TITLE:  Martellus’ World Maps

DATE:  1489-1490

AUTHOR:  Henricus Martellus [Germanus]

DESCRIPTION: Henricus Martellus was the one mapmaker who linked the late medieval cartography, just emerging from social, religious, academic and technological constraints, to mapping that reflected the Renaissance and the new discoveries. Little is known of this important German cartographer, probably from Nuremberg, who worked in Italy from 1480 to 1496 and produced a number of important manuscript maps.  Martellus’s world delineation, drawn in Florence and circulated by an engraved version prepared by Francesco Rosselli, helped to change the face of the world.  It is believed that one copy of a Martellus map found its way to Nuremberg and inspired Martin Behaim to make his famous globe of 1492 (#258).  Another copy may have reached Christopher Columbus in Spain. These maps depicted graphically the theory that Cipangu [Japan] was but 3,500 miles (5,635 kilometers) westward, and only 1,500 miles (2,415 kilometers) further lay the shores of Cathay [China]. Columbus thus had documentary support for his beliefs about oceanic distances from his readings of earlier cosmographers, Cardinal D’Ailly (#238) and Paolo Toscanelli (#252). This provided him with the ammunition to further promote his plan to sail west to reach the Indies.

The map was constructed on the projection of Claudius Ptolemy, the second century A.D. classical Greek scholar (Book I, #119). Ptolemy’s geographical writings, largely unknown to Western Europeans during the earlier Christian Middle Ages in Europe, became the basis for the Renaissance in geography. The Martellus delineation included some Ptolemaic dogma in its continental contours and projection but significantly modified and improved upon the ancient model with regards to its contents.  Apparently Martellus was the first person to employ Ptolemy’s procedures for constructing his “second projection” (a.k.a. a modified spherical, homeoteric, pseudo-cordiform projection) that used curved meridians and parallels.  Ptolemy’s Geography was first translated into Latin and became widely distributed throughout Europe beginning in the early 15th century. The splendid manuscript of Martellus preserved in the National Library at Florence contains thirteen tabulæ modernæ, but is probably later than the earliest printed editions of Ptolemy’s Geography.  However, Martellus revised the Ptolemaic world map based on Marco Polo’s information on Asia, and he incorporated the recent Portuguese voyages to Africa. His is the earliest known existing European map to show the African continent as described by Bartholomew Diaz who rounded the Cape of Good Hope on his voyage of 1487-88.  In the example of Martellus from the British Library the Mediterranean, Western Europe and the west cost of Africa all derive from portolan [nautical] charts, extended to take in the recent discoveries.  This map also expanded Ptolemy with some additions to the outline of Scandinavia.

No one at that time had any knowledge of the true position and outlines of East Asia, yet the representation of East Asia is identical on both the Martellus maps and the Behaim globe. One was obviously copied from the other for in each the coasts were hypothetical (i.e., invented), unless they had both copied from a common prototype which first revealed such hypothetical coasts. There are, however, important differences between these two cartographic works. The medieval scholar G.H.T. Kimble demonstrated that, as far as 13° South, the nomenclature of West African coasts is 80% identical in the two maps but bears no relation to the nomenclature of any other map of the period. South of that limit, however, the Martellus map gives the outlines and nomenclature of the voyage of Bartholomew Diaz in 1487-88, while the Behaim globe has invented nomenclature corresponding to nothing in Portuguese cartography. The correspondence between the Behaim globe and the 1489 Martellus map consequently ended in 1485, when Diego Cão had returned from his first voyage after reaching 13° south (Cape Santa Maria  in the Congo, 1482-1484). This was the time when Martin Behaim, as a member of the King John’s mathematical junta, was able to study the map and proposals of Columbus.  On the 1489 Martellus map there is an inscription next to the Congo that mentions the commemorative stone (Padrão) that Cão erected at Cape Negro during his second voyage (1485-87) when he reached as far as Cape Cross.

The 1489 British Library Martellus Map

The 1489 Martellus map extends from the Canaries to the east coast of China. No meridians, parallels or scales of longitude are given, but estimates based on measurements of the map indicate about 230° from Lisbon to the coast of China, or 240° from the Canaries. These agree with the distances on the Behaim globe. The coast of Cathay is approximately 130° West of Lisbon on the Martellus map, on the Behaim globe and in the Columbus-Toscanelli concept. The minor differences in location between these three must be seen against the enormous exaggeration of the extent of Eurasia which they exhibit in comparison with all previous estimates. The Catalan Atlas of 1375 (#235) made it 116° east from the Canaries to the coast of China; the Genoese map of 1457 (#248) made it 136°; and the Fra Mauro map of 1459 (#249), about 125°.  It is actually 141° from the Canaries to Shanghai. 

Outline of the 1489 British Library Martellus world map

Who had most to gain from such a reckless exaggeration of the extent of Eurasia and who was the first to do so? Columbus, surely. His entire hopes of gaining support from King John in 1485 for such an enterprise as sailing westward to Cathay rested on his argument that it lay only 130° to 140° to the west. The Behaim globe and the Martellus map seem designed to plead the same cause. But Henricus Martellus had no such ambition or motive. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he copied a map which was originally designed to support the ideas of Columbus. Yet that map could not have been completed until early in 1489 for it had complete details of the discoveries of Bartholomew Diaz in his voyage of 1487-88, when he circumnavigated the Cape of Good Hope (capo d’ esperanza) and reached the Indian Ocean. He returned from this voyage in December 1488 and, within a year, full details, including rich nomenclature, had appeared on the map of Martellus made in Italy; this despite the utmost secrecy on the part of King John of Portugal. The furthest point reached by Diaz, the Rio de Infante [the great Fish River], is duly recorded as ilha de fonti. Even today, the best source for information on the voyage of Diaz is the Martellus map of 1489. The policy of secrecy of King John was shattered in one great leakage by someone in a unique position to know all the details.

Other features of the Martellus map indicate an origin in Lisbon. The representation of East Asia, from the Arctic to 35° South of the equator is new; it extends far to the east of the Ptolemaic limit of 180°; its nomenclature is completely new and based on Marco Polo. A manuscript copy of Polo and his travels was given by the Doge of Venice to Prince Pedro in 1427 and was thereafter in the King’s Treasury in Lisbon. Copious marginal notes, in the handwriting of Bartholomew and his older brother Christopher, are found in the Admiral’s copy of the printed book of Marco Polo published at Louvain between 1485 and 1490.

The Arctic coasts on the Martellus map and those of north and northwest Europe resemble those of the Fra Mauro planisphere of 1459 (#249) rather than those of the Ulm Ptolemy of 1482. From Normandy to Sierra Leone the coasts seem to be based on Portuguese discoveries. In the Martellus map the influence the Fra Mauro map is pronounced. The coasts charted by Diaz have been fitted into the circular outline of the world of the Fra Mauro hemisphere, representing such a marked trend to the southeast that the Cape of Good Hope seems to be due south of the Persian Gulf, whereas it is due south of the Adriatic. The Indian Ocean is open to the south, as in the Fra Mauro planisphere. Due south of the Malay peninsula, at 28° South, there appears an enormous peninsula which widens and turns north to join China again with the largely circular concept of the Fra Mauro map.  This peninsula does not exist in fact, and seems to be a repeat of the Donus Nicolaus map of the world in the Ulm Ptolemy, cut away by the circular outline of Fra Mauro. The Fra Mauro map was made at Murano, near Venice. It was commissioned for King Alfonso V of Portugal and was in Lisbon from 1459 on. Someone with access to it and to the reports of Bartholomew Diaz, drew the prototype of the Martellus map. Two peculiar features in the region of South Africa suggest that Bartholomew Columbus was that someone.

First, by 1486 the mathe-matical junta had solved the problem of establishing latitude by measuring the height of the mid-day sun. The actual latitude of the Cape of Good Hope is 34° 22’ south based on land measurements by Diaz, who landed three times on the south coast. Measurements of altitudinal height of the sun by astrolabe or quadrant were accurate on land but could be 2° or more out on the rolling deck of a ship. Yet the Martellus map shows South Africa extending across the frame of the map to 45° south. The only other claim that the Cape was at 45 degrees south is in the hand of Bartholomew Columbus.

In the volume of Imago Mundi, found amongst the possessions of Christopher Columbus after his death, there are numerous notes or postils written in the margins or below the printed matter. No. 23 is in the handwriting of Bartholomew, and was identified as his by Bishop Bartolomeo de Las Casas, who knew him well.  Arthur Davies has made a long study of the writing of the Columbus brothers and states, without a shadow of doubt that it is in the hand of Bartholomew. It reads, in translation:

Note that in the year ‘88 in the month of December arrived in Lisbon Bartholomew Diaz, Captain of three caravels which the Most Serene King of Portugal had sent to try out the land in Guinea. He reported to the same Most Serene King that he had sailed beyond Yan 600 leagues, namely 450 to the south and 250 to the north, up to a promontory which he called Cabo de Boa Esperanza [Cape of Good Hope] which we believe to be in Abyssinia. He says that in this place he found by the astrolabe that he was 45° below the equator and that this place is 3,100 leagues distant from Lisbon [19,850 km]. He has described this voyage and plotted it league by league on a marine chart in order to place it under the eyes of the Most Serene King himself. I was present in all of this.

Bartholomew was present when Diaz reported to King John. It indicates that he was high in the confidence of the King as an expert cartographer, otherwise he would not have been present at such a secret occasion. It shows that he had the task of adding new discoveries to a Portuguese world map. He alone maintain-ed that Africa reached to 45° south, as on the Martellus map.

Secondly, no one in Lisbon knew of this 45° assertion. It was done probably in Seville after he joined his brother, entering the postil in Imago Mundi and altering his prototype map at the same time. Two unusual features of the Martellus map reveal this late alteration:

(a) Africa has been extended to 45° south only by showing it as breaking through the frame of the map. It seems that the prototype originally showed the Cape at 35° south, well clear of the frame at about 41° south, as one would expect of a competent cartographer.

(b) The second peculiarity is a legend off the east coast of Africa which reads: ultima navigatio Portug. A.D. 1489. This dates the legend as 1489, probably in January of that year, just before Bartholomew went to Seville. This legend has baffled scholars. On the face of it, seeing it on the Martellus map, it asserts that Diaz had proceeded north along the cast coast of South Africa to beyond Natal.  His furthest point, in fact, was the Rio de Infante [Great Fish River] on the south coast, at 34° south. The legend is also at 33° to 34° south. It appears to be north of Natal only because Africa is shown as extending to 45° south. According to the historian Arthur Davies, this is conclusive evidence that the prototype originally terminated at 35°, with the legend correctly placed near it. When Bartholomew altered the prototype map to 45° south, he was unable to remove the legend.

What purpose was served by extending Africa to 45° south? It was not to influence King John, who knew that the Cape was at 34.5° south. It was to influence the Catholic Sovereigns who were in the dark owing to the intense secrecy by Portugal regarding discovery. This suggests that the alteration was made in Seville. It suited Columbus admirably and it is likely that Bartholomew made the change at his direction. Columbus hoped Spain would support a voyage westward to Cipangu, 85° away, and to Cathay 130° to the west. At that latitude one degree was thought to be 50 miles (80 km), according to the Toscanelli letter, so that Japan was only 4,250 miles (7,200 km) west. To reach India around Africa would involve sailing north-to-south for 39+45=84 degrees, each of 67 miles (108 km); then north to India, another 45+15 degrees; together with 83° of eastering (Lisbon to Mangalore). All told such a voyage to India would total 227 degrees or 15,000 miles (24,000 km). The extra ten degrees in shifting the Cape to 45° south meant more than twenty degrees extra distance in a voyage to India. Moreover, and perhaps this was the decisive factor, it would take Portuguese ships to nearly 50° south to round Africa, into what Diaz had already found to be the roughest seas encountered anywhere in the world.  Bartholomew, in 1512, gave evidence in the Pleitos (the great lawsuit of the Columbus family versus the Crown of Spain) and declared that he had gone about with his brother in Spain helping to gain support for his enterprise. His prototype map would have been a powerful argument.

Another peculiar feature of the Martellus map is the enormous peninsula commencing due south of Aureus Chersonesus [the Malay peninsula] at 28° south, thereafter widening to reach China. It is a relic of the continuous coastline that linked Southeast Asia to South Africa in Ptolemaic world maps that displayed a land-locked Indian Ocean, and it needs a name to identify it in argument. It bears a rough resemblance to the hind leg and huge paw of a tiger which is facing west. Arthur Davies, in his discussion of this map refers to it as the Tiger-leg peninsula; in others it is referred to as Catigara.  It did not exist in fact but, on the prototype map of Bartholomew and on the Martellus map, it served an important purpose. It seems to render impossible voyages of Arab ships or Chinese junks between Sri Lanka/Ceylon and China. Although the Columbus brothers knew that Marco Polo had returned from China by this sea route, they inserted this great obstruction of Tiger-leg by 1485. It would show King John that even if the Portuguese reached India they could not reach the Spice Islands (which were on the equator east of Tiger-leg) without having to make long voyages into the southern stormy seas. For King John and for the Catholic Sovereigns it showed that Spain could easily reach Cathay and then the Spice Islands, secure from all interference from Arabs or Portuguese in the Indian Ocean.  Columbus may have deceived himself regarding the existence of the Tiger-leg but, since it suited his plans so admirably, one suspects that he asserted its existence just as he later made the Cape of Good Hope to be at 45° south.

It has become clear to some cartographic scholars that South America was represented as a huge peninsula of southeastern Asia on many world maps of the 16th century, from the Zorzi sketches of 1506 to the Livio Sanuto map of 1574.  Some have called this peninsula The Dragon’s or Tiger’s Tail, probably in relation to the Chinese Dragon.  Of the representations, the best known are the double cordiform map by Orontius Finaeus (1531), Schöner’s globe (1533), Vopelius’ globe (1542) and the world maps by Giacomo Gastaldi 1562 and by Francesco Basso 1571 (see Book IV of these monographs).  On all of them, the positioning of names such as America, Brasil, Peru, Castilla del Oro or Tierra de Papagallos is evidence that this Asiatic peninsula is South America, beyond any possibility of doubt. The cartography of such maps is very poor: for instance, on the maps of Hieronymo Girava 1556, Johann Honter 1561, Giacomo Gastaldi 1562 and Francesco Basso 1571, the Rio Amazonas has its source in Patagonia and flows from south to north.

It is not so well known that this very same peninsula existed already under the name of India Meridionalis on earlier maps, drawn before the arrival in the western hemisphere of Christopher Columbus. This is the India that Columbus was looking for, because it was marked in the right place on his maps. Examples of such maps are those made in Florence and Rome in 1489 by Henricus Martellus. The best preserved copy is in the British Library and there is also a poorer copy in the University of Leiden.  Martin of Bohemia [Behaim] (#258) made his globe on the same pattern, but he added much erroneous information.  These maps and the first mentioned group of cartographic documents differ only in two respects:

1. In the post-Columbian series, the isthmus of Panama is represented with its true width, because it had been heard of by Columbus and other explorers from the aborigines; in the pre-Columbian series, the union of the peninsula with Asia is much broader, because nobody had exact information about it.

2. The pre-Magellanic maps have South America extending only to some degrees South; on post-Magellanic maps the land extends to 53 degrees South.

The common element of both series is the general form of the sub-continent.

However, the Martellus maps show a very good representation of the South American hydrographic system, including all the great rivers in the sub-continent. On these pre-Columbian maps, the drainage net is much better drawn than on any other representation made before 1850. In a former publication, Paul Gallez identified on those maps the Magdalena River in Columbia; the Orinoco-Meta in Venezuela; the Amazon, the Tocantins and San Francisco Rivers in Brazil; the Parana and the Paraguay; the Colorado, Negro and Chubut in Patagonia (the Chubut is omitted on the Leiden copy); and even the Rio Grande river in Tierra del Fuego.

A deeper study of the same maps has made possible the identification of several capes on the Atlantic coast, the swamps of the Rio Negro in Brazil, and Lake Titicaca. So Gallez believes that the deep and sound European knowledge of South America before its exploration by Columbus and his Spanish and Portuguese challengers has been firmly established.  Therefore he has established the criterion for identifying the Dragon’s or Tiger’s Tail. 

There is no record of any voyage made by Europeans to South America before Columbus. Proto-historians tell of many possible but not proven voyages by Portuguese navigators towards America; but most of these voyages, told in detail by James Cortesão, went from the Azores westward; the land they thought they had seen could be the Antilles or even the Central American mainland. There is no record extant of anyone reporting that they had seen any land or island south of the equator, nor did anybody pretend to have explored the inner part of a trans-Atlantic continent and to have mapped its rivers.

There was thus no known pre-Columbian historical exploration of South America by the European nations. But the detail of its hydrographic features mapped by Martellus in 1489 is a fact, even if this fact remains historically unexplained. We may thus believe that this knowledge already existed before Martellus, and we should look at older maps in search of the sources that he could have had at his disposal.

The earlier maps extant include the so-called mappaemundi drawn by medieval churchmen in Western Christendom.  Very few historians of cartography have paid attention to the delineation of areas other than of Europe and Africa; and none of them has commented about the existence of the Dragon’s Tail, and those who have seen it, have dismissed it as ‘a nonexistent peninsula’ due to the ‘fancy’ of the mapmaker. Gallez believes that the non-recognition of the sphericity of the earth on these mappaemundi was a definitive hindrance, because in such a flat and circular world, there seems to be no place for a large and protruding peninsula like the Dragon’s Tail/Tiger-leg.

In order to detect this peninsula on pre-Martellus maps, we needed an identifying criterion. Gallez found that the southeastern Asiatic sequence should be taken as that criterion. On most maps made between Martellus in 1489 and Sebastian Munster in 1532, we find in the same order from West to East:

            (a) India intra Gangem = India Cisgangeoca = Hindustan.

            (b) Sinus Cangeocus = Gaggetikos Kolpos = Bay of Bengal.

            (c) Aureus Chersonesus = Chryse Chersonesos = Golden Peninsula

                  = Peninsula of Malacca.

(d) Sinus Magnus = Megas Kolpos = Pacific Ocean.

             (e)  India Meridionalis = Dragon’s Tail/Tiger-leg = South America.

If we find the same sequence on earlier maps, we will admit that, by comparison with the Martellus map, the elements of the sequence are identifying themselves reciprocally, i.e., that each peninsula or bay is identified by its relative position in the sequence. In this way we have identified the Dragon’s Tail on three maps drawn between 1440 and 1470.

The following is a theory expressed by Paul Gallez regarding the depiction of South America prior to Columbus’ voyages. The east coast of South America (?) is a part of the circular limit of the world disc. On its northern sector, i.e. in the Far East of the map, Paradise is represented as a medieval castle with six towers. This is the place where Venezuela is situated. When Columbus arrived there in his third trip, he saw the mouth of the Orinoco. No wonder that, having regard to his maps, he concluded that this river flowed from Paradise.

In the southernmost part of South America (?), there are the words, next to a strait: Hic sunt gigantes pugnantes cum draconious [Here live some giants who fight against the dragons]. This southernmost part of the American mainland is Patagonia. The giants are, of course, the Tewelche, the well-known Patagonian giants. Considering that in 1489 Martellus knew about the inner courses of many South American rivers, we have no reason to doubt that, forty years earlier, Andreas Walsperger (#245) knew of the Patagonians.

Traditionally, the so-called Legend of the Patagonian Giants is attributed to Antonio Pigafetta, the chronicler of Magellan’s voyage. As cultured persons, both Pigafetta and Magellan would have seen such maps as Walsperger’s or others of the same family, and they would surely have taken aboard some copies of them. They thus knew that, following their maps, they would have to sail to the south along the coast of the Dragon’s Tail until they reached the Land of Giants, and that at the end of that land, they would find a passage to the West, to the Sinus Magnus, and thus a way to the Moluccas. The meeting with the Tewelche in Saint Julian was the full confirmation, for Magellan and Pigafetta, of what they already knew from their maps.

The Dragon’s Tail/Tiger-leg must have formed part of the map and the proposals that Columbus made to King John of Portugal in 1485, for it was embodied in Portuguese cartography thereafter for half a century. It was in the prototype drawn by Bartholomew, copied by Martellus in 1489. The Behaim globe has placed it 30° south. The Laon globe (#259), made in France about 1493 (probably by Bartholomew Columbus when he served Anne, Regent of France) has the Tiger-leg to 40° south. It is shown to more than 25° south in the Cantino map of 1502 (Book IV, #306), Canerio map of 1504 (Book IV, #307), the Waldseemüller maps of 1507, 1513 (Book IV, #310) and many others. If purposeful, was one of the boldest and cleverest concepts of the Admiral. Shown below is detail from the 1489 Martellus map of the Indian Ocean and the Dragon’s Tail/Tiger-leg concept.

This Martellus world map is utterly without the amount of adornment typical of earlier maps of this period, i.e., princes, castles, animals, etc. (the only remnants are some castellated towns in Asia).  The mountains are shown using a standardized symbol colored in brown, the oceans and rivers are painted blue, the forests of Scandinavia are singled out with symbolic tress in green and there is very little labeling of land areas except along the northern and western coast of Africa where there is an inordinate number of places identified compared to the remainder of the world’s land areas.

Martellus World Map, 1489, 108x190 cm British Library, Add MS. 15760, fols. 68~69r,

London, England; 47 x 30 cm/18.8”x12”

The 1490 Yale Martellus Map

The largest of the Martellus world maps is at Yale University (43” x 76”). Long in the possession of a family from Lucca, it went to Austria in the 19th century and was bought for Yale in 1961. It shows a great deal more ocean to the east of Asia with several large islands in it, including Japan in the far northeast. It also has the islands of Madagascar and Zanzibar off the coast of Africa. The map is surrounded by a dozen puffing classical wind heads, and for the first time in a non-Ptolemaic map, there is a latitude and longitude scale on the side. Of course, this is mostly symbolic, as neither Henricus Martellus nor anyone else had a complete set of accurate coordinates.

In 1963, Alexander O. Vietor, then Map Curator of Yale University, reported a gift by an anonymous donor ‘in the form of a magnificent painted world map signed by Henricus Martellus, approximately six feet by four feet (180 x 120 cm). Signora Carla Marzoli of Milan, in a private communication, stated that this large map ‘had left Italy into the possession of family centuries ago and had been lodged in a Swiss bank for safety, for a long time.’ In 1959, through trade channels, she learned that this map was for sale. She examined it and saw its connection with the Martellus map in the British Library and with the conceptions of Columbus. At her request, Roberto Almagia and Raleigh Skelton examined it and pronounced it authentic. She bought it and sold it to the donor, who gave it to Yale. Scholars all over the world owe her and the donor a great debt of gratitude. The fact that the map had been put away in a Swiss bank for perhaps 60 years explains why it went unobserved. Vietor, who described it as extraordinary for size and precision of execution, went on to state:

‘It is painted in what seems to be tempera over a base of paper in sheets of different sizes, the whole backed up with a large framed canvas, much in the manner of a painting, and drawn, as the illustration shows, in the  Waldseemüller world map of 1507. It has graduations of latitude and of longitude in the margins, the first instance of longitudes being shown on a map . . . On this map Cipangu is placed 90 degrees from the Canaries.’

The east-west extent from the Canaries to the coast of China is about 235°, which agrees with the Toscanelli-Columbus concept and with the 1489 Martellus map now in the British Library. The two maps are nearly identical but there are two major differences. The ‘Yale’ map has Cipangu in the ocean 30° east of Cathay.  It extends from 7° north to 31° north of the equator. Its shape, outline and position are identical with the representation of Cipangu on the Behaim globe. The Martellus map in the British Library is less than 20 inches (50 cm) from west to east, and is on a scale one-quarter that of the Yale map. Its size was governed by the two folios of the codex [or collection] on which it is drawn. To have included Cipangu would have required a scale reduced one-sixth, too small to permit of legible nomenclature. The second major difference is that, while the coasts from Normandy to Sierra Leone, on the Yale map, are based on the world map of Donus Nicolaus of 1482, the corresponding coasts on the British Library Martellus uses a Portuguese map for them. Nevertheless, the Cape of Good Hope is at 45° south on the Yale Martellus map, the Tiger-leg extends to 33° South, and Africa breaks through the frame of the map in both. One map has been copied from the other, at one-quarter the scale. The Yale map was the original, or prototype, and was the joint product, according to Davies, of the Columbus brothers.  As such, it is of enormous value, academic and financial.

The sheets of paper on which the Yale map is drawn are of different sizes, which excluded the possibility that they were printed map sheets, for they would then have had to be the same size to fit within the map portfolio. In a private communication of June 1972, Vietor stated that X-ray examination had revealed no evidence of printing on the paper sheets and that it was hand-drawn, lettered and colored. He added: “unfortunately the physical state of the map makes reading the legends almost impossible.” The few names that are legible, mainly in the Indian Ocean, are in formal capitals, beautifully executed, as are two lengthy legends in the lower corners of the map. Fortunately, Martellus copied most of the nomenclature and legends on to the smaller map, now in the British Library, so the ‘Yale’ Martellus can recover them without difficulty.

Outline of the 1490 Yale Martellus world map

Little is known of Henricus Martellus Germanus.  In 1489 he produced a codex with maps and text, which he called Insularium Illustration.  This is a series of handsomely drawn and painted islands, with accompanying descriptive text in Latin, all done on parchment folios bound in leather-covered boards. It is listed in the British Library as Additional Manuscript 15760.  It survives in almost perfect condition for it has been so little used in 500 years that its colors, features and lettering, preserved from light, dust and the chemical impurities in air, seem as fresh as when Martellus made it in 1489. Folio 1 commences with an inscription in Latin giving the title Illustrated Islands by Henrici Martelli Germani and stating that it will present ‘all of the islands of our Mediterranean Seas’.  Martellus was commissioned to do his codex because he was versed in the new and beautiful humanist script of Italy, used throughout in the text, and for his talents as a painter and decorator of maps.  Mountains are in brown and gold, rivers in light blue, while forests have tree symbols in green.  In every case, the island is set in a dark blue sea which extends to the rectangular margin of the picture. Each island-picture is surrounded by a frame, drawn and painted in ivory to give the impression of a carved wood frame, suggesting a picture hanging on a wall. Such picture-islands occupy nearly all the folios, making an Atlas of Islands, and are then followed by a superb picture-map of Italy, taken from the 1482 world map of Donus Nicolaus. The islands in this codex were copies from the Ulm Ptolemy, from the Isolario of Bartolomeo de li Sonetti printed in Venice in 1485, and from other sources.

Then comes the most original and remarkable world map of the century. It was not foretold on Folio 1 and is clearly an unexpected addition to the codex of picture-islands. It uses the homeopathic (heart-shaped) projection, as far as can be judged, for it lacks meridians and parallels and scales. Next come three regional maps, striking because of the enormous nomenclature on the coasts. The first is of Western Europe and Morocco, cut off in the east through the center of France; the second starts from this line and extends east as far as Naples and Tunis. These two maps, it is evident, were copied from one original. The third map is of the Black Sea region. Martellus had been required by his patron to include in the codex a world map and regional maps which had just come into his possession in 1489. His great talent for such an exacting task was his skill as a draughtsman-cartographer experienced in altering the scale of maps of islands that he was copying. He did this to fit the folios of the codex.

Roberto Almagia (1940) stated that he had identified no less than three manuscript maps of the world signed by Martellus, all virtually identical with that in the codex in the British Library. He dated them to 1490. They all omitted Cipangu but he found a separate map of Cipangu in a codex which had the same outlines as those in the Behaim globe of 1492. The three manuscript maps were larger in scale and showed more detail than the codex world map. According to Davies, the sequence now becomes clear. The sheets of the ‘Yale’ Martellus, together with certain regional maps, were acquired by the patron. Martellus assembled the paper sheets, stuck them on a canvas backing, made his characteristic rectangular picture frame for it and colored the seas in dark blue. Then he signed it.  He then made a copy on a quarter of the scale, covering two parchment folios of the codex, to be included in it. He copied the regional maps and included them. Lastly he made three manuscript maps from the codex world map, larger in scale.

When Columbus left Lisbon in 1485 for Spain, Bartholomew, with his highly trained skills as a cartographer in the Genoese style, stayed on in the map workshop of King John II. He was engaged in building up a large map of the world based on Donus Nicolaus and on Portuguese charts. It was, like all important maps at that time, drawn on sheets of parchment which could be joined together almost invisibly, and mounted on linen. This large map, 180 cm by 120 cm, formed a standard Portuguese world map, continually added to by new discoveries, including those of Cão and Diaz.  By the beginning of 1489, Columbus faced poverty and failure in Spain; his pension had been ended in 1488 and he no longer had free board and lodging from Medina-Celi or the Marquess de Moya. Bartholomew prepared to join him in Spain and help his project. They needed money and, in particular, the vital and continued support of the Bank of St George in Genoa. They got both. Money could be obtained from the sale of maps kept secret in Portugal. Before leaving Lisbon, Bartholomew copied maps of convenient size. The large standard world map he had to copy in some secrecy and, because of its size, he needed 11 sheets of paper, cheaper, and thinner and quieter than parchment. These sheets of the ‘Yale’ Martellus were tracings in the hand of Bartholomew. Early in 1489 he left Lisbon. He went first to Seville to help his brother and there altered the Yale map by substituting another sheet of paper which showed Africa to 45° south. Then he visited Italy to sell maps and to gain the support of the Bank of St. George. Antonio Gallo, Chancellor of the Bank of St. George, was also official chronicler of Genoa. After Columbus returned from discovering Asia, as was claimed by him at the time, his name rang through Europe. Yet Gallo took the occasion to record his knowledge (in his chronicles) of the Columbus brothers.  What is astonishing is that he gave all the credit for conceiving the enterprise to Bartholomew, who first thought it out and entrusted it to his older brother, who was more used to the sea. This account of Gallo was copied, almost verbatim by Serenega in 1499 and by Giustiniani in 1516. Bartholomew left Genoa as a youth in 1479 and officially made only one further visit to Italy, in 1506. Gallo could have acquired knowledge of the role of Bartholomew only from his own lips, in 1489. Thereafter the Bank supported Columbus from time to time with credits.

Behaim (#258) copied from the map submitted to King John in 1485 by the Columbus brothers. On his globe, South Africa, between 23° and 28° south, extends a horn of land for hundreds of miles due eastward into the Indian Ocean.  It is a relic of the Fra Mauro map, which had Africa extending eastward to this extent, but in a great curve from the equator. It indicates that, in 1485, Columbus used Fra Mauro for Africa south of the equator in the map he submitted to the Portuguese monarch.  The Martellus map of 1489 show that Columbus and his brother Bartholomew relied on authority in their 1485 map, on Donus Nicolaus and Fra Mauro. But they altered authority in three ways even at that stage. First, by extending Asia eastwards to 240° from the Canaries. Second, by inventing the great obstruction of Tiger-leg.  Third, by placing Cipangu as only 90° west of Lisbon. In 1489, they extended Africa to 45° South. Such alterations were all to the advantage of Columbus, unscrupulous no doubt, but they earn our admiration for the sheer audacity of the great discoverer.

These two world maps by Martellus represent, along with Martin Behaim’s famous globe of 1492, the last view of the old pre-Columbian world as perceived by Western Europe before the great expansion of the world picture during the subsequent twenty years.  The huge Martellus manuscript world map at Yale University is supremely important because it shows the division of latitude and longitude into degrees. This enables scholars to trace Columbus’s thinking with some measure of certainty; he used this map to confirm his idea that Japan was only 90° West of Lisbon, when it was actually more than twice that far. The Yale map by Martellus does not show the western ocean as did Toscanelli (#252), being bounded in the east by Cipangu [Japan] and in the west by the Canary Islands; but its graduation in longitude admits an interval of 90° between the Canaries and Cipangu (Toscanelli allowed 85°; and the corresponding figure on the Behaim globe is 110°). Cipangu is only shown on the Martellus map at Yale.

The Yale example shows more of the Ocean Sea in the Far East than does the British Library manuscript. Among the thousands of islands Marco Polo reported off the coast of Asia, an enormous Sumatra and Java are found in the south, while to the northeast is the huge island of Cipangu [Japan]. In the Indian Ocean, the islands of Madagascar and Zanzibar, rather poorly drawn, add an intriguing aspect. Some historians claim that their presence indicates the map cannot be dated before 1498, when Vasco da Gama returned with news of his voyage to India.  Others, pointing out how crudely these islands are portrayed, assert that since this represents more Marco Polo information there is no conflict with the map s accepted date.

Martellus’ shape of the world represents the most complete knowledge of the day. The map is remarkable for its exciting new information, although being imperfect because of its acceptance of classical and medieval antecedents. It was the most accurate delineation available to Martin Behaim when he constructed his globe exhibiting the pre-Columbian world. Columbus himself could find no better map to show him the way to Asia.  These two are the only two extant non-Ptolemaic world maps of the 15th century to be graduated in latitude and longitude and so to convey a precise estimate of the width of the ocean between westernmost Europe and easternmost Asia.  In its general geographical design the more famous Behaim globe derives from a map of Martellus type, if not by him. 

Very little is known about Henricus Martellus Germanus, a mapmaker working in Florence from 1480 to 1496. He spent at least part of that time in the workshop of Francesco Rosselli (c. 1445-before 1527). Although he used the sobriquet Germanus, Martellus it is not a German name. The Martelli were a prominent merchant family in Florence, and Enrico Martello sounds Italian enough. The one piece of information he gives us about himself, that he had traveled extensively, suggests a career in business. His surviving work includes two editions of Ptolemy’s Geography, a large wall map now at Yale University, and five editions of the Insularium Illustratum of Cristoforo Buondelmonti. The historian Roberto Almagia has pronounced that Henricus Martellus was an excellent draftsman, who drew upon the latest information and improved the maps he adapted for his collections.

His world maps in the Insularium build on the Ptolemaic model but are modernized, for example, the Mediterranean on the world maps in the Geography, is 62° long, while on the Insulariurm maps it follows the dimensions on the nautical charts 50° closer to the modern figure of 42°. On the world map in his Insularium at the British Library, he shows the results of Bartholomew Dias’ rounding of the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, listing the names of the various ports and landmarks along the way. “Here is the true modern form of Africa between the Mediterranean Sea and the southern Ocean, according to the Portuguese description,” says an inscription. Modern Africa is so long, however, that it breaks through the frame at the lower edge of the map.

The Indian Ocean is open to the south, but Martellus retains its eastern coast, which Ptolemy had called Sinae, home of the fish-eating Ethiopians. This was the edge of Ptolemy’s map - he did not show the full extent of Asia, noting that “unknown lands” lay beyond. On the Martellus map there is a long peninsula to the east of the Golden Chersonese (Indochina), featuring the mysterious port of Cattigara. Unlike Ptolemy’s Asia, Martellus’ version has an eastern coast with the island-bedecked ocean beyond and additional names taken from Marco Polo. As mentioned above, the peninsula of Cattigara, i.e., the Dragon’s Tail/Tiger-leg, was copied on most of the world maps of the first half of the 16th century, as the shape and extent of Asia was being sorted out. Again, with the Tigerleg or the Dragon’s Tail, there has been an controversial attempt to identify it as an early map of South America, turning Ptolemy's “Sinus Magnus” into the Pacific Ocean.

Martellus retains other Ptolemaic features, such as the appearance of the northern coast of the Indian Ocean with a flattened India and a huge Taprobana. In the north, Greenland is a long, skinny peninsula attached to Europe and north of Scandinavia, a concept derived from the Claudius Clavus map of 1427. The Mediterranean and Black Seas and the Atlantic coasts are taken from sea charts, while the east coast of Africa, as yet unexplored, also follows Ptolemy’s design. From this we can see that in the Insularia Martellus used modern information when he had it, incorporating it into a classical format. If the two Ptolemy atlases can be dated as the first and last of his works, it is interesting to see that he reverts to the pure Ptolemaic form for the world in the later edition, with the lengthened Mediterranean and the closed Indian Ocean. Clearly, Ptolemy maps were considered as illustrations for a revered and ancient text and did not have to include the latest news.

Although Martellus’s world maps in the Ptolemy manuscripts show an extension of the inhabited world as 180°, those in the Insularium make it 220° or more, an attractive feature to those who dreamed of reaching Asia by sailing west. One of the Insularium manuscripts at the Laurentian Library in Florence seems to be a working copy, as it has many cross-outs and corrections on the maps and in the texts. Here the habitable world is extended to 265°, with northern Asia coming right up against the right-hand border.

Most of the text still isn’t legible, but some of the parts that are appear to be drawn from the travels of Marco Polo through east Asia. There are also indications of where sailors could expect to find sea monsters or pearls. According to historian Chet Van Duzer who is participating in a new (2014) digital image scanning of the Yale Martellus, “In northern Asia, Martellus talks about this race of wild people who don’t have any wine or grain but live off the flesh of deer and ride deer-like horses”. Martellus’s depiction of rivers and mountains in the interior of southern Africa, along with place names there, appear to be based on African sources. It’s likely that this information came from an African delegation that visited the Council of Florence in 1441 and interacted with European geographers. Three other surviving maps contain some of this same information, but the Martellus map covers more territory than any of them, making it the most complete surviving representation of Africans’ geographic knowledge of their continent in the 15th century.

The work of Henricus Martellus Germanus epitomizes the best of European cartography at the end of the 15th century. His intelligent effort to reconcile modern discoveries with traditional knowledge, especially Ptolemy, provides a workable model for the world map in a time of rapid change. The role of experience was clearly important to Martellus, for in his copy of the Laurentian Insularium he includes a verse about his own travels, noting that he has been traveling around for many years, and adding that it is worthwhile but difficult to set a white sail upon the stormy sea. He suggests that the reader might prefer to stay safely at home, and learn about the world through his book.


British Library, Add MS. 15760, fols. 68~69r, London, England,

18.8 x 12 inches/47 x 30 cm

Yale University Beinecke Library, New Haven, Connecticut,

79 x 48 inches/201 x 122 cm

Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence; MS Plut. 29.25, cc. fols. 66v-67r

Leiden University Library, MS Voss.Lat.F23, fols. 65v-66r


Bagrow, Leo, History of Cartography, Plate LIII.

Crone, Gerald R., Maps and their Makers. An Introduction to the history of Cartography, 5th ed. (Dawson, Archon Books, 1978), 37 (outline).

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

Randles, W.G.L., De la terre plate au globe terrestre. Une mutation épistémologique rapide (1480-1520) (Paris: Librairie Armand Colin, 1980), Plate 8.

Skelton, R. A., Looking at an Early Map, Figure 3.

Wolff, Hans, “The Conception of the World on the Eve of the Discovery of America - Introduction,” in Wolff, Hans (ed.), America. Early Maps of the New World, p. 14.

Yale University Library Gazette, vol. 37, no. 1 (July 1962).

Reproductions of details:

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

Skelton, Raleigh A., Explorers’ Maps. Chapters in the Cartographic Record of Geographical Discovery (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1958), Figures 18 (Africa); 104 (Eastern Asia).


Almagià, Roberto, “I mappamondi di Enrico Martello e alcuni concetti geografici di Cristoforo Colombo,” La Bibliofolia, Firenze, XLII (1940), pp. 24-27.

Almagià, Roberto, “On the cartographic work of Francesco Roselli,” Imago Mundi, VIII (1951), pp. 27-35.

Caraci, Ilaria L., “L’opera cartografica di Enrico Martello e la ‘prescoperto’ dell’America,” Rivista Geografica Italiana 83 (1976), Florence, pp. 335-344.

Caraci, Ilaria L., “Il planisfero di Enrico Martello della Yale University Library e i fratelli Colombo,” Rivista Geografica Italiana 85 (1978), Florence, pp. 132-143.

Crino, Sebastiano, “I Planisferi di Francesco Roselli,” LaBibliofilia, Firenze, XLI (1939), pp. 381-405.

Crone, Gerald R., Maps and their Makers. An Introduction to the history of Cartography, 5th ed. (Dawson, Archon Books, 1978), Chapter V.

Davies, A., “Behaim, Martellus and Columbus,” The Geographical Journal 143 (1977), pp. 451-459.

Destombes, Marcel, Cartes catalanes du XIVe siècle (Union géographique internationale. Rapport de la Commission pour la Bibliographie des cartes anciennes, fasc. I, 1952); no. 12, pp. 88-89.

Destombes, Marcel, ed., Mappemondes A.D. 1200-1500.

Edson, Evelyn, The World Map, 1300-1492, pp. 215-219.

Flint, Valerie, I. J., The Imaginative Landscape of Christopher Columbus, note on pp. 37, 39.

Harley, J.B., The History of Cartography, Volume I, pp. 187, 316.

Harvey, P.D.A., Medieval Maps, pp. 52, 55, 69, Plate 39.

Humble, R., The Explorers, p. 10.

Heawood, Edward, “A hitherto unknown world map of A.D. 1506,” The Geographical Journal, London, LXII (1923), p. 289.

Leithäuser, Joachim G., Mappae mundi, die geistige Eroberung derWelt (Berlin: Safari-Verlag, 1958), p. 179.

Levenson, J.A., Circa 1492, p. 230.

Monumenta Cartographica Vetustioris Aevi, Plates XXXVII-XXXVIII.

Nebenzahl, K., Atlas of Columbus, pp. 15-17, Plates 5a/5b.

prépare par la Commission des Cartes Anciennes de l’Union Géographique Internationale (Amsterdam: N. Israel, 1964), 52.17.

Ravenstein, Ernest George, Martin Behaim, his life and his globe (London: G. Philip and Son, 1908), p. 64.

Richardson, W.S., “South America on Maps before Columbus? Martellus’ ‘Dragon’s Tail’ Peninsula”, Imago Mundi, 55:1, pp. 25-37.

Shirley, R.W., The Mapping of the World, pp. 16-17, XXIII, Plates 4, 24.

Skelton, Raleigh A. “The cartographic record of the discovery of North America: some problems and paradoxes,” Congresso internacional de historia dos descobrimentos. Actas (Lisboa, 1960), vol. II, pp. 343-363.

Skelton, R. A., Looking at an Early Map, p. 21.

Skelton, Raleigh A., Explorers’ Maps. Chapters in the Cartographic Record of Geographical Discovery (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1958), pp. 44, 177.

Skelton, R.A., The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation, p. 155.

Van Duzer, C., “Waldseemüller’s World Maps of 1507 and 1516: Sources and Development of his Cartographical Thought”, The Portolan, Winter 2012, pp. 8-20.

Vietor, Alexander O. “A pre-Columbian map of the world circa 1489,” Yale University Library Gazette, New Haven, XXXVII (1962), pp. 8-12; Imago Mundi, Volume 17, pp. 95-96.

Winsor, J., Narrative and Critical History of America, p. 122.

Wolff, Hans, “The Conception of the World on the Eve of the Discovery of America - Introduction,” in Wolff, Hans (ed.), America. Early Maps of the New World (Munich: Prestel, 1992), pp. 13-14.

Martellus World Map, 1490, 180x120 cm

Francesco Rosselli was one of the earliest known map stockists and map sellers; in addition he was an important map-maker whose cartographic output spans the decades of the great discoveries. He worked in Florence prior to 1480, then was away from Italy for about two years before returning to his home town where he was active until his death some time after 1513. Many of the maps sold by him (as evidenced by an inventory taken after his son’s death in 1527) have perished but the following world maps are attributed to his hand:

1. 1482, copperplate, for Berlinghieri’s version of Ptolemy.  (Conjectural)

2. 1492-93, copperplate.

3.  ca.1500, copperplate, one sheet of multi-sheet world map.  (Conjectural)

4. 1506, copperplate, the Contarini-Rosselli world map.

5.  ca.1508, oval copperplate, later woodcut version with added text in 1532.

6.  ca.1508, rectangular copperplate.

Rosselli’s copper-engraved, printed world map of 1492-93 measuring 375 x 525 mm. was discovered in Florence in company with four other regional maps and, it is surmised, they were intended as part of a new edition of Ptolemy. It is a cleanly-engraved copperplate, with finely-stippled sea and six characteristic loose-haired wind-heads grouped round the border of the map. Like its model, the projection is the barrel-shaped (homeoteric, or modified spherical) ‘second projection’ of Ptolemy.

The map’s most prominent feature is, like the Martellus model, the new outline of Africa, now quite separate from Asia, and reflecting the rounding of the Cape by Bartolomeu Diaz in 1487. The British Isles and Scandinavia are also shown more correctly for the first time. A legend at the bottom referring to the date 1498 is clearly an error for 1489, and has been copied as such from the 1489 Martellus manuscript world map with obviously similar geographic content to that of Rosselli.  The 1490 map by Martellus was also almost certainly known to Rosselli. This map is significant because of its large size (108 x 190 cm), and because it is on the same pseudo-cordiform projection later adopted by Waldseemüller for his wall map of 1507 (#310). When originally described by Vietor, Martellus’ map was also thought to be a printed map, but subsequent examination has shown that it is a heavily-illuminated drawing on a large scale.

Martellus/Roselli World Map, 1490

Martellus World Map, 1489, 108 x 190 cm