1492: An Ongoing Voyage

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World Map, in Germanus, 1482. THE MEDITERRANEAN WORLD

The peoples who inhabited the semi-arid shores of the Mediterranean were united in a common world view - as the name suggests, they saw themselves as living at the center of the world. The region, similar in size to that of the Caribbean, had seen the rise and fall of several civilizations and, in the late 15th century, was again in flux. Prosperous city-states were on the rise amidst the decline of medieval feudal society.

Renewed interest in Greek and Roman cultures fostered humanistic studies in art and science. New, stimulating ideas were spread with the advent of printing. Out of the doomsday mentality caused by the Black Death, civil wars, and economic uncertainties emerged expansionism, cohesion, and a sense of prosperity.

As the eastern Mediterranean reeled before the expanding Ottoman Empire, and Muslim rule ended in Iberia, western Mediterranean traders and mariners looked beyond the Straits of Gibraltar for alternative routes to the riches of the East.

The Setting

The Mediterranean Sea linked three continents -- Europe, Asia, and Africa. Surrounding that sea was a world of diverse peoples, languages, and religions. Even its northern shores, largely united by Christianity, exhibited a remarkable variety of tongues, customs, currencies, and political economies.

In the absence of nations, city-states dominated economic, political, and cultural activities in the late 15th century. Vibrant cities and ports, such as Rome, Florence, Venice, Genoa, Seville and Lisbon, were engaged in a variety of cultural and economic activities. They traded with each other and with merchants in other important centers like Constantinople, Alexandria, and Tunis. Traders followed the routes taken by thousands of pilgrims and crusaders during the Middle Ages on their way to the Holy Land.

Iberia: Cultural Diversity

The Christians, Muslims and Jews of the Iberian Kingdoms -- modern-day Spain and Portugal -- had coexisted throughout most of the Middle Ages in considerable harmony, despite periods of war and conflict. Close contact and currents of influence among these groups fostered a varied culture and flourishing intellectual life more advanced than anywhere else in Europe.

Unification of the Christian kingdoms of Aragon, Navarre, and Castile began in 1469 when Princess Isabel of Castile married Prince Fernando of Aragon. In 1480, they established the Holy Inquisition to enforce orthodox Christian belief and practice. In the very year of Columbus' first voyage, the monarchs conquered the last Muslim kingdom of Granada and expelled all Jews who refused to convert to Christianity. Despite such repressions, the extraordinary cultural diversity of late medieval Iberia left an enduring legacy in art, architecture, language, music, foodways, agriculture, and urban life.

The Changing Order

The Renaissance was an age of paradox in Europe. This period witnessed dramatic changes in cultural and intellectual life, linked to the enthusiastic rediscovery of the ancient Greek and Roman past. Artists and writers brought a new, intense scrutiny to the individual human subject within the context of an emerging secular spirit. Yet, during the Renaissance, religious mysticism, superstition, and political authoritarianism intensified.

Though handwritten and illuminated manuscripts had been the preserve of the learned few, the invention of printing led to a democratization of information. The creation of increasingly modern and powerful economies, based on banking, trade, and commerce enabled an emerging middle class to participate in this free exchange of ideas. Readers were exposed to dramatically different world views, ranging from imaginary maps and travel accounts to information partly based on practical experience.

"O Adam, you may have whatever you desire"

(Humanism's liberating idea, expressed in an essay by Pico della Mirandola).


European exploration in the 15th and 16th centuries drew on many sources. A growing desire for expansion and trade, along with advances in shipbuilding and commercial technique, fostered the search for new markets and for the legendary sources of precious metals and other commodities.

Portuguese exploration and trade along the West African coast and the Atlantic islands, encouraged and directed by Prince Henry de Avis, the Navigator, continued throughout the 15th century. He assembled an international team of experts which made revolutionary advances in geography, navigation, and cartography.

Handbooks, guides, and charts, along with the invention of more sophisticated and practical nautical instruments, professionalized what had been largely an intuitive craft. Crucial to these innovations were Muslim and Jewish contributions in mapmaking and navigational instruments. Christopher Columbus went to sea on the crest of these maritime advances.

European World View: Imagined and Observed

European world view in the late 15th century wavered between bizarre imaginings about the unknown and scientific observations of the known. t-o maps illustrate a Medieval world view laid out into three continents by a T within a circle, but also record real and imagined countries.

Theories of the universe first proposed by ancient Greek or Roman philosophers were accepted well into the 16th century. For example, the Vopel globe was based on Ptolemy's idea of an earth-centered universe. Ironically, it was made in 1543, the same year that Nicolaus Copernicus published his heliocentric, or sun-centered, theory of the universe. Caspar Vopel was a master-craftsman of astronomical and navigational tools. He made the sphere encircling the globe so that the seasonal changes in the orbits of the heavenly bodies could be observed. His "nocturnal," or compendium, was used for telling time at night and had several other navigational functions.

Terrestrial Globe with Armillary Sphere, Vopel, 1543. Terrestrial globe with armillary sphere
Caspar Vopel (Cologne, 1543).
Geography and Map Division

Terrestrial and celestial globes and armillary spheres were important educational tools for illustrating the geographical, astronomical, and cosmographical concepts of the Renaissance and the Age of European Discovery. Terrestrial globes not only reflected the spherical nature of the earth but also served to document man's changing perception and expanding knowledge of the geography of the earth. Armillary spheres were demonstration models for teaching astronomy and for illustrating the earth's position within the universe.

This finely crafted and well-preserved three-inch terrestrial globe, within a six-inch armillary sphere, mounted on an octagonal brass base, is the work of Caspar Vopel (1511-1561), a teacher of mathematics in Cologne, Germany, and a scholar of wide cosmographical interests. Vopel skillfully drew by hand his portrayal of the earth's surface directly on the globe ball. Of particular historical interest is his portrayal of the uncertainty still prevalent in the first half of the sixteenth century among cosmographers regarding Columbus's contention that he had reached Asia. As shown on the globe, Vopel agreed with the school of thought that North America and Asia were joined as one land mass -- a misconception that continued on some maps until the late sixteenth century.

Vopel's armillary sphere presents a model of the Ptolemaic, or earth-centered, cosmic system. The series of eleven interlocking and overlapping brass rings or armilla, some of which are movable, that make up the armillary sphere are adjustable for the seasons and illustrate the circles of the sun, moon, known planets, and important stars. The wide ecliptic band includes delicate engravings of the signs of the zodiac. It is interesting to note that 1543 is not only the year of the construction of Vopel's armillary sphere, but it is also the year Copernicus's theory of a heliocentric universe was published, a theory that greatly changed the design of armillary spheres.

Venetian Sailing Directions, in Stolfo, 1499 Venetian Sailing Directions
Drawings of zodiacs, hands, and divisions of time in Nicolo Stolfo. [Early Venetian Sailing Directions in the Mediterranean Sea] Manuscript.
[Venice,] August 1499.
Rare Book and Special Collections Division

By the late fifteenth century an emerging body of literature to facilitate sea travel in the Mediterranean world was available. This early book of sailing directions served as a handy guide for the sailor and a storehouse of practical information for laymen. The use of the hand and zodiac for information was considered vital to the 15th century Mediterranean navigator.

World Map, in Germanus, 1482. World Map
In [Donnus Nicolaus Germanus] Cosmographia, Claudius Ptolemaeus Ulm, 1482.
Thacher Collection,
Rare Book and Special Collections Division

The most poular geographical work to be printed from movable type in the fifteenth century was Ptolemy's Geography or Cosmography. Originally compiled by the Alexandrian geographer, astronomer, and mathematician Claudius Ptolemy in the second century A.D., it was translated from Greek into Latin in Florence, Italy about 1410. The map of the world here reproduced, beautifully illuminated with twelve wind heads, is one of thirty-two maps illustrating the edition of the Cosmographia issued from the press of Lienhart Holle of Ulm, Germany, on July 16, 1482. Holle's edition was the first to be printed north of the Alps and the first to include maps printed from woodcuts. To produce his printed edition, Holle used a manuscript copy prepared under the direction of the Benedictine Monk known as Donnus Nicolaus Germanus.

This world map shows the state of European cartographic knowledge of the world prior to Columbus' 1492 voyage. It reflects the Ptolemaic world view. The old (or known) inhabited world, oikoumene, is depicted as extending 180 degrees east and west, but in reality it covers only 105 degrees of longitude. This elongation, greatly shortening the unknown portion of the earth, was to influence navigators such as Christopher Columbus for many years. Also depicted is Ptolemy's mistaken notion that the Indian Ocean was an enclosed body of water, an idea that was to be disproved only five years later by the successful rounding of the Cape of Good Hope by Bartholomeu Dias of Portugal.

New information began to find its way into the classical representations then in circulation in Western Europe, and the 1482 world map was no exception. Nicolaus Germanus, for example, extended the map northward to show Iceland (correctly positioned north of the British Isles) and Greenland (incorrectly shown as a peninsula of Europe). Raleigh Skelton in the introduction to the facsimile edition of Claudius Ptolemaeus Cosmographia, Ulm, 1482 (Amsterdam, 1963) noted that this is the "earliest printed delineation of Greenland, Iceland and the North Atlantic [on a world map]; and this was to exercise a potent influence in the cartography of the early 16th century."

American Geographical Series, in Waldseemuller American Geographical Sites
In Martin Waldseemuller. [Ptolemaeus]
Geographiae Opus Novissima Traductione ...

Strasbourg, 1513.
Geography and Map Division

The first appearance of a map of America in a Ptolemy atlas occurred in the 1513 Strasbourg edition, which included a series of new maps, based on findings from recent European explorations. Martin Waldseemuller of St. Dié began work on this new edition of Ptolemy about 1505 and compiled the maps. In this work, America remains named Terra Incognita and Columbus is credited with informing Fernando and Isabel of its existence.

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