Medieval Manuscripts: The Universal Atlas of Fernão Vaz Dourado

The Universal Atlas of Fernão Vaz Dourado

Preserved in Arquivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo, Lisbon (1571, Goa)

Commentary by João Carlos Garcia

Universal Atlas of Fernão Vaz Dourado


This Atlas was made in 1571 by one of the finest Portuguese cartographers, Fernão Vaz Dourado (c. 1520-c. 1580). Vaz Dourado authored at least four different nautical atlases, each of them including 20 maps, painted between 1568 and 1580, which is to say at the pinnacle of Portuguese cartography.

The Universal Atlas of Fernão Vaz Dourado, made in Goa (a small Portuguese protectorate located in the west cost of India) is the most famous of them. This sublime example of sumptuous cartography seems to owe more to the art of illumination than to cartography.


Fernão Vaz Dourardo was the son of a senior official and a native woman. He lived during the third period of the golden age of Portuguese cartography; hence, his vision of the world already lacks the Ptolemaic influence typical of previous periods.

Images by Vaz Dourado were soon found in the printed cartography of northern Europe such as, for example, the one in Linschoten’s work or the one that circulated in editions of Ortelius’s work. These images were used by everyone as the basis for new versions.

In the oldest existing description of the chart, Varnhagen stated: “The chart on the fifth folio provides key clarifications and due grounds for arriving at conclusions about the Portuguese discovery of and presence along the coasts of North America”. Portuguese historiography resorted to Vaz Dourado’s images to repeat the words of the aforesaid Brazilian researcher. In the late nineteenth century, Ernesto do Canto analyzed the list of toponyms along the coasts shown in the charts to yet again confirm that the Portuguese were the first to explore North America.


This chart depicts the modern day territories of Eastern Canada and North-Eastern USA, with a greater concentration of information around Newfoundland and the vast St. Lawrence river valley, the main means of penetrating the interior of the continent. Newfoundland had long been known to the Portuguese due to its importance as a cod fishing ground and hence the reference in the chart’s title to the “codfish coast”.

Although the Tordesillas meridian is not depicted, the chart is based on the principle that it would have dissected the space portrayed therein: the Spanish dominions to the west and Portuguese dominions to the east. This explains the presence of a shield with the coat of arms of Castile/Aragon, located approximately on the modern day state of Maine (USA) and another shield with the coat of arms of Portugal situated north of the St. Lawrence River, in the “Land of Labrador”. Finally, south of the St. Lawrence, the caption “Land of the Corte-Reais” recalls the arrival of the Corte-Real brothers in 1501. Flags with the cross of the Military Order of Christ can be seen on the Magdalen islands in the centre of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and on the southeast tip of Labrador. To the east the words “Ocean Sea” occupy a large portion of the chart.

Max Justo Guedes made the following comment with regard to this chart’s importance in the context of Vaz Dourado’s work: “The most interesting points of this vast work (…) are related to North America. In the northeast, Dourado followed the French-Portuguese prototype derived from the discoveries by Jacques Cartier which had first been presented by the anonymous author of the so-called Vallard Atlas, but he used the drawing by Diogo Ribeiro – and subsequent modifications – for the Atlantic contours.”


Map 11: West Indies, Central and South America, up to the Amazon River

Universal Atlas of Fernão Vaz Dourado

West of the Tordesillas meridian extend exclusively Spanish territories in the central strip of the New World. Using the Equator as a base, the image encompasses all of the southern areas of North America, with a special emphasis on “Florida”, the Gulf of Mexico and the large region known today as Central America, “New Spain”, the Antilles and the ocean (“Mare oceanum”), along with the northern areas of South America, where the name “Peru” is placed close to Panama. The image repeats spaces that were well known to and controlled by Spanish cartographers from the late fifteenth century onwards.

 This was an excerpt from the commentary volume of the Universal Atlas of Fernão Vaz Dourado by João Carlos Garcia (Faculdade de Letras, Universidade do Porto)

 To learn more about the Universal Atlas of Fernão Vaz Dourado and see images from the manuscript, please visit 


Sign up for our weekly email newsletter!