Riding the wave


The Catalan Atlas

Late thirteenth century charts are enriched with images which at times are realistic, but often are the fruit of imagination or legends: monarchs on the throne, towered clusters of buildings, imaginary animals, hunting scenes, bright tents, ships in full sail, huge fish and sea monsters, which may indicate abundance of fish as well as dangers to navigation.

Also, human beings with multiple eyes, limbs or heads, may express fear of the unknown or an assumption of superiority of the Christian world; and polychrome roses, elaborate frames, dense legends, fantastic mountains, winding rivers and imaginary lands. Rome is always present as the center of Western civilization, as well as Jerusalem, the cradle of Christianity. On major cities wave flags that often do not take into account the new political structure of the regions represented, as to express a will to ignore the conquest by the Muslims.

This ricchness of decorations supports the hypothesis that these products - of particularl opulence and beauty - were created not for actual use on board, but rather for the book-lover, for libraries or for the education of noble offspring. It ' therefore possible that the documents produced and used for navigation were much simpler, and can have followed the fate of the vessels on which were used, or were not considered worthy of preservation.

Beautiful is the oldest extant Spanish chart, namely the so-called "Catalan Atlas" - anonymous and undated but attributed to Abraham Cresques, Jewish cartographer working in Majorca about 1375 - perhaps commissioned by the House of Aragon to make a tribute to Charles V of France.

On the '"Catalan Atlas" makes its first appearance a wind rose, absent in the previous charts made in Genoa and Venice, which is not centered on any of the many points of intersection from which depart the "rhumbs", the North being indicated by the seven stars of Ursa Minor. In Northwest Atlantic is placed the imaginary island of Brasilia, west of Ireland, born from the sea by the will of the gods - according to a Celtic legend - to host just men which were granted immortality. It was "sighted" and represented on charts for a long time to come, and finally disappeared after a few centuries.

The atlas consists of 12 sheets glued on wooden tablets, mm. 250x640.
In north-west Africa, among the many emblematic figures, it shows the priest-king John, long sought by European explorers, who seeked not only trade agreements but also alliance against Islam.
(Paris, (new window)"> Bibliothèque Nationale de France).
The maps are reproduced in Coste del Mondo nella cartografia europea :1500-1900 , (179 p., about 300 images), by Paola Presciuttini (Priuli & Verlucca, publishers, Ivrea, 2000.)

Full reproduction in http://expositions.bnf.fr/ciel/catalan/index.htm