TITLE: The Borgia World Map
DATE: 1410 - 1458
AUTHOR: unknown
DESCRIPTION: This map was discovered in an antique shop and bought by Cardinal Borgia for his museum in Velletri. It seems to have been originally designed as a wall decoration and consists of two iron plates on which a world map is engraved, with colors rubbed into the engraved channels ( nielli ). The orientation of this disc-shaped work is with south at the top. Due to its apparent decorative function, it did not necessarily have to conform to the same standards expected of other maps of its day, i.e., portolan charts, or the Catalan-Estense and Fra Mauro mappamundi (Slides #246, 249). According to scholars such as Leo Bagrow, the Borgia map was modelled on some Catalan map, as a comparison with the Modena map clearly shows. For others, because of its rather unusual orientation and its ornamentation, the Borgia map is not unlike a crude precursor to the more famous Fra Mauro mappamundi of 1459. But, again, because of its purported decorative intent, the result is a very stylized representation in the contours of the major landmasses. This characteristic can be seen particularly in the mountains that are used to symbolize the coastline in a few places (i.e., Northern Asia, Southern Africa). The entire southern part of Africa, which would have formed an ugly white excrescence, is omitted; and coastal outlines are either badly distorted for the period (especially well known areas such as Spain and Italy), or simply generalized.

According to Nordenskiöld, the Borgia map was probably composed for a secondary purpose to illustrate some instruction in the elements of the globe, or more correctly, in the geography, the natural conditions and ethnography of the earth disc. Even more noteworthy, and in this respect it is almost unique among medieval maps, is the fact that it seems to have been drawn, not by some scholar through the study of older authorities, more or less classical, but by a much travelled and observant man, recording what he had seen and heard.

One of the attractions of the map are the myrad of miniature drawings reminiscent of much earlier maps such as the Hereford and Ebstorf mappamundi (Slides #224, #226), as well as the Catalan Atlas of 1375 (Slide #235). The unknown author could not resist the temptation to tickle the palate of his readers, for he fills the empty, unexplored continental spaces with all manner of legendary and traditional characters. Zoologically, there are fauna in all three of Wilma George's 'regions' Ethiopian, Oriental, and Palearctic displayed on the Borgia map. As this scholar states, it " formalized exuberance resembling the 12th century maps populates the Oriental region with camels, jackals or hyenas, an elephant, a panther, lion, dragon and, marginally, in the region, some reptiles."
An elk or moose appears in Europe from behind some trees, with the tines on the opposing and upper edges of its antlers. Also there is a polar bear emerging from an igloo in Norway, domesticated reindeer, foxes and wolves to be found.

Culturally, towns are represented by castellated symbols, a variety of ship-types can be seen in the circumfluent ocean, the Magi of the Gospel story is included and even the Mongolian invasion is illustrated. Legends abound everywhere there is room or no graphic adornment. Surprisingly, unlike many other maps with this degree of illustration, little or no emphasis is given to Jerusalem, i.e. pictorially or through orientation, thus indication of a more sectarian, vice religious, origin and purpose.

LOCATION: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Museum of Cardinal Stefano Borgia, Velletri

*Bagrow, L., History of Cartography, pp. 71-72.
*Destombes, M., Mappemonde, A.D. 1200-1500, pp. 239-241.
*George, W., Animals and Maps, pp. 48-49.
*Kimble, G.H.T., Geography in the Middle Ages, pp. 108, 183.


Late Medieval Maps