Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Map the Italians Stole

At the beginning of the 16th Century nautical knowledge was power. During the 15th and 16th Centuries the Portuguese were at the forefront of this knowledge, leading the way in overseas exploration and in establishing mercantile trade routes. 

Among the many notable Portuguese explorers of this time was Vasco da Gama, who in 1498 was the first European to reach India by sea. Just two years later, in 1500, Pedro Álvares Cabral became the first European to discover Brazil and then, just a few years later again, Ferdinand Magellan completed the first circumnavigation of the Earth. 

One of the most important tasks of all these overseas expeditions was to create accurate nautical charts. During this period Portuguese cartographers were completing enormous master charts mapping coastlines, prevailing winds and important trading knowledge. To protect this important knowledge these maps were deemed state secrets. State secrets which other countries were desperate to steal.

One map which was successfully stolen was the Cantino Planisphere. In fact the map is now known for the spy, Alberto Cantino, who successfully 'acquired' the map from the Portuguese for the Duke of Ferrara (Ferrara was a city-state in northern Italy). 

The Cantino Planisphere is now owned by the Biblioteca Estense in Modena, Italy and you can explore an interactive version of the map for yourself using the library's new Digital Collections website. The Cantino Planisphere is a remarkable map for many reasons. The map includes a depiction of the Brazilian coastline, which Cabral had only just discovered. The map also includes knowledge gained from Vasco de Gama's voyage to India and Columbus’s voyages to the West Indies.

The Cantino Planisphere also includes the recently decided Tordesillas Line. In 1494 (at the Treaty of Tordesillas) Portugal and Spain agreed to divide the newly discovered lands across the Atlantic between themselves. The line, about halfway between the Cape Verde islands and the West Indies, divided what would belong to Portugal (everything east of the line) and the lands which would belong to Spain (everything west of the line).

The new Digital Collections of the Biblioteca Estense includes lots of other vintage maps - including the Carta Catalana, a medieval mappamundi, dating from the 15th Century.

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