CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

New World, Old Maps

Exhibition: 22 March - 2 November 2014

From the museum’s press release, 20 November 2013

New World, Old Maps is a rotating display of the acclaimed historic map collection formed by Dallas Pratt, co-founder of the American Museum in Britain, Bath, and celebrates the publication Mapping the New World – Renaissance Maps from the American Museum in Britain. Illustrating the changing shape of the Americas as Renaissance cartographers (working from ancient and medieval sources) learned more of the New World, this is the third in a series of extensively illustrated catalogues produced by Scala Arts and Heritage Publishers to showcase the core collections of the American Museum in Britain.

The ‘New World’ was constantly changing shape on maps made from the 15th to 17th centuries as European cartographers learned more from the navigators, who had ventured forth across the Atlantic in search of treasure – notably pearls, gold, and spices.

Portugal launched the first open sea explorations in the early 15th century, breaking with the coastal sailing tradition of keeping land in sight as an aid to navigation. By venturing into the realms of sea monsters – grotesquely illustrated on contemporary maps as matters of fact rather than fantasy – Portugal had laid claim to the Madeira islands and the Azores by 1427, and then went on to explore the west coast of Africa.

Portugal’s great rival, Castile, had been slower to take up the challenge of oceanic exploration. After its marriage alliance with Aragon in 1469 and the subsequent reconquest of the Moorish kingdom of Granada (completed in 1492), Castile looked seawards. By claiming Granada for Christ, the Spanish monarchs severed trade ties with African markets dealing in luxury goods. (Such bounty had previously been paid as tribute by the Moors.) To avoid the humiliation of bartering with Portugal over trade through Africa, it thus became necessary to finance adventurers willing to seek out new trade routes with the East by travelling west. Christopher Columbus famously set sail in August 1492, the same year that Granada finally fell to his patrons, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. In little more than two months, Columbus had discovered a world ‘new’ to Europe and claimed it on behalf of Castile.

Subsequent European dominance of the Americas was achieved by detailed maps. Whereas medieval maps illustrated theology rather than geography, the Renaissance revived the classical discipline of scientifically mapping land mass. Such precision was entirely practical: only by exact measurement could the rich New World territories be claimed, plundered and ruled by their Old World conquerors.

However, some pre-eminent maps of this period were made primarily as elaborate expressions of patriotic sentiment and were never intended to be used as sea charts. Made for buyers who preferred to venture across the oceans only in their imaginations, these printed masterpieces by artists such as Dürer and Holbein were made specifically to adorn the walls of merchants and princes. They were treasured for their exquisite artistry and celebrated as expressions of intellectual endeavour, whereby the vastness of the known world was presented in two-dimensional form on paper.

In 1988 Dr Dallas Pratt gave the Museum over two hundred Renaissance maps of the New World – a collection acclaimed by scholars as one of the finest holdings of printed world maps in existence. Dr Pratt recollected when he first caught what he called the ‘map bug’: “I bought my first sixteenth-century map in 1932. It was the summer before I entered Yale, and I was in Paris with a friend. Strolling past bookstalls which line the left bank of the Seine, my eye was caught by three quaint and colourful maps. One was of the world, with fat-cheeked wind-puffers, one of the western hemisphere with a cannibal’s ‘lunch’ dangling from a Brazilian woodpile, and the third depicted an upside-down Europe with south at the top. Who could resist?”

Included in this generous donation were such rarities as the famous Borgia World Map (c.1430 1797). While in Portugal in 1774, Cardinal Stefano Borgia chanced upon a map engraved on a metal sheet (now in the Vatican Library) and had prints made of the image. This is one of only ten surviving copies. As the original map on metal is a true map, not an engraved plate made for printing (where the map is drawn in reverse), an intermediate cast had to be made in order to produce the printed copies. At first glance, the map (with south at the top) has some characteristics of medieval mappae mundi. Medieval map-makers tended to make their own lands larger in comparison with those of others so in this work Italy is disproportionately large. The further from Europe, the more bizarre are the subjects depicted: the giants Gog and Magog inhabit the East; the Tartars (under their emperor Canis, possibly Genghis Khan) ‘dwell in towns of many tents of skin’; Siberia is called ‘the land of illustrious women’; further south, the Scythians ‘through want, sell their children in the market’ and worship a head placed on a pole.

Of particular interest is the America sive novus orbis… (America or the New World…) by Theodor de Bry (1528-1598), who was born in the Spanish Netherlands to a family of jewellers and engravers. A religious dissenter, he fled in 1570 to Strasburg, then a major centre of the Protestant publishing and book trade. From here he moved to Frankfurt and became established as a publisher. Aware of the public’s interest in descriptions of the New World territories, he travelled widely to search out accounts of explorations and in 1590 launched his major series of illustrated books under the titles Les Grands Voyages (or journeys to the West) and Petits Voyages (for those to the East and North). This map is based on the 1594 world map by Peter Plancius, but what draws the eye are the lively figures depicted in the corner spandrels. This gallery of explorers – Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512), Ferdinand Magellan (c. 1480-1521), and the conquistador Francisco Pizarro (c. 1471 or 1476-1541) – demonstrates de Bry’s business acumen: finely executed illustrations could greatly add to the commercial success of a map.

A world map by cartographer Hajji Ahmed (Venice, map 1559-60; print 1795) is a notable rarity in this display. During the 16th century, cartographers of a mathematical inclination applied their ingenuity to the task of representing a spherical earth on a flat surface. As the world known to Europeans increased in size, so did the variety of the shapes they chose to enclose it. Among the most attractive of these designs were heart-shaped (cordiform) maps. The imposing Arabic inscription at the top of this map opens with the words ‘Whoever wishes to know the true shape of the world, their minds shall be filled with light and their breast with beauty’. It has been suggested that the map’s author was a Tunisian, enslaved by Venetians, who bought his freedom by engraving it on six blocks of pear wood. It may have been prepared for the Ottoman market, since most of the text is in Turkish. When relations between the Venetian Republic and the Ottomans worsened, the blocks (being of potential benefit to the Turks) were sequestered in the Doge’s secret archives. They were rediscovered in 1795, and 24 copies were then printed; only about nine or ten of these are thought to have survived.