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 ninth 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 (fl. 1306–1330). He was a Genoese cartographer and one of the earliest creators of portolan [nautical] charts. He operated primarily out of Venice, and greatly influenced Italian and Catalan mapmaking throughout the 14th and 15th centuries. 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 during the years of 1306 to 1321 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. Marino Sanudo (Sanudo the Elder of Torcello, c. 1260-1338) was a Venetian statesman and geographer.  He is best known for his lifelong attempts to revive the crusading spirit and movement.  He wrote his great work is entitled Liber secretorem fidelum Crucis, sive de Recuperatio Terrae Sancta [Secret book of the loyalty to the Cross or the Recapture of the Holy Lands], also called Historia Hierosolymitana, Liber de expeditione Terrae Sanctae, and Opus Terrae Sanctae, the last being perhaps the proper title of the whole treatise as completed in three parts or “books”.

Sanudo’s work discussed medieval trade and trade-routes as well as political and other history.  In the work, he includes maps and plans which are of great importance in the development of cartography.   Begun in March 1306, and finished (in its earliest form) in January 1307, the book was offered to Pope Clement V as a manual for true Crusaders who desired the re-conquest of the Holy Land.  To this original Liber Secretorum Sanuto added significantly.  Two other “books” were composed between December 1312 and September 1321, when the entire work was presented by the author to Pope John XXII, together with a map of the world, a map of Palestine, a chart of the Mediterranean, Black Sea and west European coasts, and plans of Jerusalem, Antioch and Acre.  A copy was also offered to the King of France, to whom Sanuto desired to commit the military and political leadership of the 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 mapping. This is large propaganda volume, was written on vellum and includes many miniatures and vignettes of the Crusaders and their battles with the Saracens. One of the paintings on folio 7r is that of the Crusader forces meeting King Leo of Armenia (Cilician Armenia) and the prisoners of the Armenian king. The king himself is shown surrounded by symbols of various rulers neighboring Cilicia, namely the Lion in the north (Mongols), the Wolf in the west (the Turks), the Serpent in the south and the Leopard in the east.

The world map included in this volume was made by Vesconte who used his knowledge of sea charts in the crafting of this work. On this copy he even drew rosettes, which are standard feature in the portolan sea charts but are scarcely used outside the sea chart tradition. The region of the Mediterranean, whose accurate portolan charts already existed, is depicted in true detail but the rest of the world is shown in very approximate form and shape.

The world map by Vesconte, now in the British Library and measuring 50 x 34.5 cm (double page), 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 book 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. As mentioned above, 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]. 

Pietro Vesconte, in his mappamundi drawn for Marino Sanudo’s Secreta fidelium crucis, tried to combine the two types into one image. Vesconte was a prolific maker of portolan charts in Venice between 1310 and 1330. While much of his production is conventional, his world map for Sanudo’s crusader manuscript departs dramatically from earlier examples, seeking to combine the mathematical system and new land-shapes of the portolan charts with the contained, circular, Jerusalem-centered format of most mappaemundi. In this map, the influence of the portolan charts can be seen at a glance: in contrast with the amorphous forms of Asia and southern Africa (familiar in many other medieval mappaemundi), the Mediterranean world is instantly recognizable and proportionate, clearly copied directly from the outlines of a portolan chart. Even more striking is the network of lines that are drawn in a sixteen-point wind-rose that encircles the whole earth. He uses an exact copy of one of the rhumb-line networks that covered half of a portolan chart to grid the space of the entire world, rather than just one part as in the portolan charts. The grid, however, no longer holds any indexical significance outside of the small corner of the map that has been drawn from the portolan charts. The rest is a strange hybrid that would have provided little navigational assistance to any traveler. The rhumb lines claim for this new map a kind of symbolic empirical authority, when in actuality the points on the rhumb-circle do little more than indicate the positions of the winds (much like the circular wind-faces depicted along the edges of the world in a work like the Psalter map, #223 Book II). What the map actually shows varies little from a traditional mappamundi; what has changed is its implied claim to be modern and accurate in a different sense. Vesconte’s map offers a glimpse of the currency that empirical geometry carried at this transitional moment. Vesconte clearly saw in the geometry of the portolan charts an iconic, modern power that could be combined with the forms of a traditional world map to create a new kind of picture.

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 (#219, Book II), 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 (#235), 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 saw-tooth mountains in brown, the major cities represented by crowns and castles are in red, and the landmasses are in white.

The map however cannot be considered as a T-O type but akin to the Ptolemaic model of the world, having been rotated 90 degrees. Notwithstanding its raison d’etre (urging the European rulers to organize a new crusade) it stands bereft of any religious content. On this map we do not see mythical and Biblical creatures or other Christian features such as the Earthly Paradise or the rivers of Paradise and here, for the first time in medieval world maps the Red Sea is not colored red and does not standout. In fact the map has rather more Islamic religious content, such as in Arabia, the Islamic religious centers of Mecca [Mecha] and Baghdad [Baldac], all shown red.

Northern Europe is show as a densely populated area with many legends of towns and provinces. Norwegia is a peninsula and Anglia, Scotia and Hybernia are shown as islands in the North Sea. Only the countries of Francia, Germane and Yspania are indicated by red ink. The river Tanay [Tanais = Don] is shown flowing from a northern mountain range into the Sea of Azov. The shape of Mar Pontus [The Black Sea] is almost correct.

The flat-bottomed circular sea enveloped by mountains is named Mare Caspiu [the Caspian Sea]. Situated between this and the Black Sea [Mare Pontos] there is another arrow-like lake, which bears the legend “mare” only. This should in fact be the Caspian Sea, since to its south the legends read Caspia and Yrcania, two provinces located south of the Caspian Sea. It follows that the true identity of the flat-bottomed sea above should have been the Sea of Aral, situated in western central Asia, with Bactria shown on its shores.

The unnamed mountain range running between the Black Sea and the arrow-like Caspian Sea can only be the Caucasus Mountain range. At its intersection with the second mountain range the vignette of a large gate reads Porte Forree [Iron Gates, the name given to the Caspian Gates by the Persians, Turks, Armenians and others]. For the first time in medieval western maps this passage, also known as the Caspian Gates, has been shown in as correct position, namely on the western shore of the Caspian Sea.

To the left of the red inscription Asia there is a vertically standing rectangle resting on the mountain range, bearing the label Archa Noe [Noah’s Ark]. The eastern end of this mountain range is called Montes Caspii [Caspian Mountains] while towards its western extremity it is identified as Taurisius or Taurus mountain range. Below Asia and the legend of Taurisius there is the legend of Armenia Magna. Coicia [Cochis or Abkhazia] is located north of Armenia Magna. For the first time in western medieval cartography, the region of Georgia appears entitled as such. The region of Albania, which should have been near Georgia, is shifted to the upper left corner of the map, near the surrounding ocean, which is outside the area cowered by the detail map.

To the west of Armenia, south of the Black Sea the region is divided into various strips of land starting at the top with Persida, Asia Minor and followed by Bitia [Bithynia]. Calcedonia, Licaonia, Galatia, Lidia and Frigia minor [Phrygia], Cilicia lies to the south of this region, over the mountains and between the two vignettes of castles. Further south, at the foot of the Taurus mountain range lies Capadocia.

Africa occupies most of the southern hemisphere and does bear the basic geographical features such as the Gulf of Guinea and the Cape despite its inaccurate shape. The Nile River has its source in unspecified mountains and flows northwards to the Mediterranean flowing through Egyprus, past numerous castellated towns located on its shores. Other provinces of Africa are Libie, Pentapolis, Sarmatia and Siirtes Maiores. In southwest Asia the following toponyms stand out Arabia (red), Mecha [Mecca red], Baldac [Baghdad. 4 red]. Pa[r]thia and India Magna. Albania has been pushed towards the edge of the map near the Northern Ocean. The toponyms in red are those deemed important by the mapmaker.

From Rouben Galichian’s Countries South of the Caucasus in Medieval Maps: Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan the text surrounding the map provides explanatory comments about various provinces and their features. At the top right of the map, lines two to five and twelve to fourteen from the top describe the peoples, features and location of Armenia. Lines two to five roughly translate as:

Armenia was named after Armenus, who came to Colchis and Armenia with Jason. It is located between the Caucasus and Taurus Mountains, Capadocia and the Caspian Sea. Armenia is in two parts Upper [Greater] and Lower [LesserJ. Lines twelve to fourteen roughly translate as:

Kingdom of Armenia has the Kingdom of Khawrazm at its east. On the north it has the Kingdom of Nisia whose largest city is Sarai. Two lines further down there is a description regarding Georgia beginning with: Kingdom of Georgia has a large white mountain at its east, and to its south lies Armenia. It then continues with further elucidations. On the left of the map line 27 is the description of Albania, which loosely translates: .., its people are white and to its east is the Caspian Sea, which is connected to the Northern Ocean, it extends to the Meotides Marshes [Sea of Azov] and deserts.

The map sees the first mention of the name Georgia, though there is a reference to Colchis (or Abkhazia), indicating that the latter may not yet have been entirely annexed with the kingdom of Georgia.

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 (ca. 1450): 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”.

Vesconte Map of Palestine, 1320
British Library, Additional MS. 27376, ff.187v-188

Pietro Vesconte mappamundi, printed German copy from 1611, 13 x 13 inches

(oriented with East at the top)

Fine example of this rare portolan map of the World, the earliest surviving printed evidence of Pietro Vesconte’s world map created circa 1311, generally considered to be one of the earliest surviving examples of a modern map of the world. Vesconte’s map, in its earliest form, survives in a 14th century manuscript work by Marino Sanudo, which was reproduced for the first time in print in Johann Bongars’ Orientalium expeditionum historia. Gesta Dei per Francos, sive Orientalium expeditionum, et regni Francorum Hierosolimitani historia (Hanau, 1611).  While not as broadly disseminated as the maps of Claudius Ptolemy, the Vesconte/Sanudo map shown above is perhaps the single most important surviving cartographic artifact of the early 14th century, providing great insight into the modern conception of the world, over 150 years prior to the first printed maps.

As noted by R.W. Shirley:

[Printed for the first time] by Johann Bongars in 1611, Sanudo's planisphere . . .  is one of the few examples of medieval maps based on portolano sources in printed form. It is a circular map centered on Jerusalem with the Mediterranean relatively well defined. The ocean surrounds the whole of the known world, the outer parts of which are represented by conjecture. The authorship of Marino Sanudo is not definitively established and the original manuscript map has also been attributed to Pietro Vesconte.

This mappamundi is, in essence, a portolano of the Mediterranean world combined with work of pre-portolan type in remoter regions.  The shorelines of the countries well known to Italian mariners, from Flanders to Azov, are very progressivley delineated, although Africa, away from the Mediterranean, is conventional, with its south-east projected, after the manner of Idrisi (Book II, #219), so as to face Indian Asia, and with a western Nile traversing the continent to the Atlantic and the Niger shown in its classical fashion, extending due west to the Atlantic.  Chinese and Indian Asia show little trace of the new knowledge which had been imparted by European pioneers from the time of Marco Polo, and which appears so strikingly in the Catalan Atlas of 1375 (#235).

Its basic form also conforms to fundamental medieval conceptions of geography, in that it is oriented with East at the top and shows Jerusalem at the center of the World.  The ocean surrounds the known landmasses of the world, while the outer parts are largely conjectural.  True to the medieval conception of the world, the landmasses are about equally balanced between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.   

This all being said, however, in key respects the map was revolutionary for its time.  Notably, this map, along with Vesconte’s other work, features the first broadly accurate conceptions of the Mediterranean and Black Seas. Elsewhere In Europe, the appearance of Norvegia and Suecia [Scandinavia] are great advances from traditional cartographic sources attributable to Ptolemy, and Great Britain and the Baltic Sea appear in recognizable forms.  The Arabian peninsula, Black Sea and Caspian Sea are in a recognizable form, and the name Georgia appears above the Caucus Mountains.  Some idea is also shown of the great continental rivers of the north, such as the Don, Volga, Vistula, Oxus and Syr Daria.  

The present printed version of the map shown above appeared in Germany in the early 17th century.  It was produced as part of the greater intellectual movement that flourished in Europe, and in Germany in particular, roughly from 1450 to 1650, during which scholars, heavily influenced by the enlightened ethic of Humanism, sought to acquire, preserve and learn from the most progressive elements of Classical and Medieval thought.  These scholars sought to go ad fontes, or ‘to the original source’ of the knowledge, or as close to it as possible.  As is the case with the antecedent of the present map, most of these sources existed only in manuscript form, available in a single or with very few examples.  The great achievement of this period was to preserve and liberate this knowledge through the printing press.  The portolan tradition was perhaps the most technically advanced element of medieval geography, and early modern scholars held it in high esteem.  It was thus of great importance that the Sanudo/Vesconte world map was here for the first time printed, so that it could be disseminated to a wider audience.  While the present printed edition of the map is uncommon, it is nevertheless responsible for creating and maintaining the scholarly awareness of this important map throughout Europe and beyond.

As noted in the History of Cartography, Volume 1, the Sanudo/Vesconte map was one of the most important maps of former times reclaimed for an early modern audience:

During the European Renaissance . . . it is possible to trace an increasingly systematic attention to the maps of preceding centuries.  The extent to which this represented a genuine historical feeling for maps as independent documents should not be exaggerated, especially in view of the general surge of interest in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in classical geographical authors and the fact that maps from the classical sources were valued as useful contemporary tools as well as vaunted as monuments of antiquity. . . . historical maps were also reproduced, continuing a medieval tradition of manuscript copying in the Renaissance, but it was printed facsimiles of such maps that did the most to stimulate their study and widen an appreciation of the cartography of earlier centuries.  Notable examples, engraved from medieval manuscript sources, were the Peutinger map . . . Marino Sanudo’s medieval tract Liber secretorum fidelium crucial . . . and . . . Richard Gough’s maps of medieval Britain, [along with Ptolemy's maps].

Vesconte’s portolan of the eastern Mediterranean (1311), is the oldest known signed and dated map. As evident on the present map, Vesconte was the first mapmaker to accurately maps the Mediterranean and Black Seas, and his depiction of Great Britain was a marked improvement over his predecessors. At least four of his multi-chart atlases survive, dating from 1313 to 1321.

Twenty-three surviving examples of Sanudo’s manuscript work are known to exist, all of which date from the 14th Century.


London, British Library, Egerton MS. 1500, fol. 3

London, British Library, Add MS 27376, ff. 187v-188r

Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale Albert Ier, MS. 9347-48, fols. 162v-163

Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale Albert Ier, MS. 9404-5, fols. 173v-174

Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 21.23, fols. 138v-139

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Tanner 190, fols. 203v-204

Rome, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Pal. Lat. 1362A, fol. 2; Lat. 548, fols.138v-139; Lat. 2972, fols. 112v-113

Vesconte’s most important sea chart atlases were produced in 1313, 1318, 1321 and 1322 and are kept in Bibliotheque National de France, Rel. Res Ge DD687, Bibliotheque de Lyon under Ref. Ms. 175, Vatican Library Ref. Pal. Lat. 1362A and 2972. Venice Museo Correr Rel. Port. 28, also Vienna and Zurich.


*Bagrow, Leo, History of Cartography, pp. 63-4, 69-70, 144, 277.

Beazely, C., The Dawn of Modern Geography, pp. 477, 520.

*Bricker, C., Landmarks in Mapmaking, pp. 24, 54, 154.

Brincken, Anna-Dorothee van den, “Das geographische Weltbild um 1300,” in Peter Moraw (ed.), Das geographische Weltbild um 1300. Politik im Spannungsfeld von Wissen, Mythos und Fiktion (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1989), 25.

Destombes, Marcel, ed., Mappemondes A.D. 1200-1500. Catalogue prépare par la Commission des Cartes Anciennes de l’Union Géographique Internationale, 54.4.

Edson, Evelyn, The World Map, 1300-1492, 2007, pp. 55, 57, 62-67, 142.

*Galichian, R., Countries South of the Caucasus in Medieval Maps: Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, pp.185-189.

*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.

*Harvey, P.D.A., Medieval Maps, pp. 35, 49, 79.

*Kimble, G.H.T., Geography in the Middle Ages, p. 138.

Miller, Konrad, Mappaemundi: Die ältesten Weltkarten, 6 volumes, 3:132.

*Nebenzahl, K., Maps of the Holy Land, pp.42-45, Plate 15.

*Nordenskiöld, A.E., Facsimile Atlas, pp. 51, 64.


Vesconte world map, 1320, 35 cm diameter, oriented with East at the top
British Library, Additional MS. 27376*, ff.187v-188/8v-9r

Vesconte world maps, 1320, 35 cm diameter, oriented with East at the top

Vesconte world map, 1320, 35 cm diameter, oriented with East at the top, Bodleian Library

Vesconte world map, ca.1321, 35 cm diameter, oriented with East at the top

Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Rome/Scala

Pietro Vesconte's World Maps, 1321, 35 cm diameter

from Marino Sanudo's Liber secretorum fidelium crusis, Bodleian Library

(oriented with East at the top)

Pietro Vesconte’s World Maps, 1321, from Marino Sanudo’s Liber secretorum fidelium crusis

(oriented with East at the top) British Library, Additional MS. 27376*, ff.187v-188.

Outline redrawing, re-oriented with North at the top

Pietro Vesconte mappamundi, ca. 1320

(oriented with East at the top)

35 cm diameter

Pietro Vesconte mappamundi, ca. 1320, 33 cm diameter
Bibliotecheque Nationale, Paris, France, MS Lat. 4939

Vesconte Map of Palestine, 1320

“Mappemonde de Merino Sanuto, qui se trouve dans un MS. du XIVe siecle de la Biblioteque Royale de Paris, No. 4, 939 qui a pour titre: Chonicon ad annum MCCCXX”, in Vicomte de Santarem, Atlas compose de Mappe-mondes.Marini Sanudo world map, 1849, 35 cm diameter, oriented with East at the top, Bibliotecheque Nationale, Paris, France, MS Lat. 4939/ Oxford University B1a.10, map sheet 17

Vesconte world map, 1320, 35 cm diameter, oriented with East at the top,

British Library, Additional MS. 27376, ff.187v-188