The Maps of the Nova Cosmographia

In the early 15th century, there was a scientific school in Austria centered around the Augustinian monastery of Klosterneuberg. Its denizens were especially interested in astronomy and geography and assembled a large collection of figures for latitude and longitude. They also discussed various ways of constructing maps and globes to scale. The surviving world maps most closely related to this school are that of Andreas Walsperger (#245), and the Zeltz (#251) and Bell maps, made between 1440 and 1470. The first two survive more or less intact, while the Bell map is a fragment, about 40 percent of the whole, showing Africa, the Mediterranean, southern Europe, and Asia Minor. In addition to these three maps, the scholar Dana Durand has reconstructed a map he calls the Nova Cosmographia from the extensive notes and tables in one of the monastery's manuscripts. The information was compiled by Brother Fredericus between 1447 and 1455; Durand believes that it was taken from a preexisting map. What is most interesting about this project is the conservatism of the world maps produced. It seems that the so-called Vienna-Klosterneuberg school, while theoretically interested in accurate measurement and placement, was not ready to abandon the more important features of the traditional medieval world map.

World maps from this school are circular and cover the eastern hemisphere from pole-to-pole rather than cutting off somewhere above the equator as most earlier mappaemundi do. They are oriented to the south, for reasons not made clear, yet paradise with its four rivers is still in the East. Jerusalem is in the center of the land mass, creating problems, as Fra Mauro (#249) noted, in not leaving enough space in Asia for the discoveries of the past two centuries. Africa curves around to the east, to form the southern shore of the Indian Ocean, in the style of Arabic maps and of many European maps since Sanudo. Monsters of the usual types abound, and these German mapmakers even added one of their own native species, trolls, found in the far north and prone to mischievous habits. The picturesque monsters account for most of the illustrations on the maps, although paradise on the Walsperger map is indicated by an elaborately turreted-castle. The Zeitz map has no pictures but carefully reproduces the descriptive text for about twenty monstrosities. The Bell map is the most heavily illustrated; in the surviving fragment, one sees numerous castles, a wind head wearing a stylish fifteenth-century cap, as well as a goat-headed man, a lion-headed one, and a figure with no head at all.

Ptolemy was an important name to the German school, but it seems as though his work was not very well understood. An inscription on all the maps reads, “Ptolemy placed the inhabited world as 180º from north to south.” Of course, Ptolemy did no such thing. His maps showed the world only as far as 16º south of the equator, and he opined that the rest was probably uninhabited or uninhabitable. The 180º on his maps was the measure of longitude from the Fortunate Islands to the east coast of China. The Walsperger map comes with a statement of purpose, announcing that it has been “made geometrically from the cosmography of Ptolemy proportionally according to longitude and latitude and the divisions of the climates.” Yet latitude and longitude do not appear on the map. Konrad Kretschmer, who discovered the Walsperger map back in the 1890’s, said with disgust, “Not a single line of the map is from Ptolemy!” This is not quite fair, as random features from Ptolemy appear, such as the “Aurea Kersonesus” [Golden Chersonese] in the Far East, an enclosed Caspian Sea - though a Caspian gulf is also retained - and the stone tower that marks the border with India. On the other hand, Heinrich Winter blames the pernicious influence of Ptolemy for the maps’ abandonment of the accurate geographic forms of the contemporary sea charts.

Nova Cosmographia, c. 1440

Reconstruction by Dana B. Durand from table of locations in Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, CLM 14583, fols- 236r-277v. The Vienna-Klosterneuberg Map Corpus [Leiden: E. S. Brill, 1952].

Durand has put North at the top of this map, although the other maps of this school are South-oriented. Paradise is at the East, and the Indian Ocean is open to the East, with Africa forming its southern coast. An oddity is that the British Isles are confused with the
Fortunate Islands (usually the Canaries) in the upper left. The radiating lines on the map were used to locate places according to a novel system of coordinates.

The Vienna-Klosterneuberg geographers developed a novel method of map construction based on the circle. Placing the foot of the compass on the center-point of their map (Jerusalem for a world map), they drew a circle which they divided into 360 degrees. Then they drew six diameters, also calibrated, dividing the circle into twelve sections. Rotating a calibrated strip of paper over their map, they tried to locate various points with precision, either by copying an accurate map or by using known distance measurements. Their coordinates for each place included a normal latitude figure, but the longitude was based on the rotating calibrated diameter. Each place receives a signa number, based on the pie section in which it is found, a gradus and minuta indicating its position within the section. The idea of organizing a map in this fashion had been the basis of Burchard of Mount Sion’s description of the holy land in the late 13th century, although it is not clear that he ever constructed such a map. Apparently, it was also suggested by the German mathematical genius Regiomontanus in a letter to his patron Cardinal Bessarion. Vestiges of the diameters can be seen on the Walsperger map (see #245), and Durand draws them on his reconstruction, based on the figures in Brother Fredericus’s chart.

The idea of scale was important to the mapmakers, even if they were not quite able to carry it off. In the Munich manuscript, a short treatise entitled “Instrumentum de distantiis,” asserts that the new map should enable its readers to take the most direct route from one region or city to another, and that he should be able to see the correct distances on the map “without any mental strain.” Walsperger echoes this intention, saying that if one wants to know how far it is from one place to another, one should place the foot of the compass at one point and extend the other foot to the desired goal. Then moving the open compass to the scale on the map, one should be able to tell how many German miles lie between them. Unfortunately, this hopeful text is a sham, and the map does not appear to be drawn to any scale at all. There are also numerous errors of location – the positions of cities are reversed and so on-that one hopes would-be travelers did not rely entirely on the map.

The Walsperger and Bell maps are placed within a cosmographical diagram showing the elements surrounding the earth (air and fire), the spheres of the planets, stars, angels, and primum mobile. Special emphasis is given to the signs of the zodiac and the twelve winds and their characteristics. Walsperger also included at the bottom of the map in the far north the lowest circle of all, Hell, in the, “belly of the earth.” The schema of the earth is also structured in referenceto the seven climates, from Meroë south of the equator to England in the north.

Of course, this arrangement does not include most of the southern hemisphere, much less the south pole, and a mysterious inscription in the text adapted by Durand indicates that this area is uninhabitable, due to the extreme heat. Walsperger agrees that it is uninhabitable but mentions instead the numerous monsters, animal and human, that live in the region.

The maps are in Latin, except for Durand's reconstruction, which he perversely presents in Bavarian dialect and orients to the north, probably for our convenience as all the maps in this group are south oriented. Many classical names are retained, such as the archaic islands of Crise, Argire, and Ophir in the Indian Ocean. In northern Europe, particularly in Germany, the mapmakers are more up-to-date, showing that they were willing, if not eager, to include modern data when they had it on hand. This area of the map is much richer in nomenclature than any other fifteenth-century world map. One does not have to go very far afield, though, before the names become problematic. On the Baltic coast, northeast of Riga, appears a series of names that sound Germanic enough (Globurg, Kneussen, Balenor) but that Durand believes to be sheer invention.

These maps share some unique features, showing their intimate connection. One of these is the island of Dicolzi in the far northeast. All we hear about this place is that it is unwanhaft [uninhabitable]. Another is the island of Jupiter located in the Atlantic near southern Africa. The maps’ inscriptions vary somewhat, but the idea is that no one ever dies on this island: “in qua nullus hominis moritur,” says Walsperger. The island of the immortals had a previous existence among the imagined islands of the Atlantic, but it was usually located in the north and sometimes was attached to Ireland. It appears on the Dulcert chart of 1559 and on the Catalan Atlas (#235), with the added detail that no woman can give birth on this island. Here the phenomenon is rationalized; when people get old or sick, they are quietly taken off the island to die elsewhere, and women in labor also are removed to maintain the island's reputation. As for Jupiter, Kretschmer opines that it might be an error for Junonia, the island of Juno, which, according to Pliny, was one of the Fortunate Islands. The many ideal features of the Fortunate Islands, which Isidore says were believed to be the site of an earthly paradise, make it not unlikely that immortality could be added to their attractions. The Fortunate Islands themselves are confused with the British Isles in the Nova Cosmographia, while the island of Jupiter is placed off the West African coast.

A curious inscription is found on Zandala or Sandala, an island in the Indian Ocean. This island, we learn, was once under the rule of King Kandabor and was believed to be paradise. The source for this bit of information is John Mandeville, who retold the story of the Old Man of the Mountain, who created a paradise for his assassins-in-training, complete with compliant virgins. The stronghold of the Assassins, a sect of the Shiite Muslims, was established around 1090 in Iran, south of the Caspian Sea, and was destroyed by the Mongol army in the mid-13th century. Mandeville, following Odoric, transplanted this kingdom from the Middle East to a vague location in India near the kingdom of Prester John, also on the map. This “false paradise" must have had a compelling urge to move closer to the ‘real’ paradise.”

The configuration of Asia on the maps of the Nova Cosmographia is unusual: East Asia is almost completely cut off from the rest of the continent by a deeply indented gulf on the north, the Sea of Serpents, and another gulf, Ptolemy's Sinus Magnus, reaching north from the Indian Ocean. This continental fragment is not only the location of the genuine earthly paradise but also accommodates a host of other fantastic peoples and places, such as dragon-fighting giants, gold-digging ants, bearded women, the trees of the sun and the moon, and the kingdom of Prester John. Walsperger adds Mount Vans, home of an astronomical observatory where the three kings first sighted the Star of Bethlehem before setting off on their journey. Nearby in the Indian Ocean is the island where one of the kings, Caspar, lived. Brother Fredericus puts instructions in his chart to aid the mapmaker, including descriptions of how the monsters should be drawn and such directions as “turn here” or “sharp corner.” For the island of Taprobana, he writes, “Make it as broad as you wish with the paint, yet not completely covering the sea.”

Note on the Lindworm: A wingless dragon of Northern Europe, from Swedish ‘lind’ (flexible body) and ‘orm’ (serpent), the same legend found on the Walsperger map (#245)

Both Asia and Africa show a number of place-names that appear to be imaginary, along with others that are well attested. In Africa, for example, the names along the coast would be familiar from any sea chart, but around the lake in the center of the continent, which is the source of the Nile, the only recognizable names are Algol, Altair, and Vega, which seem to have wandered in from a star chart. Several river names are taken from Greek gods, such as Iris and Eolus. Durand suggests that the cosmographer “was afraid of blank spaces on the map” and filled it with made-up names.

We do not know the context in which these maps were produced, with one exception. The Zeitz map (see #251) was made for a Ptolemaic atlas, as one of the “tabulae modernae.” The atlas includes the usual run of regional maps, plus a more straightforward Ptolemaic world map. The Walsperger map was for a long time bound with Pietro Veseonte’s atlas in the Vatican Library, but this seems to have been merely a convenient place to store it. The Bell map is the largest and most elaborately decorated of the three, twenty inches in diameter, but it survives only in part, and we have no idea of its context. Durand’s reconstruction of the ur-map follows the text in a geographical manuscript, but it is not clear that the map itself was ever made in the 15th century, although Durand believes that it was. If it did exist, it may have been a separate item, thus vulnerable to the disappearance and destruction to which single-sheet maps are prone.

Compared to Catalan and Italian world maps, the geographic productions of the Vienna-Klosterneuberg school show little influence from the sea charts, as far as geographical forms are concerned, although Walsperger claims to have used them. In addition to his claims to have drawn on the work of Ptolemy, he boasts in his caption that the map is based on “a true and complete chart of the navigation of the seas”. Place-names along the Mediterranean and Black Sea coasts are similar to those on sea charts, but the shapes of these bodies of water are only roughly recognizable. The Sea of Azov appears twice, once adjacent to the Black Sea, or “Mare La Taniorum” [Sea of Tana], and once far to the north, connected by the river Don and labeled Palus Meotidis. Durand suggests that the mapmaker has conflated Meroe in Egypt, which he has transformed from an island into a lake, and the Meotide swamps of the Sea of Azov. These two lakes make a satisfyingly symmetrical pattern on the map. There is also a table of coordinates in the manuscript for a Schyfkarte, or sea chart, which Durand obligingly reconstructs. The radiating lines and the use of coordinates based on them are somewhat reminiscent of the marine charts, but it is von den Brincken’s opinion that sea charts were not known in Germany at this time. Certainly, the cartographers at Klosterneuberg had at least a textual portolan, if not a chart, but the world map makes only limited use of it. Outside the limits of the chart they were forced to improvise: for example, no Italian sea chart from this period shows the coast of the Baltic in any detail.

A refinement of Walsperger’s map is the red dot placed by each city controlled by Christians; pagan-ruled sites get a black dot. Eastern Asia is, interestingly enough, all red dots except for Zandala, the fake paradise. Red dots predominate in Europe up to the river Don but occasionally appear elsewhere. There is one lone red dot on the West African coast, but there is no place-name given-could this be a relic of the Portuguese voyages? Another red dot is found on Taprobana and the island where Saint Thomas is thought to be buried, and another marks the stone tower on the narrow land bridge to East Asia. Reality is recognized in the holy land, where all dots are black, and Russian orthodoxy is apparently considered beyond the pale, as all places in Russia are also marked with black. This feature is reminiscent of the sea charts, which found it useful to put religiously keyed symbols or flags on the various ports. It was better for sailors not to meet with any surprises.

Durand attributes the peculiarities of the maps of this school to “he characteristic mental processes of late medieval scholarship: the mixture of criticism and credulity, tradition and innovation, scientific intention and wanton fantasy.” According to medieval map historian Evelyn Edson such a judgment is too facile, for there are many more accurate and thoughtful late medieval maps than the Nova Cosmographia, and one would hesitate to attribute any apparently serious cartographic enterprise to “wanton fantasy.” It was, in fact, very difficult to reconcile the various strands of geographical information, as we have seen in Fra Mauro's sophisticated debateon his world map (see #249). The contrast between his skeptical treatment of monsters, however, and the Vienna-Klosterrieuberg school's wholehearted acceptance of dozens of these is striking. Edson also states that we cannot escape the perception that we are looking at a backwater school of geography, the same people who would have provided an appreciative audience for the travels of Johannes Witte von Hesse, who sailed “around the world” in the late-14th century, visiting paradise, purgatory, the kingdom of Prester John, and the grave of the miracle-working Saint Thomas.

The cartographers of the Vienna-Klosterneuberg school are interesting because of their brave attempts to establish mapping on a more scientific basis, and they were more successful in constructing a regional map of Germany. These landlocked Germans were plainly intending to do for land travel what the chart makers had done for travel by sea. When it came to the world map, however, not only was their data faulty but their need to present the world in its usual format-with its many traditional features, from paradise to cannibals - won out over potential reform. The Nova Cosmographia is thus the old cosmography, despite its manifestos and good intentions.

Durand, Dana Benett, The Vienna-Klosterneuburg map corpus of the fifteenth century (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1952), Plate XV (original size).