TITLE: The Genoese Map

DATE:  1457

AUTHOR:  unknown

DESCRIPTION: With the develop-ment of Portuguese seafaring in the 15th century and the subsequent widening if the southern horizon, the problem of ‘harmonizing’ or reconciling the traditional world views laid down by Pliny, Ptolemy, Aristotle and Ambrose with that of the new discoveries 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 (#246), the Walsperger world map (#245) and this Genoese world map, all of approximately the same date, ca. 1450.  According to G.H.T. Kimble, there are at least three distinct influences, in addition to the portolan [nautical] chart tradition, that can be detected in these examples: Classical, Christian and Arab.  Of these only the Arab influence is strong, while it is improbable that the Classical influence was direct.  In the Genoese Planisphere, the portolan chart serves as the pattern for the Mediterranean region, but elsewhere it is the Ptolemaic tradition which is most drawn from in terms of the delineation of basic elements.  Practically all the features of the Sahara are similar to their territorial relationships and outlines to those on a Ptolemy manuscript of 1400 in the Laurentian Library at Florence.  The same influence, though not the same slavish adherence, is apparent to the south of the Sahara, where the author places a great gulf, containing an island and a legend, now barely visible, which reads: Preter tolemei tradicionem hic est guffus sed pomponius eum tradit cun eius insula [Contrary to the opinion of Ptolemy, this is a gulf, but Pomponius [Mela] speaks of it with its islands].  Or again, in another rubric:

Beyond the equinoctial line Ptolemy records an unknown land, but Pomponius [Mela] and many others as well raise a doubt whether a voyage is possible from this place to India; [nevertheless] they say that many have passed through these parts from India to Spain . . . especially Pomponius in his last chapter.

This rather refreshing disposition towards agnosticism is exemplified again in the configuration of South Africa.  Here the author does not follow the Alexandrine scholar in attributing to it an eastern prolongation, but contents himself with rounding it off in the conventional way, namely, in the form of a half moon.  The division of geographical loyalties at this period is further illustrated in the placing, side-by-side, of the Nile sources, located in the Montes Lunæ, after Ptolemy, and this typically medieval legend: Some have represented the Paradise of Delights in this region, while others have said that it is beyond the Indies to the East . . .

Also typical of maps of the period, the anonymously compiled Genoese map is covered with legends in Latin, castellated towns representing major population centers, princes on their thrones, and loxodromes from the portolan tradition. It is very carefully drawn, particularly the outline of the Mediterranean.  However this map is unusual on several counts from its contemporary medieval world maps.  First is the unusual almond-shape compared to the more common round, disc-shaped and oval world maps of the period.  Second is the fact that it is oriented with North at the top, a convention taken for granted today, but exceptional for the medieval period when East was the most popular, followed by the South (especially among the Arabs).  Third, it has a scale, each division of which represents 100 miles.  The title is rather difficult to decipher and recalls the Walsperger map (#245); an approximate translation is: This is the true description of the world of the cosmographers, accommodated to the marine [chart], from which frivolous tales have been removed.

The elliptical frame is unusual for this period, but it appears to have no great significance. The outline, particularly in Asia, is largely Ptolemaic. After the Alexandrian, the second main authority for the eastern portion is Nicolo Conti, the Venetian traveler, who reached the East Indian islands and perhaps southern China, returned to Italy in 1439 and whose narrative was written down by Poggio Bracciolini shortly after 1447.

The details from Conti’s narrative make a considerable showing: e.g., the large lake in India between Indus and Ganges of a marvellous sauerie and pleasaunt water to drink, and all those that dwell there about drink of it, and also farre off . . . the island Xilana [Ceylon/Sri Lanka] to the east of the peninsula; the great city Biznigaria, representing the Vijayanagar kingdom of southern India, which occurs in most late 15th century accounts, but here sadly misplaced near the Ganges; the details of the nature of the Ganges delta; the addition of Scyamutha [Sumatra] as an alternative name for Taprobana. The name Sine, for China, was also probably taken from Conti. Longer legends take material from Conti on the funeral practice of wife burning (“if they refuse out of fear, they are forced to do it”), the cultivation of pepper, the collection of human heads in Sumatra, the sea-tight compartments of Chinese junks, the practice of tattooing, and the availability of spices and multicolored parrots.

But it is perhaps in respect to the islands of the southeast that the map is of greatest interest. In the extreme east are two large islands, Java major and Java minor, and to the southeast two smaller islands Sanday et Bandam. All these are taken from the Conti narrative: Java major is thought to be Borneo, and Java minor the island now known by that name. Though the names Sanday and Bandam have not been satisfactorily explained, the reference in the legend to spices and cloves makes it fairly certain that they are islands of the Moluccas group. If this is so, this is the first time that the much sought after spice islands appear clearly on a map. Conti describes them as lying on the extreme edge of the known world: beyond them navigation was difficult or impossible owing to contrary winds. In the southern sea there is a note: In this sea, they navigate by the southern pole (star), the northern having disappeared. This also is taken straight from Conti.

The Genoese map abandons the northeastern quarter of Asia to the apocalyptic peoples: surrounded by impassible mountains and in the north and east by the ocean is a large territory in which are placed trees and fortresses. In this enormous prison, labeled Scythia ultra Ymaum montem [Scythia beyond Mount Ymaus], is the word MAGOG in large letters (perhaps in Ezekiel’s sense as a country?). D. Wuttke (Karten der seefahrenden Volker) provides a transcription of the captions in the margins and in the figure. The relevant ones here read (in the west): “From this people, that is from the tribe of Dan, Antichrist or [...] will be born, who, opening up these mountains by means of nefarious arts [...] will come to the mountain chain that encloses them”; in the north-west: “Up to here live the ten enclosed tribes of the Hebrew race.” In the southwest corner is a tower and a wall, underneath which is the caption “The iron gates where Alexander enclosed the Tartars”. The Jews and the Tatars are in the foreground here. Magog (Gog is missing), the Tatars, the Ten Lost Tribes, the Antichrist and the Alexander story are mixed as though they naturally belonged in the same place - as they by then did, at least in the literature and exegesis directed to the literate but not learned.

In addition to the usual medieval depiction of the mythical Gog and Magog the Genoese map also contains a large number of drawings of zoological interest.  Elephant, camel, lion, monkeys, giraffe, dragon, and crocodile appear in the Ethiopian region; griffon or black vulture, leopard, ox and polar bear appear in the Palearctic regions; and snake and storks appear in the Oriental region.  This was the first time an accurate giraffe had be drawn on a map in Africa, although camelopardalis had appeared much earlier in the same area in the Ebstorf map (#224).  Camelopardalis, however, was only a giraffe by name, being a four-clawed spotted animal with normally a short neck.  Giraffes had been known and drawn accurately at least as far back as the third century B.C.

The main African interest lies in the fact that, as a departure from Ptolemy’s conception, the Indian Ocean, as is also shown on the Vesconte, Bianco, the Catalan-Estense, Leardo and Fra Mauro’s maps (#228, #241, #246, #242, and #249), is not landlocked, and, significantly, the southern extremity of Africa does not run away eastwards, as on the Catalan-Estense map.  At first sight, it is not clear that Africa is completely surrounded by the ocean, but closer examination shows that the blue of the ocean and the red on the land have faded, and that a definite coastline had been originally drawn in. This detail would be encouraging to anyone who wanted to promote the exploration of a new sea route to the Indies. 

This map has attracted attention by the claim of S. Crino that the famous chart which Toscanelli sent to the King of Portugal in 1474 (#252), and later but less certainly to Columbus, was a copy of it. Crino claimed that it is of Florentine, not Genoese, origin; that the style of writing and certain other features definitely indicate that it was drawn by Toscanelli; and that it agrees closely with the letter sent to Portugal with the copy, so closely in fact that the letter is merely a commentary upon it. All these arguments, and many more, have been warmly, even acrimoniously, contested. Without an expert and minute palaeographical investigation, it is impossible either to accept or reject the attribution to Toscanelli, but Crino presented a case which requires further examination. On the question, of main interest here, as to the correspondence between the letter of 1474 and the map of 1457, it is possible, however, to form some opinion. The main objection to Crino’s thesis, according to G. R. Crone, is that the letter definitely refers to a chart for navigation, while the 1457 map is primarily a world map drawn by a cosmographer. Further, the Toscanelli chart presumably depicted the ocean intervening between the west coast of Europe and the ‘beginning of the East’. On the map of 1457, this ocean is split into two, and falls on the eastern and western margins. Though Crino raised many points of interest, he did not establish his case beyond reasonable doubt. Biasutti argued that the horizontal and vertical lines on the map are parallels and meridians taken from the world map of Ptolemy, and that the longitudinal extent of the old world approximately corresponds to his figure of 180 degrees. It is difficult to see, therefore, if this map of 1457 was similar to that sent to Portugal, where its importance lay, for this information was accessible to all inquirers. The interest of the cartographer seems more probably to have lain in Conti’s description of the oriental spice islands and the possibility of reaching them by circumnavigating Africa. His work is clearly related, though not closely, to the great map of Far Mauro, his contemporary.

A Genoese flag in the upper northwest corner of the map establishes this map’s origin, along with the coat of arms of the Spinolas, a prominent Genoese mercantile family. Oddly, there is no city view of Genoa [Janua], while Venice is represented by an impressive set of buildings. The map was made not for practical use but for display, probably in the library of the Spinola family.

A text on the map states its purpose: “Hec est vera cosmographorum cum marino accordata de[scri]cio quorundam frivolis narracionibus reiectis 1457” [This is a true description in agreement with Marinos, having rejected the frivolous tales of certain cosmographers: 1457]. Much scholarly ink has been spilled over the meaning of this caption, particularly cum Marino. It has been read to refer to Marino Sanudo’s map, to the knowledge of sailors (though ungrammatically), and to Marinos of Tyre. In support of the last idea, it is noteworthy that the map appears to extend 225° by 87°, the extent of the habitable world, according to him. What we now know about Marinos is mostly from Ptolemy’s criticism of him, but the Arab geographer al-Ma’sudi reported in the 10th century that he had seen Marinos’ geographical treatise. Gaetano Ferro suggests that the map copyist left out the word charta before marino (still ungrammatical), which would make the inscription read: “This is the true description according to the marine chart, having rejected the frivolous tales of certain cosmographers.” Certainly, the map tries to pull together not only the medieval tradition (however frivolous) but also Ptolemaic geography and the world of the nautical charts.

The abandonment of the circular form enabled the cartographer to show features that were increasingly squeezed on 15th century mappaemundi. Jerusalem does not appear in the center of the map but is considerably to the west of a center located south of the Caspian Sea. The highly pictorial character of this well-preserved map leads us to think of it as more traditional than it actually is. Oversized crowned or turbaned kings, monstrous and simply exotic animals, an elephant bearing an elaborate howdah, and scary sea monsters associate with more scientific signs, such as flags and city symbols. Inscriptions on the map, as well as recently discovered geographical features, however, proclaim the map to be a document of cartographic thinking similar, if not as large and ambitious, to that of Fra Mauro (#249).

The oval form is not unknown among medieval maps. Hugh of Saint Victor had described the world as being the shape of Noah’s Ark, and Ranulf Higden world maps were oval (#232). A standard way of describing the earth, from Bede to the Catalan Atlas (#235), was to compare it to an egg. The main purpose of the analogy seems to have been to describe the various spheres surrounding the earth (egg white, shell), but the idea of an egg shape could have been derived from these works. Another possibility is that the oval form represents the mandorla, or nimbus, which surrounded Christ in many medieval works of art. In the 14th century didactic poem, “Il Dittamondo” Fazio degli Uberti, described the inhabited world as long and narrow (“lungo e stretto”) like an almond (mandorla), with no apparent religious significance. Ptolemy’s maps, while not exactly oval, were wider from east to west than they were high (north to south). For a 15th century mapmaker, this form made convenient room for discoveries in the Atlantic and in Asia. By the end of the century, the circular form was becoming impractical, and once the Americas were added to world maps, it was gone almost completely.

Ptolemy is cited by name in several inscriptions, and there is evidence of his influence in the representation of Africa (Ethiopia, the source of the Nile), an enclosed Caspian Sea (Mar de Sara), the southern coast of Asia, and the Golden Chersonese, not named but identified by a legend noting that it is particularly rich in gold and precious stones.

Paradise does not appear on the map, and an inscription in southeastern Africa tells us why: “In this region some depict the earthly paradise. Others say it is beyond the Indias to the east. But since this is a description of the cosmographers, who make no mention of it, it is omitted from this narration.” Who are the cosmographers, who also appeared in the caption cited above but in a more negative context? The reference seems to be to the geographers of the classical world. The title of Ptolemy’s work, as it circulated through Italy in the 15th century, was usually given as Cosmographia rather than Geography, a less familiar Greek term. Certainly, neither Ptolemy, Pomponius Mela, nor Pliny had given a location for Paradise, save for fantasies about the Fortunate Islands, and the Genoese mapmaker appears to associate classical with scientific geography.

Of course, the cosmographers had no objection to monsters - even Ptolemy mentions a few, although he did not put them on his maps. It is interesting that the maker of the Genoese map mentions peculiar customs (cannibalism, people who have no names) but no “monstrous races,” that is, people with aberrant physical characteristics, other than the pygmies. On the other hand, he is happy to include pictures of bizarre animals. In the Indian Ocean are shown a mermaid and a fish with a devil’s head, while on land nearby is a snake with a human head. In northern Asia is a very large griffin, while a couple of dragons appear in Ethiopia. These fantastic creatures join other wonderful but real animals, such as a giraffe, a leopard, a crocodile, two monkeys, and a swordfish.

Some standard features of medieval mappaemundi are also present. Gog and Magog are enclosed in northeast Asia, Noah’s Ark rests on a mountain range in Armenia, and the Red Sea is red, though there is no text about the passage of the Israelites through its waters. We can also find Mount Sinai, and the tomb of Saint Thomas in India. Prester John is represented behind a wall, protecting him from the future rampages of Gog and Magog. As we might expect from a Genoese map, good use has been made of the nautical chart as well. The Mediterranean, Black, and Atlantic coasts reflect the forms. A partially finished network of rhumb lines appears on the map, and on the right are two scale bars, though they are more a sign of intention than reality.

    Although its cartographer explicitly disapproved of fantastic narratives in a legend in the Atlantic (frivolis narracionibus rejectis), Chet Van Duzer points out that the richly decorated map contains a number of fantastic illustrations, and the legends, many of which come from the travel narrative of Niccole de’ Conti (c.1395-1469), do not shy away from fantastic subjects. This attractive map has four prominent sea monsters in the Indian Ocean, which ocean thus remains a venue for exotic wonders. There are three monsters in the western and central part of the ocean: a composite porcus marinus or sea hog (a pig with a fish’s tail) off the eastern coast of Africa, which the legend compares to a terrestrial hog (This animal, called the sea hog, gathers its food with its snout like the land hog); a siren which is unaccompanied by a legend; and a fish with a human face and a large spiky red crest on its head, which the legend explains is a serra. This monster is said to attack the ships of the Indians, usually breaking them immediately, but its crest can get stuck in the ship's wood and as a result the creature, unable to escape, kills itself.

In the eastern Indian Ocean there is an imposing creature with a humanoid head and upper body, but with large horns and ears and wing-like red membranes joining its outstretched arms to its torso, and a fish-like tail. The legend says that the creature sprang out of the water and attacked some cows pasturing on the shore, and then was captured and mounted and exhibited in Venice and elsewhere. Angelo Cattaneo has identified the source of this legend as Chapter 18 of Pero Tafur’s Andancas e viajes de Pero Tafur por diversas partes del mundo avidos, written c. 1453-54. Van Duzer adds that Tafur’s account derives from Poggio Bracciolini’s Facetiae, written between 1438 and 1452, which describes a very similar monster that attacked some women by the seashore, and was killed and exhibited in Ferrara.

Illustrations of the monster which are very similar to that on the 1457 Genoese map accompany excerpts from the Facetiae which are appended to various 15th and 16th century editions of Aesop’s fables. One such edition is Sebastian Brant’s Esopi appologi sive mythologi cum quibusdam carminum et fabularum additionibus (Basel: Jacobus de Phortzheim, 1501), in which Bracciolini’s text about the monster is cited and accompanied by an illustration of the monster quite similar to that on the 1457 Genoese map. The Genoese map’s sea monsters reflect the cartographer’s interest in exotic wonders, which is everywhere in evidence on the map, and typical of the scientific outlook of the early modern period, which was driven by curiosity and took a great interest in marvels. The demon-like monster in particular is evidence of the cartographer’s research in recent travel literature to find sea monsters for his map.

The Genoese map became the center of controversy in the 1940s when the Italian scholar Sebastiano Crino, suggested that this was a copy of the map that Paolo Toscanelli sent to the Portuguese court in 1474, touting the possibility of a sea route to India via the Atlantic. The evidence is purely circumstantial, though the map would have been more encouraging to anyone hoping to circumnavigate Africa, and Crino’s thesis has had no other advocates.

A sea monster illustrating a passage from Bracciolini's Facetiae—the ultimate source of the demon-like sea monster on the Genoese world map of 1457—in Sebastian Brant’s 1501 edition of Aesop’s Fables. (British Library, 86.k.1, p. 243).

LOCATION: Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Florence, Italy, Port. 1


Bagrow, Leo, History of Cartography, Plate D.

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

George, Wilma, Animals and Maps (University of California Press, 1968), Figure 2.8.

Hahn-Woernle, Brigit (ed.), Die Ebstorfer Weltkarte (Ebstorf: Kloster Ebstorf, 1987), Figure 23.

Randles, W.G.L., De la terre plate au globe terrestre. Une mutation épistémologique rapide (1480-1520) (Paris: Librairie Armand Colin, 1980), Plate 7.

Reproductions of details:

Harley J. B. and Woodward, David, The History of Cartography, Volume I, Figure 18.23.


Bagrow, Leo, History of Cartography, p. 72.

Bricker, C., Landmarks in Mapmaking, p. 115.

Crone, G.R., Maps and Their Makers, pp. 51-54.

Destombes, Marcel, ed., Mappemondes A.D. 1200-1500. Catalogue prépare par la Commission des Cartes Anciennes de l’Union Géographique Internationale, 52.13.

Edson, E., The World Map 1300-1492, pp. 191-197; 228-229, Fig. 7.7

George, Wilma, Animals and Maps, pp. 46, 48, 49, 161, 186, 207.

Hahn-Woernle, Brigit (ed.), Die Ebstorfer Weltkarte.

Harley J. B. and Woodward, David, The History of Cartography, Volume I, Figure 18.23.

Kamal, Youssouf, Monumenta cartographica Africae et Aegypti, 5:1495.

Kimble, G.H.T., Geography in the Middle Ages, pp. 196-197.

Lister, Raymond, Antique Maps and their Cartographers, pp. 21, 38.

Scafi, A., Mapping Paradise, p. 229

Skelton, R.A., The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation, pp. 113, 127, 131-34.

Van Duzer, C., Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps, pp.55-57, Figure 32.