The so-called Genoese World Map of 1457: A Stepping Stone Towards Modern Cartography?
By Gerda Brunnlechner
Peregrinations: Journal of the International Society for the Study of Pilgrimage Arts, Vol.4:1 (2013)
Introduction: Around the time of Christopher Columbus’s birth, we find on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, especially in the north of Italy, a variety of people particularly interested in problems of geography and cartography. Humanistic circles met for debates, exchanged ideas, and more often than not brooded over maps. Mapmakers moved from port to port, found purchasers and merchants interested in investing in books and maps. At the councils of Constance (1414-18) and Florence (1431-45), geographical treaties changed hands, while maps and the geography of foreign regions were discussed. To some extent these people were able to find the information they were looking for on the medieval mappae mundi, which, with their pictures and stories, constitute a historiography of the world (including its end times). The Humanists looked back to antiquity for geographic information, and Ptolemy’s Geography, 1409 translated into Latin by the Florentine Jacopo Angeli, was the center of much attention. In addition, travelers’ and merchants’ news of foreign lands and people gleaned from their voyages also found its way into these discussions. Portolan charts, maps of the Mediterranean and Black Seas with – to the modern eye – their near-natural depictions of shorelines, had been in use by seaman for at least 150 years and came to be of increasing interest in these scholarly circles. These charts provided to many a new, unfamiliar depiction of the world, contrasting sharply with the view presented by mappae mundi.
These different strands of information would be merged in so-called transitional or hybrid maps of the period. The so-called Genoese World Map of 1457, a transitional map and the focus of this article, presents preliminary questions regarding the conceptions of space. Merging medieval mappae mundi with portolan charts and Ptolemy’s data with the information gathered by contemporary travelers, the Genoese World Map is frequently seen as a step towards modern cartography, which, in part, is defined by a homogeneous conception of space. Its classification as transitional emphasizes progressive and conscious development towards a new stage. But does this transitional period in the history of cartography really represent a natural and inevitable development towards modernity? Or could it be that this concept merely interferes with a view of continuities, such as the persistence of various dimensions of meaning in these maps, continuities that hint at the continuance of heterogeneous conceptions of space?