Riding the wave

The Aegean Sea

The Books of islands

The representation of the Mediterranean islands is a mapping kind to itself, which goes by the name Books of islands (Isolario), by some authors of the 14th-16th centuries clearly intended for use on board: symbols appear to indicate shallow water and reefs, while the many tables dedicated to profiles of major buildings and mountain chains indicate the initial need for descriptions of the coast line.

Other authors published hybrid products where maps were accompanied by geographical, ethnographic, economic and historical comments, that make a Book of islands more like a guide for learned readers.

The islands of the Aegean were first represented in 1420, in the Liber Insularum Archipelagi by the Florentine humanist Cristoforo Buondelmonti, which includes 77 islands of Greece (colored drawing on parchment).

The author, born about 1385, knew the lands of the Near East since he had lived and sailed widely in the Aegean, up to the Dardanelles and Constantinople. In 1417 he produced the Descriptio insulae Cretae to which followed the Liber Insularum Archipelagi, which was reproduced and translated into several languages; the Latin version of L. de Sinner appeared in 1824, while at the end of the century the manuscript was translated into Greek. The work had great success and was imitated in time, because it was a complete guide to the knowledge of the Aegean, full of useful information to mariners and merchants, and information of historical, mythological and archaeological nature.

Buondelmonti's charts are in fact enriched by artistic and architectural representations: the map of Constantinople ehibits in perspective the massive walls that surround the city, the mosque of St. Sophia, the Hippodrome, the columns of the emperors and the imperial palace.

Constantinople from the Liber Insularum Archipelagi by Christopher Buondelmonti, ms, 290x220 mm, ff. 32, sec. XV
(Venice, Biblioteca Marciana)

Around 1485 the Venetian Bartolomeo Zamberti "Dalli Sonetti" - so nicknamed because of his charts being commented with legends in verse - published a "Isolario" similar to Buondelmonti's Liber Insularum Archipelagi, in 49 papers, republished in 1532, which is the first Italian collection of printed charts (by woodcut plates). The charts, entered into a circle that encloses a rose of eight winds, have symbols indicating shallow waters and rocks, and represent ports and prospective details of the territory. Over seventy sonnets, usually close to the drawings to which they relate, report geographical, historical and archaeological news for each island.

From the Isolario of Bartolomeo Zamberti "Dalli Sonetti"
(Venice, Museo Correr)

At the end of the 15th century, Enrico Martello (Henric Hammler) - of which we know only that he was 'Germanus', because so he calls himself, and that probably worked in Venice - was the author of planispheres and of an Insularium illustratum, manuscript and watercolored.

In 1528 the Paduan Benedetto Bordone (1450-ca 1539), miniaturist and engraver of woodcuts, produced the first Italian printed text including the oceanic islands as well as the Mediterranean ones, the first volume being devoted to the Atlantic and the New World, the second to the Mediterranean, and the third to the Indian Ocean. Under this respect, then, this work stands out among that popular production of the time, besides the fact that, while limiting the geographic representation to the most relevant places, it provides details, descriptions of the territory, mythological and anthropological information.

Thomas Porcacchi (1530-1585), a humanist from Arezzo, published in Venice in 1572 The most famous island in the world in three volumes of 47 charts, copper-engraved by Girolamo Porro, expanded and reissued four years later and reprinted several times by 1686. The book also provides positions and relative distances, variations of names, a description of the area, historical details and information of local interest.

The islands of Greece are found in late-sixteenth-century atlases by Joan Martines, cartographer of the Jewish Catalan-Majorcan school, which in the sixteenth and seventeenth century had its peak in Sicily. That Island belonged in fact to the Aragonese, under the supervision of a viceroy, and was an advanced outpost in the war against Islam. Especially at Messina, therefore, many Spanish Jewish cartographers established their workshops, including Martines, a prolific author.

His atlases usually included five to ten charts on polychrome parchment, but the copy kept at the National Library in Madrid has 19, bound in red leather, decorated with the insignia of Philip II, for whom it was probably made. The first sheet is signed "Joan Martines En Messina Añy 1587.

Joan Martines
Corfu, 1587

The islands were still described by André Thevet, historian and "cosmographer of the King" in 1584 he produced Le grand Insulaire et Pilotage... which was to become a guide to navigation, complete with plans. In a later repertoire of famous men, Thevet says that theLe grand Insulaire et Pilotage... contained more than 300 charts, but for unknown reasons he was unable to complete this weighty work, and his manuscript is now at the (new window)"> Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

James Franco at the end of the 16th century, produced an atlas/pilot book with commentary by Joseph Rosaccio, reprinted a few years later, under the title Viaggio da Venetia a Costantinopoli per mare e per terra, & insieme quello di Terra Santa. The tables represent the islands 'bird's eye view', highlighting detailed prospects of cities and mountains, while each table includes a description of local history, tips for navigation, relative distances, and origins of toponyms.