Portolan Chart of the Mediterranean

Manuscript R.4.50 is a spectacular example of a particular type of map which became common among mariners and sailors during the 13th century and remained in use up until the 18th century. Portolan charts were graphic representations of the advice, directions and instructions contained in portolani: these were manuscript sailing instructions, aimed at ensuring a safe navigation for all the ships crossing the seas at that time. R.4.50 is a portolan chart of the Mediterranean, the sea that is literally located “in the middle of the land”; the centre of the Medieval European world.

Section of the Chart
Section of the Chart

The chart, dating from 1584, was hand-drawn and coloured on vellum by Joan Martines, a Mallorcan cartographer. Martines lived and worked in Messina, Sicily from 1556-1587 before moving to the court of Philip II of Spain, in Naples, where he became Royal Cartographer in 1591. He was a famous and prolific cartographer and produced more than thirty charts and atlases between 1550 and 1591.

Joan Martines’ name, location and date of production of the chart.

Developed by mariners for mariners, with an emphasis on practicality and functionality, portolan charts were not only about getting from one place to another, but also about avoiding danger. To emphasize their intended use at sea, the coastal place names were written on the land side of the coast line and perpendicular to it, to avoid interfering with marking courses on the sea. Any point can be located using the combination of direction and distance from a known starting point. The names of lesser ports appeared in black ink, while the names of the more important ones were written in red. The chart shows the characteristic system of “rhumb lines” and compass roses, serving a dual purpose: first, the cartographer used them to construct the chart when drawing the coastlines; later, the sailor used them to plot his course.

Sardinia, and a compass (wind) rose. Rhumb lines are clearly visible.

The coast line can be read as a continuum, thus highlighting the connections between Mediterranean ports. The unifying power of the “sea between the lands” is evident from the co-existence of ports which were bastions of different religions and cultures. Flags drawn over ports, Christian symbols, Islamic features, and various references to the different political allegiances of the time can all be seen. There is no real sense of separation between Southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East; everything is connected by people, trades and ideas, from Gibraltar to the Black Sea.

Genoa, Italy. The flags over ports show their political allegiance.
Damietta, Egypt. The flags over ports show their political allegiance.










Further reading:

Pflederer, R. Finding their way at sea: the story of portolan charts, the cartographers who drew them and the mariners who sailed by them. H&DG, 2012

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