Title: Rosselli oval world map

Date: 1508

Author: Francesco Rosselli

Description: The oval planisphere of 1508 by Francesco Rosselli (1445–1513) is important for several reasons. First, it is among the earliest printed maps that depict the New World. Further, it is an essential source for Christopher Columbus’s Fourth Voyage (1502–1504), since Rosselli has located on the eastern coast of Asia the New World discoveries made by the explorer during that voyage, in accordance with Columbus’s belief that he had been on the coast of Asia. It introduces a new oval projection that was later adopted by Benedetto Bordone, Battista Agnese, Giacomo Gastaldi, Abraham Ortelius and others. Also, it is the earliest non-Macrobian map (see Book II, #201) to depict a hypothetical southern continent, long before the discovery of Antarctica. Four copies of Rosselli’s oval planisphere of c.1508 are known. These are a beautiful hand-colored copy in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich (G.201: 1/5 A); a lightly colored copy in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Florence (Landau Finaly, Carte Rosselli); a colored copy in the Bibliothèque de Zwickau Ratsschulbibliothek and an uncolored copy in the Arthur Holzheimer collection, Chicago.

         Francesco Rosselli, member of a distinguished Florentine family of artisans (brother of the painter Cosimo Rosselli), was a cartographer, miniaturist, painter, engraver, and map-dealer whose shop in Florence is the earliest map-selling establishment on record.  An important group of early Florentine engravings executed in the so-called “Broad Manner” has convincingly been attributed to him.  Cartography was a new, experimental art and science during the first years of the 16th century, and Rosselli was among its gifted innovators. The conical projection world map on which he collaborated with Contarini (#308) is the first such engraving to have appeared. Both men are remembered principally for this production, but Rosselli also left to posterity two small world maps. These undated engravings were executed in 1507 or 1508 at either Florence or Venice. Both are rare, important documents known by only a few examples.

A new cartographic projection made its debut on Rosselli’s oval planispheric world map.   This elegantly simple oval projection is graduated in 360° longitude and 180° latitude.   Having determined to show the entire globe in one image, Rosselli had to determine the relationship between the lands described by Columbus, Vespucci and Cabot, and the traditional image of Asia.  Rosselli improved the configuration of North America while still displaying its attachment to Asia. Newfoundland appears at the upper left as the easternmost limit of Asia.  The West Indies are shown below, with Cuba shown as an island, and below that is a South American continent labeled Mundus Novus.  Except for the new discoveries in the extreme northeast, the Asian delineation is mostly derived from the classical productions of Ptolemy with some additions from Marco Polo. The central meridian crosses Russia, East Africa, and Arabia, an inconvenient division of the world for following the new discoveries. 

In his fourth voyage of 1502-03, Columbus had explored the coast of Central America, designating many place-names.  These names appear in Rosselli’s map at the lower right, along the Southeast Asian coast.  The island on the extreme right edge of the map is Japan.   There is also for the first time a hint of a southern continent south of Africa. 

This type of oval design was adopted and used by some of the century’s most famous mapmakers Bordone, Münster, Gastaldi, and most notably Ortelius.  A woodcut version of this rare and important map appeared later in a relatively unimportant book, the second edition of the Isolario, Carte del mare Egeo (Bartolommeo dalli Sonetti, 1532).  According to the historian George E. Nunn, “The Roselli maps, of which four remain, appear to be an important record supplementary to the La Cosa map in regard to the John Cabot voyage of 1497.  The Roselli-Contarini and the Roselli oval map are very important records of the Columbus fourth voyage (1502-03).  Finally, these maps belonging to the first decade of the sixteenth century are a most important link in the map series depicting the conflict between the Columbian and the Ptolemy-Behaim schools of geography.”

For the sea or maritime chart with its circle of sixteen compass roses radiating rhumb lines across the surface, Rosselli placed the prime meridian in the eastern Atlantic helping to interpret Columbus’s cosmographical concepts more clearly. On this chart it is easy to see why Columbus, sailing west of Cuba, believed the continental coastline he encountered was that of China.

Rosselli’s maps record information about discoveries in North America by Columbus and Cabot that had not been shown earlier. They are important as representing the geographical concepts of Columbus’s fourth voyage in 1502-03. Columbus designated many place-names in Central America when he sailed from Hispaniola to northern Honduras and along the coasts of Nicaragua and Costa Rica to eastern Panama. On the Rosselli maps, these names appear on the east coast of Asia along China and Indo-China, which, after all, is where Columbus thought he was.

The beautifully colored examples of Rosselli maps at Greenwich were long thought to be manuscript maps. Because they were printed on vellum and the oval planisphere is richly illuminated, this misconception is understandable. Comparisons with the black and white copperplate engravings on paper at Florence revealed that the Greenwich pair, beneath the color, were identical. Illustrated detail from the only other known copy of this engraving to demonstrate that place-names obliterated on the painted example by the ocean tint are clearly legible on the black-and-white engraving.

The land on the Greenwich map is painted in lighter colors—light green and light brown—than on the Zwickau map, where the painter favored darker and more earthy greens and browns. All the city signs on the Greenwich map are red, whereas on the Zwickau map only three are red: Lisbon; Nodrosia, that is, Nidaros, now Trondheim, Norway; and Sodulfus, that is, S. Odulfus or Saint Olaf, representing the Church of St Olaf in Vardø, in northeastern Norway—the other cities are given a brown hue similar to the colour used for the land. Most of the mountains on the Zwickau map have a touch of lighter paint on their western side, which makes them stand out more than those on the Greenwich map.

The painter of the Greenwich map covered the east Asian toponyms relating to Columbus’s Fourth Voyage with blue paint and did not rewrite them, while the painter of the Zwickau map did rewrite them. On the unadorned printed copy of Rosselli’s map the hypothetical southern continent has northern and eastern shores, but the western and southern shores are not indicated. The painters of both the Greenwich and the Zwickau maps completed the shores of the continent, and on the Greenwich map the continent extends farther to the south. The printed map has two small islands south of Zinpagu [Japan], one of which is quite faint. On the Greenwich map these have both been redrawn, but on the Zwickau map they were left obscured by the blue paint. Both artists chose not to rewrite a brief legend in the Indian Ocean referring to the death of St Thomas in Malacca (malach s. thom). Both hand-colored maps are surrounded by elaborate cloud decorations of which the unadorned printed map gives no hint.

The most striking and interesting difference between the Greenwich and Zwickau maps is the treatment of the twelve wind-heads placed around the oval world. The heads on the printed map are quite uniform, with long flowing hair and similar features. The painter of the Zwickau map, however, has altered some of them and represented the heads of the three western winds (Corus, Favonius and Libicus) as those of black men, with dark skin and short, dark, curly hair. The three eastern winds (Vulturnus, Subsolanus and Eurus) seem to be portrayed as black women, with dark skin, earrings and dark hair that is slightly shorter than that of the Caucasian wind-heads, but longer than that of the black male wind-heads. The fact that these heads represent a modification of the original design is particularly clear in the case of Corus, where the long hair that once flowed behind his head is still visible beneath the clouds that were painted over it. Unfortunately, little has been written about wind-heads. A cartographic tradition of personifying some winds, generally those of the south, east and west, as blacks certainly existed (see Book IIIB, #256 Martellus).

The world map by Francesco Rosselli shows that the outline of much of the world was already known by 1508. Portuguese and Spanish ships had started pushing out from the Iberian peninsula from the 1450s, but Europe had gained a rough knowledge of the ‘East’ before that from the ancient Greek geographers, earlier travelers such as Marco Polo, and Arab and Asian seafarers. Some of this knowledge was fantasy, but there was less of the ‘here be dragons’ than most people think. Much of the information on early charts and maps was reasonably factual, even if some of the detail was speculative and the proportions were inaccurate.

The Pacific was known to exist before Vasco Nunez de Balboa saw it, and Portuguese seafarers probably touched on its western fringes in their early voyages to South East Asia, but the ocean was effectively a closed book to Europeans, and Rosselli’s map was typical of its time in underestimating its extent - optimistically placing South America far too close to the riches of Asia. Maps such as the Rosselli were drawn for the rich and famous and were not intended for the purposes of navigation. Wise seafarers used written information to find their way to distant parts. Their notebooks, known as rutters (from the Portuguese roteiro) contained views of significant ports and coastlines and a record of courses and safe anchorages. The delineation of the Asian coast using the “Tiger Leg” configuration carries on the tradition also employed by the Behaim Globe, and the Marlellus, King Hamy, Waldseemüller, and Contarini maps. The “Tiger Leg” is Catigara which was the name given on earlier Ptolemaic maps to the land on the easternmost shore of the Mare Indicum, south of the equator.

As with all known world maps of the first decade of the 16th century, Rosselli’s delineations provide a key graphic link between pre- and post-Columbian cartography. Little by little the mysteries of the New World were being solved and the Ocean Sea was giving up its secrets.

Locations: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England

                     Arthur Holzheimer Collection, Chicago

                     Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Florence, Italy

        Bibliothèque de Zwickau; Ratsschulbibliothek (southeastern Germany)

Size:  14.5 X 28.5 cm


*Almagia, R., “On the Cartographic Work of Francesco Roselli”, Imago Mundi, VIII (1952), pp. 27-34.

  Brown, L.A., The World Encompassed, #84.

*Circa 1492, p. 234, #133.

*Nebenzahl, K., Atlas of Columbus, pp. 56-57, Plate 17b.

*Nunn, G.E., World Map of Francesco Roselli . . . from the copy in the collection of George H. Beans, 1928.

*Shirley, R.W., The Mapping of the World, pp. 32-33; 76-77, #28, #67, Plates 32, 61A.

*Van Duzer, C., “A Newly Discovered Fourth Exemplar of Francesco Rosselli’s Oval Planisphere of c.1508”, Imago Mundi, 60:2, pp. 195-201.


World map by Francesco Rosselli in Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Florence, Italy
18 x 33.5 cm

World map by Francesco Rosselli in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England

World map by Francesco Rosselli, 1508,
in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England,
18 x 33.5 cm

The hand-painted exemplar of Francesco Rosselli’s oval planisphere, in Zwickau, Germany (Ratsschulbibliothek, no signature). 34.3x19.5 cm.
Comparison with the Greenwich exemplar immediately reveals the greater number of rewritten toponyms in the oceans on the Zwickau exemplar.