TITLE: Vesconte World Maps
DATE: 1306 - 1321
AUTHOR: Pietro [Petrus] Vesconte
DESCRIPTION: The world maps made by the European Church Fathers were
a legacy taken over from the ancient world, and they were gradually expanded
and adapted in accordance with the texts which they accompanied. The commentaries
and learned notes (scholia) added to the texts formed the basis of
further alterations to the maps.
Maps gradually came to stand on their own as independent works, instead
of mere supplements to texts. They became an essential part of the collections
in monastic libraries, in whose catalogues we commonly find, from the 9th
century onward, at least one such independent map.
Among the first maps in Christian Europe to reveal a new character are those
by Pietro Vesconte. Some consider him as the first professional cartographer
to sign and date his works regularly. He produced chiefly sea-charts, and
his world maps betray his experience in that field. Vesconte came from Genoa
but did some, perhaps all, of his work at Venice. His work falls within
the period 1310-30; the name 'Perrino Vesconte', which appears on one atlas
and one chart, may be his own, using a diminutive form, or that of another
member of his family. Vesconte was one of the few people in Europe before
1400 to see the potential of cartography and to apply its techniques with
imagination. As can be seen in the world maps he drew around 1320 he introduced
a heretofore unseen accuracy in the outline of the lands surrounding the
Mediterranean and Black Sea, probably because they were taken from the portolan
[nautical] charts. We may suspect that his influence lay behind the maps
of Italy in the Great Chronology by Paolino Veneto that was copied
at Naples not long after, for other maps in the same manuscript are related
to maps from Vesconte's workshop that illustrate Marino Sanudo's book calling
for a new crusade. These maps of Italy use the coastal outline from portolan
charts as the basis for a general map of the area, showing mountains, rivers
and inland towns. It was a precursor of the use of portolan charts in regional
The world map by Vesconte, now in the British Library and measuring 35 centimeters
across, may be even earlier than his chart dated 1311; although the first
known copies of it are found, with other unsigned and undated maps, in a
manuscript of Marino Sanuto's Liber secretorum fidelium crucis super
Terrae Sanctae recuperatione et conservatione [Book of Secrets for Followers
of the Cross], dating from 1306-1321. The maps were in fact long thought
to be the work of Marino Sanuto [also spelled "Sanudo"] himself.
Later, however, a copy of the Liber secretorum was discovered with
the signature of Pietro Vesconte and the date 1320, and he is now considered
the author of the maps in place of Sanuto, who was not known as a cartographer.
Sanuto's work was written to induce the kings of Europe to undertake another
crusade against the Turks, and so the following maps accompanied it: a world
map, maps of the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, the western coast of Europe
and Palestine, plans of Jerusalem, and Ptolemais [Acre and Antioch].
Vesconte was able to apply his experience in chartmaking to the European
coasts in his world map . The Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, with (in
the east) the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, are no longer an unrecognizable
pattern of shapes that can be identified only by names attached to them;
instead they are drawn just as in a normal portolan chart. Also like
the portolan charts, Vesconte covers the surface of his map with rhumb lines
or loxodromes (except on the Sanuto version); one of the first to
use loxodromic or rhumb lines to prepare charts A somewhat
better conceptual construct is also shown of the greater continental rivers
of the North, from the Danube to the Don and Volga, and from the Vistula
to the Oxus and Jaxartes. In this fluvial detail, however, as in the delineation
of two Caspian Seas, Vesconte is more traditional and unnatural on "his
map" than the one ascribed to him in Sanuto; on the other hand, Vesconte
is distinctly truer in his representation of the British Isles and Scandinavia
on "his map" than on Sanuto's. But everything outside Vesconte's
experience betrays the poverty of his sources. His conventionalization of
Africa, with its south-east projection after the style of the Arab cartographer
Ibn Idrisi, so as to face India/Asia, and with a western Nile River traversing
the continent, from the region around the Mountains of the Moon and the
sources of the river of Egypt to the Atlantic. The delineation of East Asia
and of the Northern regions, from China to Denmark, show no noticeable inclusion
of recent discoveries or modification from the typical medieval design,
so completely discarded in the Catalan Atlas, half a century later.
Vesconte's world maps were circular in format and oriented with East to
the top, although most of the fabulous elements so common to early world
maps have been omitted, Prester John, the mythical Christian king occasionally
located in Ethiopia, does manage to appear on Vesconte's map and has been
"re-located" to India.
This world map is painted using colors fairly typical of the medieval period.
The oceans, seas and rivers are in green, the sawtooth mountains in brown,
the major cities represented by crowns and castles are in red, and the landmasses
are in white.
The chronicle compiled by the Minorite friar Paulinus dates from about the
same time (ca.1320). It too contains a world map and a map of Palestine,
which closely resemble the work of Pietro Vesconte. Some differences in
detail occur; for example, though both the Vatican copy and the Paris copy
have two Caspian Seas, in the Vatican copy they are the same shape, while
in the Paris copy the western Caspian corresponds to the later form of the
Catalan maps. There are other differences, usually relating to the interior
of countries, i.e., to regions little known to Vesconte himself. These differences
of detail between the maps in contemporaneous manuscripts of Marino Sanuto
and Paulinus can only be explained by assuming that two scribes copied Vesconte's
map, adding to it from different sources.
Besides his world map, the most interesting of the medieval maps of Palestine
was also drawn by Vesconte in about 1320. In its purpose it was like Harding's
map of Scotland: it illustrated a book by Marino Sanuto that urged a new
crusade to re-conquer the Holy Land, now entirely lost to the Christians.
Cartographically, however, it was far more sophisticated than Harding's
map, though more than a century older. It is covered with a network of squares,
and the accompanying text explains that each represents one league (or two
miles); every town is placed in the appropriate square and confirming the
picture presented by the map; the text identifies the square where each
town is to be found. The rivers and mountains were drawn in with less precision
and they differ somewhat in the seven surviving copies of the book. This
may seem to us an entirely normal and rational way to set out a map, but
in the 14th century it represented an enormous conceptual leap, and confirms
that Vesconte was a man of skill and imagination. Where he (or Sanuto) got
the necessary information, the list locating the towns, we do not know;
both this and the grid may derive from Arab sources, and a more remote connection
with grid-based maps in China is not impossible. This map is also oriented
with East at the top and the green at the bottom marks the Mediterranean
which was wrongly named the Flumen Jordanus [River Jordan] by a much
later annotator. Nordenskiöld calls this map "the first non-Ptolemaic
map of a definite country".
LOCATION: British Library, London.
*Bagrow, L., History of Cartography, pp. 70-72 .
Beazely, C., The Dawn of Modern Geography, pp. 477, 520.
*Bricker, C., Landmarks in Mapmaking, pp. 24, 54, 154.
*Destombes, M., A.D. 1200-1500 Mappemondes, #54.10
*George, W., Animals and Maps, p. 13.
*Harley, J.B., The History of Cartography, Volume I, pp. 314, 316, 328,
333, 355, 357, 473, plate 16 (color).
*Harvey, P.D.A., Medieval Maps, pp. 35, 49, 79 (color).
*Kimble, G.H.T., Geography in the Middle Ages, p. 138.
*Nebenzahl, K., Maps of the Holy Land, pp.42-45, plate 15 (color).
*Nordenskiöld, A.E., Facsimile Atlas, pp. 51, 64.