Slide #257

TITLE: The Christopher Columbus Chart
DATE: 1492-1500
AUTHOR: Christopher Columbus
DESCRIPTION: In 1924, Charles de La Ronciere, the renowned French historian of exploration and cartography, attributed to Christopher Columbus a portolan sea chart that has been discussed and debated ever since. Although Columbus was an accomplished mapmaker, scholars have been frustrated in their attempts to confirm who actually created this unsigned document, originally acquired by the French national library in the nineteenth century.

The sea chart displays a classic delineation of the greater Mediterranean area, supplemented by the Atlantic coast stretching from southern Scandinavia to the mouth of the Congo River (named Rio Poderoso by Diogo Cao in 1484). It has particularly rich nomenclature down the African coast, where Columbus is thought to have made at least one voyage with the Portuguese. To the east, the Black Sea and Red Sea are included. Westward is a series of islands some real, some imaginary-from the Arctic to the Gulf of Guinea. Below the compass rose in the North Atlantic lie three islands, Isles of the Seven Cities. This was the Portuguese name for the islands that other Europeans called Antilia.

In the neck, or narrow portion. of the parchment, a small circular world map centering on Jerusalem and surrounded by celestial rings symbolizes the geocentric concept of the universe, commonly accepted at that time. It is most unusual to have a practical navigator s chart juxtaposed with a cosmographical plan. One of the accompanying lengthy notes in Latin announces that the world map, or mappamundi although drawn on a plane, should be considered spherical. Displaying the earth in this manner underscores the transitional character of the map from medieval to Renaissance thinking.

This circular mappamundi is also noteworthy for showing southern and eastern Africa more accurately than does either the Martellus map or the Behaim globe (Slides #256 and #258). It implies that information is included from Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese navigator who discovered India, even though he did not return to Europe until 1499. The treatment of the west, south, and east coasts of Africa suggests the map's Portuguese origin. Latin is used for the numerous lengthy annotations. The 250 place-names, however, appear in their Portuguese form, and many Portuguese-controlled areas display the Lusitanian flag. A reference at the Cape Verde Islands mentions their discovery by the Genoese, an intriguing fact considering Columbus's birthplace.

The surviving remains of Columbus's library include his revelatory marginal notes, particularly in his copy of Cardinal d'Ailly's cosmography, Imago Mundi. Monique de La Ronciere, having researched these notes, recently pointed out that Columbus referred to his "four charts on paper, all of which also contain a sphere." She also noted an error in the inscription on this chart, next to the Red Sea, which is identical to an error in one of Columbus's marginal notes.

The Spanish flag flying over Granada implies the map was completed after January 1492, when Spain captured that city from the Moors. There was no attempt to show the new discoveries reported from 1493 onward, as recorded on the Juan de La Cosa planisphere of 1500 and those which followed. This fact suggests a date for this map no later than the early 1490s.

It appears questionable that a chart with this degree of professional finish and decoration, heightened with gold and including elaborate vignettes of selected major European cities, was actually executed by Christopher Columbus or his brother, Bartolommeo. The style and emphasis do not appear to support the assertion. Certainly it could have been commissioned by Columbus, and his Portuguese contacts could have provided the new information, which had to have originated in Lisbon. The chart, with its mappamundi inset, remains a remarkable document of the discovery period. Although the attribution to the Admiral by the French scholars has merit. it has never been confirmed.

LOCATION: Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris

SIZE: 70 x 110 cm (28 x 44 inches)

*Fite, E. & Freeman, A., A Book of Old Maps, #3.
*Nebenzahl, K., Atlas of Columbus, pp. 22-25.
Crone, G.R., Maps and their Makers,


Index of Late Medieval Maps