folio atlases attributed to Battista Agnese, representing the known world on watercolored parchment, as well as one of his pupil Francesco Ghisolfi from Genoa, are kept at the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino, California, who placed online images, scale 1:1.

Another representative example of Renaissance cartography is the so called "Columbus chart", handwritten on parchment, 110x700 mm, anonymous and undated, but probably made in 1492, kept in Paris at the (new window)"> Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

It is attributed to the great Genoese both because the same notes and inaccuracies present on the chart can be found in his handwriting in his own books, and because Christopher and his brother Bartholomew, during their stay in Lisbon, are known to have applied themselves to chart-making.

Columbus himself mentions four charts of their production, which he says contain a sphere: the document in question consists in fact of two sections overlapping along a margin: one represents a small map of the world surrounded by celestial spheres, according to the geocentric conception of the time; the other represents the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, from southern Norway to the mouth of the river Congo.

Within the chart there are about thirty vignettes depicting major cities, while the Spanish flag at the city of Granada suggests that the paper is later than January 2, 1492, when the Arabs were expelled.

In Africa, the Portuguese flag is flying in the lands conquered by Portugal, while scattered legends offer guidance on local life and on the products exported to Europe. Next to the Red Sea, a note says that "its length requires six months at sea and a year to reach India."

In western Atlantic we find Antilia, one of the many imaginary islands that for a long time to come would appear on nautical charts - like Brasilia and St. Brendan - northwest of the Azores, persistently represented by many cartographers, thus misleading navigators who looked for them in order to make a call there.

The chart attributed to Columbus. Granada exhibits the Spanish flag: it could be a reference to the victory over the Arabs in 1492 (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France).
This chart has been reproduced in Les Portulans.

(All about Christopher Columbus at the following dedicated page)

Vesconte Maggiolo is the head of a family of Genoese cartographers active since the early 16th century later, whose charts are highly decorated but delicate at the same time, representing - like all Medieval "portolan charts" - the Mediterranean basin. A watercolor parchment (mm.920 x 1390) of 1504, kept at the Biblioteca Federiciana in Fano, depicts the lands known in the early 16th century, i.e., immediately after the discovery of the New World. Oceanic islands and coastlines are just outlined while inland geographic information is poor and inaccurate; there are twelve roses of 32 winds, and place names, written in various Mediterranean languages, are in red or black depending on the importance of the places.

His son Jacopo is the author of a chart on parchment kept at the Naval Museum of Genoa, where the representation is extended to the Atlantic coasts of Europe and Africa, with a profusion of decorative elements: roses and scales are simple, but striking is the multitude of colourful tents in Africa and Asia, the number of ships in full sail, the kings seated on thrones in their respective countries, the many vignettes scattered along the coasts, including Genoa, highlighted by a stretch of blue sea.

A contemporary paper by the same author, kept at the Biblioteca Civica Berio in Genoa, is very similar in style, colors, and in the decorative apparatus, which suggests that these late parchment products were by then only intended for amateurs and bibliophiles rather than for mariners.

Jacopo Maggiolo, 1564, parchment, 1230x914 mm
(Genoa, Civico Museo Navale)

Another fertile member of the Genoese cartographic tradition was Giovanni B. Cavallini, active between 1637 and 1654, with at least fifteen works, the last of which was made in collaboration with Pietro Cavallini, which was perhaps his son.

The chart, dated and signed, is obviously derived from specimens of the previous centuries: it displays the usual grid of rhumbs and is richly ornate, with multicolored wind-roses at the sides of the representation and numerous vignettes of towns. The graphic scales enclosed in tape-like frames, suggest that sailors might use a tape instead of the compass to measure distances. In the Holy Land a cross on a green hill represents the Golgotha.

This too is a decorative object, that with the chart for use on board has obviously nothing in common.

A splendid specimen of the same author, in six sheets on watercolor manuscript parchment, including four dedicated to the main islands in the Italian Mediterrnaeo, is kept at the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino, California, who placed online 1:1 reproductions.

John B. Cavallini, 1639, parchment, 920x468 mm
(Genoa, Società Ligure di Storia Patria)

Edited by
Paola Presciuttini, 2002