TITLE: The Borgia World Map

DATE: 1410 - 1458
AUTHOR: unknown

DESCRIPTION: Of all the maps in my collection and in these four books of monographs, this map is my overall favorite! The famous Borgia world map, extant in the Biblioteca Vaticana, is engraved on two copper plates riveted together to form a circle 63 cm (24 inches) in diameter, with color rubbed in the engraved channels (nielli). The parts, which in the impression appear black, were in the original filled up with a melted substance, for the most part brown, but where ship’s sails are represented, white, and for flames, red. Nothing is known about its origin except that it was purchased in Portugal by Cardinal Stefano Borgia in 1794. Experts say it dates from the mid-15th century—but its creator was blithely unaware of many of the discoveries made by then. There is, for instance, no trace of the Canary Islands, which had been colonized in 1402. Like other medieval cartographic specimens, the Borgia map has a limited geographical interest; and like other maps from this era, it is a treasure trove of information regarding the historical significance of all areas of the known world.

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. 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 mappaemundi (#246). According to map scholars such as Leo Bagrow, the Borgia map was modeled 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 (#249). 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.

It differs from the Ptolemaic picture of the world, (1) in that Africa is not joined with Asia, and that the Indian Ocean is thus an open and not an inland sea; (2) through the delineation of Scandinavia, which is here represented as a peninsula and not an island; and (3) through the inscriptions, which only occasionally agree with Ptolemy’s legends, and besides are in an entirely more descriptive style than Ptolemy’s Geography. No inscription in the map indicates any knowledge of the Portuguese discoveries on the African coast, or of the Scandinavian discovery of Greenland. With regard to the designs and legends occurring on the map, one must look for further in Arnold Hermann Heeren’s 1808 monograph and Santarem’s work. The lettering suggests that it began life in southern Germany.

According to the Swedish scholar A.E. 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 traveled and observant man, recording what he had seen and heard. It is this circumstance which bestows upon this, at first sight, a coarse and imperfect work, an entirely distinct significance for study of the development of geography and cartography during the period immediately preceding the great wave of geographical discovery.

It seeks to give the idea not only of the geography of the different countries, but also of their ethnography, natural conditions and religion, and of the most momentous periods of their history. The Borgia map forms a singularly telling and valuable picture of the conception, in that respect, of the educated classes of Europe at the end of the 14th century and at the beginning of the 15th.

The orientation of the mappa mundi towards the South is perhaps the first aspect that surprises and intrigues the modern spectator who is used to North-oriented maps, and who is therefore disoriented by the effort required to identify landmasses which not only have 500-year-old outlines, but which are also turned “upside down,” thus losing their familiar shapes. Most of the diagrammatic manuscript mappae mundi of the period 1150-1500 are oriented to the East. But among the maps contemporary with that of the Borgia mappa mundi is the 1448 world map of Andreas Walsperger (#245), the 1459 Fra Mauro world map (#249), and the Zeitz mappa mundi (#251) of the last quarter of that century are all oriented to the South. Thus it is not surprising that, around the mid-15th century, a mappa mundi was oriented to the South. Some explanations also include the influence of all of the contemporary Islamic cartography, the cosmographical concepts of Aristotle, and, of course, the maritime commercial focus of the Indian Ocean and thus towards the South.

One of the major attractions of the map are the myriad of miniature drawings reminiscent of much earlier maps such as the Hereford and Ebstorf mappamundi (#224, #226), as well as the 1448 world map by Andreas Waslperger (#245) and the Catalan Atlas of 1375 (#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. In this respect Ms George states that it “formalized exuberance resembling the 12th century maps by populating 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.

In the far east, within two square regions surrounded by mountains and oriental-looking towers or fortifications, are the captions: “The province of Gog, in which, at the time of Artaxerxes, king of the Persians, the Jews were enclosed” and “Magog in these two [regions] are huge peoples, giants, full of all evil customs. They [are those who] Artaxerxes collected from all parts of Persia”. The coasts of the Black and Mediterranean Seas follow ancient and medieval tradition; indeed, the map seems very medieval in form. Nonetheless, the shape of Africa and northern Asia suggests the influence of Catalan world maps, that is, the reception of new knowledge. The Portuguese ‘discoveries’ and the west coast of Africa (Cape Bojador, 1434) do not appear. The confusion of the monstrous and evil peoples Gog and Magog with Jews is typical for the time. It is worth noting that the exile of the Ten Lost Tribes is attributed (as in most medieval sources) not to Salmanassar (II Kings 17), but (incorrectly) to the Persian King Artaxerxes. This king, according to the apocryphal fourth book of Ezra or Esdras (7,7) allowed the Jews of his realm to emigrate to the Holy Land, but did not collect them. Biblical accuracy was not a priority in this type of text/map. This is the first map known to me to list the iudei inclusi - whom it implicitly identifies as Gog and Magog.

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. All of the legends on the map are presented below in translation.

One way of looking at this cartographical jewel is as the first historical atlas. “Here in Alunnia in 432”, declares an inscription over part of France, “Attila, King of the Huns, fought against the Romans and 180,000 were killed of both sides”. In fact, Attila did not become king until 434, and the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields, to which this seems to refer, took place 17 years later. Still, it was a good try. Some of the other historical references are familiar (“Battle of Cannae in which Hannibal slew 44,000 Romans and collected from the soldiers three bushels of golden rings”), others less so. How many of us knew that “Sinopa conquered many kingdoms and vanquished Hercula, Pampedo and Insipia”?

Nearby is a depiction of what was intended to be an elephant, but turned out to look more like a pig with a vuvuzela on its snout (right). Elsewhere, there are more accurate renderings of camels, a gazelle, horses and a representation of the distant Seres collecting silk from the trees. Paradise is located on the coast somewhere beyond India and China. Between it and better-known parts of the world, there is an inscription that reads: “From here to the ocean, a land uninhabitable on account of cannibalism”, which was presumably inserted to deter what is nowadays termed a fact-finding mission.

As in all the best works of fantasy, the utterly surreal crops up next to the banal, giving a whiff of the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Between references, recognizable today, to Polonia and Bayveria, we get “The stag, when pressed by dogs, drinks water which it vomits upon them boiling”. In northern Russia are mountains “in which griffins and tigers dwell”. Somewhere around Gabon, we are informed that “Here women hairy and very savage bring forth without males”.

The map goes a long way towards explaining why there were no southern Germans among those who set off across the Atlantic or round the Cape of Good Hope. They would have been all too uneasily aware of what awaited them: in India “huge men having horns four feet long” and serpents “of such magnitude that they can eat an ox whole”. On the other hand, anyone with an adventurous spirit would surely be tempted by the prospect of finding, in Libya or thereabouts, the “fountain of the sun, boiling at night and tepid in the morning”. And who could resist the chance to look, near the headwaters of the Nile, for the Phoenix (below), which “burns itself in an aromatic fire, and in three days is recreated from its ashes”?

As you stare at the Borgia Map, it is not difficult to become intoxicated by dreams of a journey to Ergauil or Fudaur or the State of Cambalec, which appears to have a common frontier with Paradise. Perhaps the most enticing thought of all, though, is that you might one day reach that part of Siberia marked on the map as being “The land formerly of illustrious women. In this lake...” In this lake, what? The nameless author leaves your imagination to supply the rest.

LOCATION: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Museum of Cardinal Stefano Borgia, Velletri
John Rylands Library, Manchester (copy)
Rome, Biblioteca Apostilica Vaticana, Borgiano XVI (galerie)

Size: 63 cm diameter


Bagrow, Leo, History of Cartography, Figure 11.

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

George, Wilma, Animals and Maps, Figure 2.12.

Keane, John, Evolution of Geography (London, 1899), Figure between pp. 80 and 81.

Manoscritti Slavi Documenti e Carte Riguardanti la Storia Bulgara della Biblioteca Apostolica Vatacana e del’Archivio Segreto Vaticano (IX-XVII secolo), 1979, #24, Plate LVII, book jacket.

Miller, Konrad, Mappaemundi: Die ältesten Weltkarten, Volume III, 148 f.

Nordenskiöld, A.E., A Fifteenth Century Map of the World engraved on metal, 1891.

Harley J. B. and Woodward, David, The History of Cartography, Volume I, Figure 18.34 (cynocephali)


Almagia, Roberto, Monumenta Cartographica Vaticana, pp. 27-29.

Bagrow, Leo, History of Cartography, 71-72.

Crow, A., “Gog and Magog on mappaemundi and Early Printed World Maps: Orientalizing Ethnography in the Apocalyptic Tradition”.

Destombes, Marcel, ed., Mappemondes A.D. 1200-1500. Catalogue prépare par la Commission des Cartes Anciennes de l’Union Géographique Internationale, 53.1.

Dujcev, I., Manoscritti Slavi Documenti e Carte Riguardanti la Storia Bulgara della Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana e dell’Archivio Segreto Vaticano (IX-XVII Secolo)

Edson, Evelyn, The World Map, 1300-1492, pp.175-179.

George, Wilma, Animals and Maps, 23, 48-49, 103, 109, 186.

Heeren, A.H., Explicicatio Planiglobi Orbis terraum faciem exhibentis, ante Medium Seculum XV. Summa arte confecti; Musei Borgiani Velitris; printed in the Commentationes Societatis Regiae Scientiarum Gottingensis, vol. xvi, 1808, pp. 250-284. [an exposition of the map of the world, showing the face of the globe executed with consummate skill, before the middle of the 15th century. From the Borghese Museum, at Velletri].

Kamal, Youssouf, Monumenta cartographica Africae et Aegypti, 5:1493.

Kimble, G.H.T., Geography in the Middle Ages, pp. 108, 183.

Leithäuser, Joachim G., Mappae mundi, die geistige Eroberung der Welt, p. 143.

Lister, Raymond, Antique Maps and their Cartographers (Archon Books, 1970), p. 20.

Miller, Konrad, Mappaemundi: Die ältesten Weltkarten, 3:148.

Nordenskiöld, A.E. An Account of a Copy from the 15th Century Map of the World engraved on metal, Stockholm, 1891.

Wittkower, Rudolf, “Marvels of the East: A Study in the History of Monsters,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 5 (1942), note 6 on p. 194.

The Borgia Map, detail: Persian Gulf Southern Africa

Africa, Italy and Spain (South at the top)

The Borgia Map, detail: Asia, Russia, Scandinavia (South is at the top)

Borgia map detail: Asia

The Legends Appearing on the Borgia World Map:

The following translations/interpretations of the legends found on the Borgia map are taken from A.E. Nordenskiöld, An Account of a copy from the 15th century of a map of the world engraved on metal, which is preserved in Cardinal Stephan Borgia’s Museum at Velletri, Stockholm, 1891 (copied from “Ymer”, 1891). These were doubtless restored in uncertain cases according to the interpretation of Viscomte de Santarem, who, where variations occur, is probably more correct than Arnold Herman Heeren. It seems as if a palaeographist had copied the original itself for Santarem, while Heeren only had the “Apographon” at his disposal. The following illustration shows the place-names and legends on the Borgia map using the numbering system below:

1.Europe: The Third Part of the World.

2.This region is mountainous and uninhabitable on account of the excessive cold, because it is under the North Pole.

Scandinavian Peninsula:

3.The extreme part of Norway is uninhabitable on account of the excessive cold.

4. Here are bears, white falcons and such like

5.Gothia Magna.


6.Kingdom of Scotland.

7.Kingdom of England.

Between the Don & the Rhine:

8.Prussian Sea


10.Here are the confines of the Pagans and Christians, who are continually fighting with one another in Prussia









19.River Albia


21.The great river Don

22.Seven Christian camps in pagan forests.



25.The stag when pressed by dogs drinks water which it vomits upon them boiling.

26.Here cross the Bohemian Forests, which extend to the Pagans.


28.River Danube.


30.Buda [Budapest]




34.Ungaria [Hungary]

35.Viana. [Vienna]

36.These provinces are flat, and deserted on account of the fighting of the Pagans against the Christians.


38.Here dwell the Scythians or poor Tartars who through want sell their children and parents in the markets just as cattle amongst Christians.


40.Magna Valachia [Romania]


West of the Rhine:

42.River Rinus [Rhine]





47.Seina [Seine River]



50.Paris sine . . . pare bonitate et dominio sedet in . . . sitate planito et castelleto. … ania,



53.Spanish Sea.



56.King John of France was  taken prisoner here in battle by the Prince of Wales

57.Here in Alunnia in 432, Attila King of the Huns fought against the Romans and 180,000 were killed of both sides.


59.Lake Loxane


61.Here the mountains divide Italy from Almania and Gallia.

62.Crossing of Hannibal with 70 eliphants over the Rhone here in Ludanum,

Pyrenean Peninsula:

63.The Pyrenees


65.Here were slain the twelve Peers of France

66.River Eurus

67.Sancti Jacobi




71.Infidel Spain subjected to Christianity by Charles Great, after much fighting.






77.Italy, beautiful, fertile, brave and proud, where, futile, justice wants a single lord.




81.Paudus oriens in jmchro f.

82.Verona, Padua


84.Hannibal defeated the Romans here in the region of Papia.





89.The apostolic and imperial seat triumphed for seven years

90.Silo and Calabria

91.Battle of Cannæ in which Hannibal slew 44,000 Romans, and collected from the soldiers three modia (bushels) of golden rings.

92.Labor District.

93.Here reposes the body of the blessed Niccolay de Baro.






99.Here Hasdrubal was slain, with 43,000 Carthaginians

Balkan Peninsula:

100. Here the third monarchy of the world was acquired by Alexander.

101. Here was the great fight of Caesar and Pompey.

102. Here Rome lost the Commonwealth.

103. Thesalia

104. Athens the sole seat of learning of the world.

105. Constantinople

106. Greece in which Basac conquered the Christians 1395, of whom he beheaded many French nobles.

107. Burgaria.

108. Racosa.


109. Sicilia

110. Mediterranean

111. Cyprus

112. Sardinia

113. Rodus

114. Corsica

115. Candia

116. Majorca

117. Sinus Adriaticus


North Russia:

119. Here the body is put to be preserved by the cold.

120. This race considers itself sacred, and they make of themselves a sacrifice, placing a particular head on a pole by the hair, and then they adore it on their knees until it falls.

121. Albani Magna.

122. Here are dogs stronger than lions.

123. Ergauil

124. Ezma.

125. Hyperborean mountains, in which Griffins and tigers dwell.

126. Livonia

127. The land formerly of illustrious women. In this lake…

128. The great river Edilius.[Volga]

129. Sinopa conquered many kingdoms and vanquished Hercula. Pampedo and  Insipia subjugated Asia and Europe

130.  Pantisalea at Troy won many bathes and vanquished many Greeks.

131. Rostrama 

Between the Don and the Volga:

132. Rostaor

133. Here the Pagans Worship fire.

134. Torachi

135. Berchlina

136. Cifer.

137. Catania

138. Intania.

139. Palus Meotis

140. Enogaria

141. The seat of Iambec, Emperor of Mesia, borders upon the Hungarians

142. Here Tamaris, queen of the Scythians, slew Cyrus with 300,000

143. Mare Ponticum [Black Sea]

144. The Caspian Sea

145. The iron gates

East of the Volga:

146. Singin

147. Sugur

148. Iachion

149. Scitia Superior  Sebur State* *The town is marked east, the name west of the Volga. It will be Sibir

150. The great district of Tartary, which the Tartars traverse with their beasts of burden and cattle as long as there is grass.

151. They construct their towns of many tents and skin.

152. Here they burn the bodies with the implements belonging to them, and the faithful wives cause themselves to be burned along with their husbands.

153. Civics sop.

154. Desert

155. Lake Ysicol, upon which rested the body of the blessed Matthew.

156. Organti.

157. From Organti to Cathagium, camels go in four months.

158. From here to the ocean a land uninhabitable on account of cannibalism.

159. Mount Caucasus extends from here under many names to the East.

Eastern Asia:

160. Mare Yrcaneium

161. Magog, in these two are races big as giants, full of evil manner, Jews whom King Artaxor collected from all parts.

162. Province of Gog, in which the Jews were confined in the time of Artaxor, King of Persia.

163. The great river Ganges

164.Lower India in which is the City of Cathay, and the seat of the great Canis, Emperor of the Tartars

165. The State of Cambalec.

166. The distant Seres collecting silk from the trees.

Southern Asia:

167. Paradise.

168. Upper India, in which is the body of he blessed Thomas. Many Christian Kingdoms. Here are an infinite number of precious amber stones, Here also are huge men having horns four feet long, and there are serpents also of such magnitude, that they can eat an ox whole.

169. The river Indus, where there elephants, gold and precious stones innumerable, and no one wants for gold ornaments.

170. Here Alexander vanquished Darius with fifteen thousand men in three battles.

171. Babylon, the first monarchy of the world.

172. Baldachia, the seat the Caliph.

173. Trees preserved where Alexander and his soldiers were.

174. Tarsis

175. Tauris

176. Niniveh, three days’ journey in length

177. Persian Sea

178. Trapobana.

179. The Indian Sea in which are seven thousand islands.

Mesopotamia, Arabian and Syria:

180. Babel, where seventy-two languages were invented

181. Calder

182. Desert of Arabia

183. Mesopotamia.

184. Mecha.

185. The Euphrates & Tigris Rivers

186. Arabia or Sabea, in which there is balsams frankincense, myrr, cinnamon, and aloes.

187. Mount Sinai, where was given the law of Moses.

188. Crossing of the Children of Israel

189. Damascus.

190. Holy Land.

191. Syria.

192. Mount Libanus


194. Capadocia

195. Trapesanda

196.  Mountain of Armenia There is Noah’s Ark

197. Savastra, where Tanburlan vanquished Basac of 800,000 men slew 2,000

198. Cilicia

199. Pamfilia

200. Here the Greeks, with the help of a part of the world during ten years, fought against the Trojans and the other part of the world, by whom by… they destroyed, from which Trojans were made many kingdoms and dominions.


202. Egypt

203. Alexandria

204. Phoenix, the sole most beautiful and solitary bird in the world, burns itself in an aromatic fire, and in three days is recreated from its ashes.

205. The desert of Egypt, in which are many wild animals.

206. Many Saracen pilgrims come here to Mecca on account of their Prophet

North of Mount Atlas:

207. Lory

208. Lybia

209. The fountain of the sun, boiling at night and tepid in the morning

210. Petaolis

211. Tripolis

212. Colometa

213. Getulia.

214. The second monarchy, which in the time of Hannibal greatly harassed the Romans, and was then totally destroyed by them under Scipio

215. Tremili

216. Septa

217. In these mountains are many princes and kings and they dwell continually in tents, and fight against the Sarecens. There are also many strongholds and states beyond.

218. Passage into the Land of the Negroes

Middle and Southern Africa:

219. Hyfuret.

220. Tagaza

221. Teget

222. Fudaur

223. Tagost

224. The golden river here eight leagues broad.

225. Tocoror

226. Ganugia.

227. The sea, or land, of sand, in which the way is found as at sea, and the people travel under cover lest the wind and sand should destroy them on the way.

228. Organa

229. Tagaza

230. Nubia or the Saracens.

231. Mare Missa believed to be the Source of the Nile.

232. Here reigns Musameli, very rich on account of the gold which is found in this river.

233. Here the Ethiopians Christians begin to appear very poor.

234. Mountains of the Moon, 7 brothers

235. Here women hairy and very savage bring forth without males

236. Abinichibel is king of the Ethiopian Saracens, with his people having the face of a dog, and they go naked on account of the heat of the sun.

237. Ethiopian Sea

238. Here rules King Piger

239. Nubia of the Chnstians, the seat of Prester John, whose empire extends from the mouth of the Gandis to the river of gold.

240. The great river Nile.

241. The part of the earth beneath the torrid zone uninhabitable on account of the excessive heat of the sun.

242. Here are golden mountains, in which are vast deserts inhabited by innumerable snakes.

243. The province of Offir.

English translations of the 243 legends

1797 print of the Borgia Map plates, American Museum in Britain, 1988.94