Title: Contarini/Roselli World Map

Date: 1506

Authors: Giovanni Matteo Contarini & Francesco Roselli

Description: Since the early 1490s, when Rosselli’s world map showing the rounding of southern Africa was printed, there had been a decade and a half of the most far-ranging explorations. Some findings from these exciting discoveries had been recorded on vellum portolan [nautical] charts of which only one or two survive today, such as the chart by Juan de la Cosa (#305) attributed to 1500 and the Cantino world map of c.1502 (#306). No printed maps of this era depict any of the new explorations until the years 1506-1507 when three original world maps independently appeared. These are the great world maps of Contarini-Rosselli, Johann Ruysch (#313), and Martin Waldseemüller. (#310).

The world map designed by Giovanni Matteo Contarini and engraved by Francesco Rosselli was first discovered in 1922 and is now in the British Library. The map is an elegant copper engraving on a fan-shaped or coniform projection and was printed in either Venice or Florence. The date of the map (1506) and the names of the designer and engraver are indicated in a Latin inscription just east of the Cape of Good Hope. This is the oldest known printed map to show America. The copy in the British Library is the only one known impression to have survived. Contarini used a novel conical or coniform projection, spreading the world in a fan shape to add information of new lands brought back by the first overseas explorers. The Contarini map appeared during the first decade of the 16th century when the results of Columbus’ voyages to the west and Vasco da Gama’s to the east were beginning to be recorded on maps. Accommodating the new discoveries was the challenge and dilemma of cartographers, and Contarini resolved it well. This world map represents the earliest attempt to bring the Far East and Far West into relationship to one another. Most maps of the period such as those of Caveri (#307) and Waldseemüller (#310) show the eastern and western discoveries at the extreme right and extreme left and make no attempt to indicate their connection with respect to a spherical earth.

The mapmaker, about whom little is known, was probably a member of the distinguished Contarini family of Venice. Despite the fact that on the map he refers to himself as famed in the Ptolemaean art, no other maps or charts by him have been discovered. The engraver, Francesco Rosselli, had been in the map trade since the early 1490’s when he engraved the Martellus world map (#256).

While the map seems puzzling at first, a closer look reveals the shape of the world as widely imagined by Europeans at the time of its publication. The three active European maritime nations: Spain, Portugal and England, represented by Columbus, the Corte-Reals (Gaspar and Miguel) and Cabot, all presumed that the new lands discovered in the West Indies and North America were in and around an extreme easterly promontory of the Asian continent, the province of Tangut, another place-name from Marco Polo. This is just how these lands appear on Contarini’s map.

Off the eastern tip of that promontory an inscription refers to the discovery of Newfoundland by the Portuguese, a reference to the Corte-Real expeditions in 1500 and 1501. The legend at the West Indies reads: the islands that Master Christopher Columbus discovered at the instance of the most serene King of Spain.   As no coastline west of Cuba is marked, Contarini either was unaware of or chose to ignore Vespucci’s alleged voyage to Florida in 1497 and Cabot’s possible southern explorations on his second voyage of 1498.

Although the map shows some similarities with several early Portuguese manuscripts, it does not follow any of them closely. Contarini either synthesized a number of sources or employed a composite map that has not survived. His American place-names are also on the La Cosa, Cantino, and Caveri manuscript maps, and he included information found on each of them.

This cartographic treasure, unknown to scholarship until its discovery in 1922, gives a true reflection of cosmographical thought at the time Columbus’ career was coming to a close. Perhaps its most charming feature is the legend off the east coast of Asia indicating that Contarini, along with Columbus in 1506, the year of the Admiral’s death, believed that the great explorer had reached the coast of Asia. It reads:

Christopher Columbus, Viceroy of Spain, sailing westward reached the Spanish islands after many hardships and dangers. Weighing anchor thence he sailed to the province called Ciamba [the “Champa” of Marco Polo, known today as Vietnam]. Afterwards he betook himself to this place which, as Christopher himself, that most diligent investigator of maritime things, asserts, holds great store of gold.

To the south, present-day South America is separated from North America by a wide strait but its northern coast is plotted in detail, based on the discoveries of Columbus in 1498 and Amerigo Vespucci in 1499-1500. To the southwest and southeast undiscovered land extends to the map’s limits.

Fifty degrees of longitude east of Asia, and on the Tropic of Cancer, appears Zimpangu, [Japan] which is stated to be identical with Hispaniola. Between Zimpangu and the west African coast, the discoveries of Columbus and the Spaniards are inserted, the group of islands, Terra de Cuba, Insula Hispaniola, etc., with no suggestion of a North American continent, and the northeast coast of South America as discovered by Columbus on his third voyage and his Spanish successors. The representation here of Terra S. Crucis [Land of the Holy Cross] shows Spanish influences, and most historians do not consider that the Cantino chart (#306) was a direct source.  The inscription off the southeast coast: reads (in translation): This is that land named Santa Cruz which was lately [discovered] by the most noble lord Pedro Alvares of the illustrious stock of the most serene King of Portugal in 1499.  This landmass ends abruptly at the border of the map, the Antipodean region.

The inscription on the Caribbean Sea: The whole of this sea is fresh water, must have originated in the story of the discovery by Columbus on his third voyage of a current of fresh water off the mouth of the Orinoco River. On the north coast of South America, which Columbus called the “Pearl Coast,” is the legend: This is the gulf in which the Spaniards found very many pearls, and along this coast lions, swine, stags, and other kinds of animals. An interesting feature is that a conventional western coastline has been given to this southern landmass. Perhaps this is intended to be the Antipodean continent suggested in the verses quoted below. 

The Trustees of the British Museum, who published it in facsimile in 1924, purchased the only known copy of this map in 1922.  The date of the map and the names of the author and engraver are found in the Latin inscription, east of the Cape of Good Hope, which has been translated as follows:

The geography of Ptolemy to 180 degrees with the addition of the other hemisphere in the same order also on a plane of 180 degrees, and if by folding together the two sets of degrees you form them into a circle you will perceive the whole spherical world combined into 360 degrees. Made known by the industry of Giovanni Matteo Contarini and by the art and ingenuity of Francesco Roselli, of Florence, in 1506.

The name of Contarini as the author of the map also appears in the inscription near the bottom of the map:

The world and all its seas on a flat map, Europe, Lybia, Asia, and the Antipodes, the poles and zones and sites of places, the parallels for the climes of the mighty globe, lo! Giovanni Matteo Contarini, famed in the Ptolemæan art, has compiled and marked out. Whither away? Stay, traveler, and behold new nations and a new-found world.

Whether the map was printed in Venice or Florence is uncertain, but probably in the former city, as the latter is not marked on the map; however, Mr. Heawood judges from the watermark that the paper was made in Florence.  The map measures 17 x 25 inches (42 x 63 cm).

In its coniform projection and the extension of Asia to the northeast, the map resembles that of the Ruysch map published two years later (#313). It was evidently based on that by Ptolemy (Book I, #119). There is the same large peninsula (i.e., the Tiger-leg or Dragon’s Tail) to the southeast of Asia without the latter’s Terra Incognita to the south.

The omission of a coastline to the west of Terra de Cuba has a double significance. It would seem to indicate that Contarini knew nothing of the alleged voyage made by Vespucci in 1497 along the eastern coast of North America, and that in 1506, the date of the death of Columbus, Contarini shared the current belief that the great explorer had reached the coast of Asia. Further evidence of this is found in the previously cited inscription off the east coast of Asia.

Zimpangu, or Japan, is described thus: This island lies 1,500 miles eastward from the coast of Mangi. It has gold in abundance, but this is not easily allowed to be removed. They are idolaters. This island appears a mere 20 degrees of longitude west of Cuba; and Marco Polo’s Cathay is displayed only 60 degrees west of the new discoveries.

The explorations of the Corte-Reals on the coast of Newfoundland in 1500 and 1501 are referred to in the inscription directly north of Insula Hispaniola, or Haiti, This land the seamen of the King of Portugal discovered.

Africa is now surprisingly well delineated, showing the whole of the east coast but the interior details are pure speculation. In this regard the map incorporates the names fairly close to those of Cantino, and an attempt to fit in the India of Vasco da Gama; between the Persian Gulf and the Indus of Ptolemy, the cartographer has inserted a narrow peninsula, trending southwestwards, on which are shown the towns of Cobait (Cambay), Cananor and Calicut (these two were visited by Vasco da Gama).

For the first time India appears as a peninsula with the designation of Calicut and other cities reached by Vasco da Gama and later by Cabral in the early 1500s. Madagascar and its adjacent island Zanzibar are greatly exaggerated in size. Further east, the rest of Asia still follows Ptolemaic lines.

The position of the much-exaggerated islands of Madagascar and Zanzibar in the Indian Ocean is exactly reversed from that on the La Cosa map (#305). The inscription on the former states:

This island is larger and richer than any in the world. It is 40,000 miles in circumference. From the kingdom of Moabar, reads the inscription on the scroll east of the islands, ships reach the island of Madagascar in twenty-nine days that can hardly return in three months because the vehement current of that sea runs southward. This island has groves of sandal-trees and all kinds of spices, also elephants, lions, Iynxes, leopards, stags, camels, and many birds; and there is great abundance of gold there.

Seila [Ceylon] is correctly represented as a small island to the southeast of India. Taprobana, formerly identified with Ceylon but later with Sumatra, also appears with an inscription to the southwest reading, Before Taprobana there are very many islands, which are said to be 1,778 in number. But these shown are the ones of which the names have been handed down.  To increase the confusion, a Seila Isula also appears among the Southeast Asian islands, probably standing for Sumatra. This confusion also occurs on the Behaim globe (Book III, #258).

A re-drawing of the Contarini/Roselli map (from Crone)

The continent of Europe is fairly correctly drawn in outline except that Greenland, or Engronelant, which is placed north of Scandinavia as a peninsula of that land. The Mediterranean Sea is fairly well drawn although it is given too great an extension east and west. It is the subject of the partly illegible inscription on the corner of the map below South America, which has been rendered into English by Mr. Sprent as follows: . . . our Sea with the bays joined to it runs out into the Adriatic Sea, the Sea of Marmora, the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, but into the Ocean only by the Strait of Hercules in the likeness of a peninsula. This narrow channel is almost an isthmus of sea. But the sea called Hyrcanian [Caspian] is surrounded by land on all sides. . . .

As might be expected, cartographers of the early 16th century began by attempting to fit portions of the new discoveries into the conventional [Ptolemaic] framework, and finished by accepting unreservedly the new pattern of the world revealed by the navigators. Three stages in this process may be discerned: the emendation of a world map which had much in common with that used by Martin Behaim for his globe; an intermediary stage which produced a combination of Ptolemaic and the ‘new’ geography; and finally the adoption of the complete contemporary world outline as embodied in the Caveri chart (#307). This transformation was made, as far as printed maps are concerned, in the space of ten years, as can be seen in the maps of Martin Waldseemüller (#310).

The first in this series is this map of the world, designed by Giovanni Matteo Contarini and engraved on copper by Francesco Roselli in 1506. The map, on a conical projection with Ptolemy’s prime meridian as the central meridian and the equator truly drawn, has the eastern coasts of Asia in the west and Ptolemy’s Magnus Sinus and the islands of the medieval travelers in the east. In one of the inscriptions the cartographer says: if by folding together the two sets of degrees [i.e. on the eastern and western margins] you form them into a circle, you will perceive the whole spherical world combined into 360 degrees. This is not strictly true, for the map does not extend much beyond the Tropic of Capricorn; but elsewhere there are verses extolling Contarini for having marked out

The world and all its seas on a flat map,

Europe, Libya, Asia, and the Antipodes,

The poles and zones and sites of places,

The parallels for the climes of the mighty globe.

These references to the whole sphere, the Antipodes, the poles, and the globe, are intriguing; it is possible that the cartographer, especially in view of some similarities between his map and the Behaim globe, had in fact a globe before him. It is possible, but not very probable, that another section of his map, now lost, portrayed the southern hemisphere.

Two years after the Contarini may, another map very similar to it was published at Rome, and is found in copies of the 1508 Ptolemy edition. This is attributed to Johannes Ruysch (#313). Except for small details, the projection is identical with that of Contarini’s map. It is stated to be ex recentibus confecta observationibus [composed from recent observations], and certainly draws on sources later than Contarini. The Indian sub-continent has much better proportions, but the Far East is in general still Ptolemaic, and the three ‘Ceylons’ occur again. The inscription identifying Zimpangu with Hispaniola is repeated, but there is an interesting addition 20 degrees west of the Azores where Antilia insula is inserted, the mythical island in the Atlantic, which first appears on charts of the early 15th century.   In South America there are also important additions. The eastern coast is continued southwards to the Rio de Cananor at 30 degrees South, and it is noted that exploration has extended to 50 degrees South latitude, a reflection of Amerigo Vespucci’s voyage of 1501.  In the north, there is an isolated portion of the mainland, probably Florida, and the Portuguese discoveries in the far north, with the addition of Greenland, are again shown as part of Asia.

Location:  British Library, London

Size:  17 x 25 inches (420 x 630 mm)


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

*Bagrow, Leo, History of Cartography, Plate LX.

*Bricker, C., Landmarks in Mapmaking, p. 196.

*Crone, G. R., Maps and their Makers, pp. 96-99.

*Fite, E., Freeman, A., A Book of Old Maps, pp. 18-20.

*Heawood, E., “A Hitherto Unknown Map of the World”, Geographical Journal, London, 1923.

Heawood, Edward, “Florentine world-maps of Francesco Rosselli,” Geographical Journal 95 (1940), London, pp. 452-454.

*Hodgkiss, A. G., Understanding maps, Figure 51.

*Lister, Raymond, Antique maps and their cartographers, Figure 5.

*Nebenzahl, K., Atlas of Columbus, pp. 46-47, Plate 14.

*Raisz, Erwin, Mapping the World, Figure 21 B (drawing).

*Shirley, R. W., The Mapping of the World, pp. 23-24, Plate 28, #24.

*Skelton, Explorers’ Maps, Figure 36.

*Skelton, Looking at an early maps, Figure 5,

*Sprent, F.P., A Map of the World Designed by Giovanni Matteo Contarini, 1924.

Tooley, Ronald V., Maps and Mapmakers, p. 110.

*Woodward, David, Art and Cartography, Figure 6.28.


Detail of Zingpangu [Japan], Terra di Cuba [Cuba] and the top of Terra S. Crucis [South America] and the Portuguese discovery of Newfoundland attached to Cathay [Asia]