TITLE: Catalan-Estense World Map

DATE:  1450-1460

AUTHOR: unknown

DESCRIPTION: Catalan world map in the Biblioteca Estense, (C.G.A.1) has no author or date. It is circular, on a sheet of vellum with a blue border and is very well preserved. Although the catalogue of that library gives a greater size, Kretschmer’s figures of 1157.5 mm (east to west) by 1140 mm (north to south) (451/2 x 44/ 7/8 in.) are nearer the mark. Seas are mostly in blue or green, rivers in blue, mountains in green or brown. The map belonged to the collection of the Dukes of Ferrara, who since 1452 had also been Dukes of Modena and Reggio. Many of them had collections in more than one place and the Estense library is very rich in their collections of different periods. The map was taken there in 1598 by Cesare d’Este who was the illegitimate son of Duke Alfonso I.

To the extent that it is based on the portolan [nautical] chart tradition, there are rhumb-lines (thirty-two out of each of sixteen centers) and two unlabeled scales; also the map features shields and flags over Europe and kings in tents elsewhere. However, the equator is drawn in and named three times. The map aims at covering all the lands of the Old World, but including the whole of Africa. The central point is not Jerusalem but near the abode of the mythical Christian king Prester John [Presta Iohan], placed in Nubia between the two branches of the Nile. The abandonment of Jerusalem as a central point is found on several other European mappaemundi of the 14th and 15th centuries. Africa, to which the cartographer’s attention was clearly directed as new discoveries were incorporated, is enlarged, crosses the equator, and reaches a southern coast. Asia is largely confined to the northern hemisphere. The Atlantic occupies a larger space than is usual.

The language of the fifty-two legends, apart from the one in Latin on the Canaries, is Catalan. A Latin cosmography with very similar wording exists in Genoa University Library Codex B.1.36. Textually comparable are the legends on the Catalan map at the Central National Library, Florence Port. 16, to be dated after 1416. There are also linguistic and topographical similarities with a fragment of a Catalan world map in the Topkapu Sarav Library, Istanbul. As these Catalan maps developed, some of them aimed at including the latest information available from European navigators and compilers. This offers clues to historians of cartography as to approximate dates.

The oldest of the portolan charts to survive are of Italian origin, made at Genoa and Pisa; those dating from the latter half of the 14th century are mainly Catalan. But the typical Catalan map is not strictly speaking a portolan chart. It is more than that; for while the latter is essentially a sailing guide concerned with coastwise navigation, the Catalan map is really a world map built up around the portolan chart. It is true that in some cases the term ‘world’ connotes simply the habitable, or known earth as conceived by the author, nevertheless, in others, as the Catalan-Estense map, it is interpreted to include lands not yet discovered, but only posited. This aggravated the cartographer’s task very considerably for it meant that he was continually being faced with the problem of choosing between scanty and often poorly substantiated fact on the one hand, and plausible and often well-attested theory on the other. It is a tribute to the integrity of these men that their work contains so much that subsequent investigation has proved true.  In fact it is this careful sifting of evidence that constitutes one of the chief merits of the Catalan school of cartography, in an age when intellectual honesty was none too common. The value of the Catalan maps, as commentaries upon the state of contemporary knowledge at once becomes apparent and we are hardly surprised to find that the Catalan Atlas of 1375 (#235) has the finest delineation of Asia Europe had seen up to that time, or that, in its knowledge of Cathay [China] and the Sudan, the same map is surpassed in the Middle Ages only by the 1459 Fra Mauro map (#249).

Scarcely less valuable and certainly more interesting for the student of geographical theory, are the Catalan speculations concerning the unexplored territories of the earth. Unlike many medieval scholars the draftsmen of Majorca showed a praiseworthy restraint in this respect. Thus we may look almost in vain for those fanciful creatures with which the cosmographers of that age filled their empty continents. At the same time, these men saw nothing strange about a belief in the Terrestrial Paradise, or in a hydrographical system stretching from sea to sea.  For the most part their speculations were of another kind, and usually they contained at least a partial truth.  For instance, Lacus Nili, the Pactolus of Strabo and the Palolus of later maps, which in the Catalan Atlas and subsequent works is located in the neighborhood of Timbuktu, may reasonably be identified with the flood region of the Niger River above that town. 

However, on one matter the mapmaker could hardly refrain from speculating, for this reason: land exploration had for a long time now outrun oceanic discovery, and so, concerning Africa, for example, much more was known of the Sudan by the end of the 14th century than was known of the oceanic fringe in the same latitudes. The earlier draftsmen insisted upon cutting the continent short just beyond the limit of coastal knowledge, that is, in the vicinity of Cape Bojador.  By so doing, however, they found themselves reducing the vast extent of the Sahara almost to a vanishing point.  Thus, in the Catalan Atlas of 1375 (#235), Sigilmesa and the Rio del Oro [i.e., the Senegal-Niger River system] are placed in closer proximity than Ceuta and Cape Non. Later draftsmen, in order to escape the embarrassment caused by indicating the great trans-Saharan caravan routes within these narrow limits, began to speculate on the course of the African coast, south of Bojador.  By general agreement it was made to tend south-south-east.  Speculation of this sort did at least have the merit of enabling the mapmaker to draw the Sahara with greater accuracy.  It should be noted that all of the Catalan maps, with the exception of this Catalan-Estense world map, which was the last of its line, stop short of their southern side in the latitude of Sierra Leone approximately, that is, where knowledge gave place to ignorance.

The shape of Africa on this map is unique, and it is much enlarged in relation to Europe and Asia. Below the Gulf of Guinea, which nearly cuts the continent in two, is a large crescent-shaped appendage extending to the east and forming a southern shore for the Indian Ocean. A thin canal across its narrow waist implies a passage between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The southern landmass, which may be intended for a separate continent, has no place-names or pictures, demonstrating remarkable restraint on the part of the artist.

Africa occupies most of the southern half of the map. The continent ends in a great arc, conforming to the circular frame of the map, and extending eastwards to form the southern boundary of the Indian Ocean. On the west, a long narrow gulf from the circumfluent ocean almost severs this southerly projection from northern Africa. The southern interior is blank save for the legend Africa begins at the river Nile in Egypt and ends at Gutzola in the west: it includes the whole land of Barbaria, and the land in the south. This outline and legend have been interpreted to imply some knowledge of the southern extremity of Africa, and perhaps of a practicable route from the west to the Indian Ocean.

That the great western gulf reflects some knowledge of the Gulf of Guinea is more probable. The design of the northern half of the continent in general resembles that of the other Catalan charts, but the northwestern coast embodies some details of contemporary Portuguese voyages as far as C. ude (Cape Verde) and C. groso.  From this evidence, the map is usually dated about 1450.  Near the gulf is the Mountains of the Moon, from which five rivers flow northwards to a lake on the western Nile.  This lake probably represents the area around the Upper Niger liable to inundation; Kimble has pointed out that these rivers may well represent the five main sources of the Niger. These Mountains of the Moon are stated to be on the Equator, and the streams are called the riu de lor. We may therefore assume that the headwaters of the Niger marked the approximate limit of contemporary knowledge in this region, and it is not improbable that reports of the sea to the south had been received. These may have induced the cartographer to accept the western gulf of Ptolemy, but to enlarge it considerably.  Again, the name Rio del Oro [River of Gold] recalls the inscription on the Catalan Atlas and the classical tradition. The portrayal of the interior thus goes back at least to 1375. Therefore, apart from a small portion of the coastline, the map owes nothing to Portuguese exploration.

Some surprise has been expressed that a map of 1450 should contain relatively up-to-date details coupled with antiquated ideas in other areas, and this has produced some rather involved explanations. Taking into consideration the lack of details and names in the southern regions of Africa, we may plausibly conjecture that, as an exception to the usual conservatism, the draftsman, in Africa at least, had removed all the detail for which he had no evidence, to obtain a framework on which to insert the latest Portuguese discoveries. It must remain debatable whether the outline of the southern extremity represents some knowledge of the Cape. The outline may be entirely imposed by the frame of the map: at the most, it may reflect the kind of report that we find on Fra Mauro’s map (#249).

The merit of the Catalan cartographers lay in the skill with which they employed the best contemporary sources to modify the traditional world picture, rarely proceeding further than the evidence warranted. In the same spirit they removed from the map most of the traditional fables which had been accepted for centuries, and preferred, for example, to omit the northern and southern regions entirely, or to leave southern Africa a blank rather than to fill it with the Anthropagi and other monsters which adorn so many medieval maps. Though drawings of men and animals still figure on their works they are in the main those for which there was some contemporary, or nearly contemporary, warrant; for example, Mansa Musa, the lord of Guinea, whose pilgrimage to Mecca created a sensation in 1324, or Olub bein, the ruler of the Tatars. In this spirit of critical realism, the Catalan cartographers of the 14th century threw off the bonds of tradition, and anticipated the achievements of the Renaissance.

In the case of the Catalan-Estense map, whose date was earlier conjectured to be 14th century, the determining area would appear to be the west coast of Africa. The map names Cape Verde, which was discovered by Dias in 1444 and whose first recorded mapping is by Andrea Bianco in 1448 (#241). The Cape Verde islands, which although discovered in 1444 also appear cartographically in Benincasa’s map of 1468, are not featured on the Catalan-Estense map. This coastline looks in the Modena map rather similar in its outline to Bianco’s 1448 chart. So that would suggest a date soon after for the Catalan-Estense map. Differences in ink and supposed linguistic variants caused earlier scholars to wonder if two different periods of composition were involved, but George Kimble (1934) pointed out that the handwriting had been judged the same throughout.

Further south, no discoveries are evident in the Gulf of Guinea later than a friar’s journey, ca. 1350, recorded in a book called Libro del conoscimiento de todos los reynos y tierras [Book of knowledge of all kingdoms and lands]. Nevertheless it is interesting that his islands Gropis and Quible reappear on the Catalan-Estense map in the west-east order of the friar’s navigation (the cartographer does not change the order to east-west as Kimble implies). Nor can we prove a date from the legend to a mountain near the same gulf, which may be translated as This mountain is called by the Saracens Mt Gibel Camar, which in our language means Mountain of the Moon; this mountain is on the equator. Five rivers are shown flowing north from it, one of them a river of gold, flowing through a lake not connected with the Nile. This river of gold is different from the Riu del Or reported in the Catalan Atlas of 1375 (#235) as having been discovered in 1346; that is an inlet in the former Spanish protectorate of Rio de Oro. A Mons Lune [Mountain of the Moon] is also found by the Gulf of Guinea on the Medici Atlas (#233), whose world map is now thought to be 15th century. In the interior the Catalan-Estense map has the land of the King of Melli said, as on the Paris and Florence maps, to be rich in gold, to which the Modena map adds that it is poor in salt, which comes to be worth its weight in gold. Both salt and gold in West Africa are mentioned by al-Idrisi (1099-1164, #219, Book II).

A prominent feature of this map is the very long extension of the Gulf of Guinea eastwards, linked apparently by a river to the Indian Ocean, which is given a gulf south of the Horn of Africa. A waterway linking east and west Africa is reminiscent of the tradition going back to Crates of Mallos (168 BC, Book I, #113) and Macrobius (AD 400, Book II, #201), according to whom northern and southern Africa were separated near the equator by a body of water. South of the narrowest point, rather irrelevantly, is a legend which may be translated: Africa begins at the R. Nile in Egypt and ends at Gutzola [i.e. the land of the Gaetuli, near the Atlas Mountains] to the West; it encompasses all Barbary and the land of the South.” Gutzola is shown on the Moroccan coast just south of Safi. Near Cape Verde we are told, “At this cape is the end of the land of the west part of Africa. This line is at the equator on which the sun stays continually, making twelve hours of night and twelve of day.” Nearby is an island labeled Illa de eades: Here Hercules placed his two columns. So the Pillars of Hercules have slipped down the coast and will eventually disappear completely.

Africa contains half a dozen reigning monarchs, from Musamelli to Prester John, sitting in splendor in their royal tents. The mapmaker omits the usual array of monsters in Africa, and the only animal depicted is a camel with a rider, sedately proceeding along the caravan route to the sea. The Saharan cities that appeared on the Catalan Atlas also appear here; among them are Siguilmese, Tenduch, Tagort, Buda, and Melli.

It is likely that the southern extension reflects an Arab tradition. The continent widens out again enormously, and the peninsula presents a curved south coast roughly parallel to a surrounding sea. The eastern part of this peninsula resembles that of al-Idrisi.

The course of the Atlas Mountains is very similar to that on the Catalan Atlas of 1375, even including a curved northern prong in the central area. There is more detailed information on the interior than is usual on portolan charts. Clearly the pass in Morocco leads from Marrakesh to the Wadi Draa: the legend begins: This pass is called Dra valley and Sus valley; through this pass travel the merchants who want to go to Melli. A pass in the eastern part of the range is called a route of Islamic pilgrims, another piece of evidence of Arab sources. The eastern end of the Atlas range is extended too far east, ending in Cyrenaica.

Associated with this habit of speculation, was the practice of what G.H.T. Kimble calls ‘harmonizing’ established facts with long-held ‘traditions’; a practice which became very popular from the 14th century onwards.  The people who found pleasure in reconciling the views of such influential ancients as Pliny, Ptolemy, Aristotle and Ambrose were not easily disturbed by the challenge of the new school of practical cartography. On the contrary with real but heedless enthusiasm they set about the task of pouring the new wine into the old skins, an occupation offering more and more difficulties as exploration extended the known world. Not even the Catalan cartographers could avoid it. But as they were predisposed to eschew wild guesses and to be skeptical of travelers’ tales, their maps do not afford the best illustrations of this characteristic.  As a single example, at the beginning of the Catalan period the Rio del Oro [River of Gold], a heritage of classical geography, was made to debouch into the Atlantic immediately south of Cape Bojador. With the extension of trans-Saharan commerce in the 14th century, and, along with it the enlargement of geographical knowledge, the Rio del Oro was pushed, little by little, farther south until at length in the Catalan-Estense map it is located approximately in the latitude of the Senegal-Niger system, which no doubt, it is intended to represent. Prior to the mid-15th century, this harmonizing problem presented few serious obstacles. Maritime exploration had hardly begun to yield fruit while the land explorations of the Polo’s and their contemporaries had not yet produced a systematic revision of current ideas.  Where the results were found not to coincide with the ideas, as was of course usually the case, it was quite customary to find them being either distorted beyond recognition, or neglected altogether.  Thus in the geography of Abyssinia, Fra Mauro’s map (#249) weaves Polo’s narrative into Arab theory, and makes these together fit the topographical notions of Abyssinia which he obtained from first-hand sources.   Again, while professing knowledge of Polo’s Asiatic wanderings, Mauro does not even hint at the peninsular nature of South India, a fact that is implicit in Polo’s statements.

With the development of Portuguese seafaring in the 15th century and the subsequent widening if the southern horizon, the ‘harmonizing’ problem became increasingly acute.  Each mapmaker tackled it de novo, so that scarcely any two world maps of this period provided the same world-view.  Compare, for instance, this Catalan-Estense map, the Walsperger world map (#245) and the Genoese world map (#248), all of approximately the same date, ca. 1450.  According to Kimble, there are at least three distinct influences, in addition to the portolan chart tradition, that can be detected.  These influences are Classical, Christian and Arab.  Of these only the Arab influence is strong, while it is improbable that the Classical influence was direct.  Thus, in the case of the Catalan-Estense map, it owes nothing to the Ptolemaic tradition, and it is less likely that its author should have taken his idea of a southern continent direct from Crates, the originator of the concept (150 B.C., #113, Book I), than that he should have taken it from Arab or Christian cosmographers, such as Abu’l Fida or Isidore (#205, Book II), who revived it.  The influence of the medieval Christian tradition on the Catalan-Estense map is betrayed in such elements as the legend relating to Prester John and the portrayal of the Terrestrial Paradise.  There can be no mistaking the Arab influence.  We have only to compare the delineation of the southern half of Africa on the map with the description given by the 11th century writer, Al-Biruni (Book II, #214.3), of the shores of the Southern Ocean to be convinced of the kinship.  Thus, the Catalan-Estense map, although embellished with castellated towns, ships and portraits of African princes, attempts to furnish an up-to-date picture of the world and to resolve the ancient riddle of Africa nondum cognita [not yet identified].

The circular Catalan-Estense map, measuring 113 cm in diameter, is very colorful with a large number of princes shown throughout Africa (where Prester John has been placed), 52 legends, castellated towns for major settlements, loxodromes, ships, mermaids, domesticated reindeer and horses.   Although almost a hundred years later, it is clearly related to the pivotal Catalan Atlas of 1375 (#235). This resemblance in the content of the two maps strengthens the contention that the latter was derived from a circular prototype. The nomenclature and the numerous legends on the Catalan-Estense, mostly in Catalan with a few in corrupt Latin, are often very similar to those of the 1375 Atlas. In some instances the legends are more complete, in others they are less detailed; they suggest, therefore, not direct copying but possibly a common source. This similarity is also evident in the delineation of the main features, most of those in the 1375 Atlas are to be found on the Estense map.

The northern portions of Asia and Europe on the Estense map, which lay outside the limits of the Catalan Atlas, significantly, contain very little detail. On the southern coastline of Asia there are some differences, generally slight, between the two maps. The peninsula of India is much less pronounced on the Catalan-Estense map, and to the south is the large island of Salam or Silan [Ceylon/Sri Lanka] which also fell outside the physical limits of the Catalan Atlas. A legend refers to its wealth in rubies and other precious stones. There can be no doubt however that the two outlines are fundamentally identical. To the east is the island of Java, as on the Catalan Atlas. The island of Trapobana is much enlarged, and is placed on the southeastern margin of the map. The surrounding ocean, the Mar deles indies is filled with numerous nameless and featureless islands.

Recollections of medieval maps include the Earthly Paradise with Adam and Eve and the tree, here not in Mesopotamia but in Abyssinia, between the eastern branch of the Nile and the Red Sea, at a spring from which the four medieval rivers of Paradise flow. A legend of the Genoese world map of 1457 (#248) in the Central National Library of Florence (Port. 1) tells us that some have put Paradise in this part of Africa, while others have said it is beyond India. The Catalan-Estense map also gives a short caption on diamond mountains, said to be guardians of the Earthly Paradise. A legend on the island of Meroe on the White Nile claims this as the place where there is a deep well, on the bottom of which the sun shines; similar ones on the Pizigano map of 1367 (Parma) and the Florence Catalan map mentioned give the month when this happens as June.

In the hinterland of Asia the most prominent feature is the Caspian Sea, orientated northwest-southeast as in the Topkapu Siray fragment, but similar in shape to Ptolemy’s. Southern Asia, separated from Africa by a Red Sea colored red, has a flattened and too northerly coastline. The Persian Gulf is rectangular as in Ptolemy but does not narrow at the exit. A Chinese junk is shown nearby whose description and measurements are given in a legend. The northern coast of the Gulf continues east almost straight, the whole coast of India being much foreshortened. There is nothing corresponding to the Malay peninsula, only a gentle bend leading north-westwards to surrounding Ocean. What mountains are given are well north of the Himalayas or in China.

Of the many islands in the Indian Ocean the largest, to the southeast, has the shape of a rectangle surrounded by mountains with the legend, in translation: Island called Trapobana [sic], where there are wild mountains, in which live people very different from others: they are strong and as big as giants [1375 atlas: 12 cubits high, like giants], and are black, and if they capture any people from the mainland, they eat them... This refers not to Sri Lanka which appears as Silan (so is not the Ptolemy Taprobane) but to Sumatra, called by the Genoese world map of 1457 Taprobane and Ciamutera and by Fra Mauro Siomatra or Taprobana. The description of its alleged cannibals comes from Marco Polo (III,10), as does the similar description of Java, here named as Jana.

The account of China is also derived from Marco Polo, who mentions charts and gives occasional bearings, and from whose voyages the map that existed in 1459 in the Palace of the Doges, Venice, was drawn. The Catalan Atlas of 1375 is the earliest still surviving to incorporate material from Marco Polo’s text. The Catalan-Estense map not only incorporates no new material, but some omission and corruption have occurred. Thus the capital [Beijing] of Cathay is said to be Cambalec and to have had an ancient city called Garibalu nearby. What Marco Polo says (II.11) is that the capital was Camaluc and the earlier town across the river was Taidu; hence Garibalu is probably a corruption of Cambaluc. The circumference of the capital in Marco Polo is 24 miles, in the Catalan-Estense map 24 leagues. Despite this primitive cartographic approach to Asia, the evidence given above from West Africa seems conclusive on the dating.

To the generally good delineation of European coasts there are exceptions, especially in more northern areas. Britain, as in many medieval maps, is shown split in two, or almost so, by a stretch of water, which may or may not reach the east coast between Scardenburgh [Scarborough] and Bernie [Berwick]. One may wonder if this originated as a misunderstanding of Hadrian’s Wall or of a line of hills, for example the Cheviots. Of the northern islands, the furthest northwest is Islanda [Iceland], one of eight in an archipelago. Archana is clearly, by comparison with other maps, Orkney. But south of it is inssula [sic] destillant, whose inhabitants are said to be Norwegian-speaking Christians. This island is surely not a misplaced Estland [Estonia], as Kretschmer gives, but Shetland [Hjaltland], for which compare Ilia de Scillanda, near Archania, in the 1375 Catalan Atlas.

In the 14th century the Catalonia-Valencia-Majorca region was a flourishing center of trade and culture where Arab and Jewish elements blended with Christian culture. Countless maps by this cartographic school have survived, including the Estense world map featuring characteristics typical of portolans - rhumb lines, and flags and coats of arms to identify kingdoms and cities - but not obviously this map was made ​​as a navigation aid. It can be considered to be a paradigm of the artist’s technique, logical extensions of historical vision extending beyond the Mediterranean to the frontiers of the known world. The anonymous artist of the Estense world map combines details from literature of certain regions of the world with empirical facts about the Mediterranean area. As a result, details from the tales of Marco Polo, known centuries before, can be seen in the descriptive outline of China, with details about the Portuguese recent explorations of Cape Verde, circumnavigated for the first time in 1444 by Dias too.

The most curious characteristic geographic is the shape of Africa. On the edge of the Gulf of Guinea, a river or strait connects the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans and an enormous land mass emerge to fill the base of the map. Stylistically speaking, the most noteworthy characteristic of the Catalan school is the series of portraits of the lords of the desert in their tents, some of whom are actual sultans and others legendary figures. These are the earliest European maps to acknowledge and record the presence of Islamic power in the Mediterranean.

The Estense map also shows some significant deviation from contemporary mappamundi. As mentioned above, Jerusalem is not in the center and has no city vignette; it is simply marked San Sepulera and located on the River Jordan. Other than the coastal cities, only the Dead Sea (Mar Gomora), Judea, and the Jordan are mentioned.

The far north in Europe and Asia is more frightening than Africa, showing a naked giant pursuing a fox, a nine-headed idol being adored by two worshippers, and a strange hanging head, which appears on several other 15th century world maps. The Caspian Sea is enclosed, but there are two unlabeled gulfs in the northern ocean. China is pretty much the world of Marco Polo; the Great Khan is still ruling there. To the south the Indian Ocean is greatly enlarged and full of brightly colored islands, but only three are named: Silan, Trapobana, and Java. A Chinese junk, identified in a legend, sails through the water, menaced by three half-human figures: one part fish, one part bird, and one part horse. South Asia lacks a definite Indian peninsula and shows no trace of the Golden Chersonese.

The entire map has been shifted to the east in its circular frame, thus making more room in the Atlantic for its islands. The Azores, Canaries, and Madeira’s are shown. Next to the Canaries, a long Latin text, drawn from Isidore and the voyage of Saint Brendan, describes the Fortunate Islands of antique fame. Plato’s tale of Atlantis is recalled near an island labeled illa de gentils; it was once as large as all Africa but now, by the will of God, is covered with water. In the north is a group of colorful islands marked, These islands are called ‘islandes’, which may be a reference to Iceland. West of Ireland can be found the islands of Main and Brezill.

The combination of archaism and modernism is an outstanding characteristic of this map, and it is interesting to note that the cultured and humanistic Duke of Ferrara, Ercole d’Este, the owner of this map, also had in his library a copy of Ptolemy’s Geography, edited by Nicholas Germanus. As mentioned, no evidence of Ptolemy’s influence on this map can be discovered. The duke owned a copy of Mandeville’s Travels as well, which he must have treasured, as there survives a letter he wrote demanding its return from a borrower.

This map is of interest because of its eclectic identity. Circular in shape, with different religious and legendary motifs along with certain Arab influence, it retains the rigor of portolans. It has no titles, notes or dedications, clues to its intended use. Such a map implies several highly complex unknown factors as regards the level of realism aimed at by the artist. It is, for example, inconceivable that contemporary seafarers believed that a large expanse of land actually existed in the south of Africa. Or that the scientists of new Humanism believed that kings with dogs’ faces did exist. Or that theologians could accept that Paradise, which ceases to appear in Asia following Marco Polo’s travels, could be relocated to Ethiopia. It is also difficult to imagine that they believed that the laws of God and nature ceased to apply beyond the frontiers of Europe and that it was possible anything was there. It is more logical to think that this map depicts different levels of representation.

According to Chet Van Duzer, a legend that says that there are three types of sirens in the Indian Ocean on the Catalan Estense mappamundi. The three types of sirens are half-woman half-fish, half-woman half-bird, and half-woman half-horse, and all three types of sirens are depicted below. The half-woman half-fish siren holds a mirror, symbolically indicating beauty but also vanity. The sirens on the Catalan Estense mappamundi are of particular interest because they provide insight into the techniques for making sea monsters in a cartographic workshop. The wavy lines representing the water are discontinuous at a rectangle around each of the sirens, indicating that a blank space had been left for each creature, and that the sirens were painted by a different artist, no doubt a specialist in decorations such as sea monsters. The same discontinuity in the wavy lines is visible around the two ships on the map, and given the similarities between the faces of the sirens and those of some of the sovereigns painted in Africa, it is tempting to conclude that one specialist painted all of the more artistically sophisticated decorative elements on the map: the sirens, the ships, the sovereigns, and so on. The legends about sirens on the Catalan Estense mappamundi derive ultimately from the so-called Tuscan bestiary, perhaps by way of a Catalan bestiary.

LOCATION:   Biblioteca Estense, Modena, Italy


Bagrow, Leo, History of Cartography, Plate XLIII.

Destombes, Marcel, ed., Mappemondes A.D. 1200-1500. Catalogue prépare par la Commission des Cartes Anciennes de l’Union Géographique Internationale, Plate XXXIII, pp. 217-221.

Destombes, M., “Fragments of two Medieval world maps at the Topkapu Saray Library,” Imago Mundi 12 (1955), pp. 150-152.

Dilke O. A. W. and Dilke Margaret, “The Catalan World Map at Modena,” The Map Collector, Winter 1990, No. 53, Figure on p. 15.

Gasparrini Leporace, Tullia, Comune di Venezia. VII Centenariodella nascità di Marco Polo. Mostra ‘L’Asianella cartografia degli Occidentali’. Catalogo (Venezia: Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, 1954), Plate 6.

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Kimble, George H.T., Geography in the Middle Ages (London: Methuen, 1938), Plate IX, pp.113, 183, 194-7.

Kretschmer, Konrad C. Heinrich, “Die katalanische Weltkarte der Biblioteca Estense zu Modena,” Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin, Berlin, XXXII (1897), pp. 65-111, 191-218; (colored).

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Reproductions of details:

Crone, Gerald R., Maps and their Makers. An Introduction to the history of Cartography, 5th ed. (Dawson, Archon Books, 1978), pp. 18-19 and 22-23 (Cathay).

Dilke O. A. W. and Dilke Margaret, “The Catalan World Map at Modena,” The Map Collector, Winter 1990, No. 53, pp. 17-18 (North and Central Africa); p. 18 (two details: the earthly Paradise and the British Isles and surrounding areas).

Hermannsson, Halldor, The Cartography of Iceland, Plate IV (northwestern part).

Kammerer, Albert, La Mer Rouge, l’Abyssinie et l’Arabie depuisl’antiquité (Le Caire, 1929-52), 1935, vol. La Roncière, Charles de, La découverte de l’Afrique au moyen-age. Cartographes et explorateurs, 3 vols. (La Caire, 1925-1927), Volume I, Plate X (northwestern Africa).

Nansen, Fridtjof, In northern mists, 2 Volumes (London, 1911), Volume II, p. 231 (northwestern Europe) II, Plate CXXXV (southern half).


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Catalan-Estense: Africa, Indian Ocean

Catalan-Estense: The Early Paradise

Located near the territory of Prester John between Nubia and the city of Arin [Civitasarim], the latter prominently marked and centrally placed in the Horn of Africa, not far from the Indian Ocean in which six islands of various sixes and colors are depicted. Paradise is guarded by five high “Diamond Mountains” surmounted by flames. Within Paradise Adam and Eve are shown standing on either side of the Tree of Life. The single river originates in the middle of the Garden before flowing out of it into a lake, there after to separate into four streams. One legend, near Cape Verde, explains the equal duration of night and day at the equator and, another, close to Paradise, emphasizes that the delights of the Garden of Eden are incomparable with the features of any other earthly region

Catalan-Estense: Europe

Britain is divided by a double line north of Scarborough. The islands north of Scotland are “Inssula destillant” [Shetland] and “Insula darchana” [Orkney], “in which there are said to be six months of and six of continuous day.” Northwest of these is a group labeled

“islandes” of which the southernmost is called “Islands” [Iceland].

Catalan-Estense: Norther Asia, India, showing the giant chasing the fox (upper left), the Polo-like caravans, Caspian Sea and Sri Lanka