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Mapping Ptolomaic and Modern British Isles

Important early pair of woodcut images covering the British Isles, by Benedetto Bordone.

Printed on two sides, image shows a full page map of England, Scotland and Wales with the contiguous Englishd Channel and "mare de germania" on once side, with the second image focused on England, Wales, and the contiguous coastlines of Ireland and Europe.  The images depict two early printed maps of the British Isles, showcasing both a Ptolemaic projection and a 'modern' projection.

Ptolemaic Projection

The larger map on the left, based on the Ptolemaic projection, features an exaggerated Cornwall and a characteristic right-angled depiction of Scotland in relation to England. This map includes much less of the Irish coast compared to the modern map. Classical names are used for the locations, with London (Londino) and Lyon (Lugdunem) being the only cities labeled. The projection emphasizes the geographical understanding of the time, highlighting major regions and landmarks in a manner consistent with Ptolemaic cartography.

Modern Projection

The smaller map on the right presents a 'modern' projection of England and Wales, extending to include a substantial portion of the continental European coast. It shows the southernmost part of Scotland at the top and the eastern coast of Ireland. While several cities are plotted, only London (Lonara), Dover (Dobla), and Southampton (Antona) are labeled. On the European mainland, Utrecht, Calais, Rouen, and Paris are plotted, with labels for Holland, Picardy, Normandy, and Brittany. The map features a simple compass centered roughly on London, reflecting more contemporary geographic knowledge and navigational techniques.

These maps are among the earliest printed depictions of the British Isles, illustrating the transition from classical to modern cartographic techniques and the evolving understanding of geography during the period.


Historical Overview of Isolario Mapping

The isolarii, or "island books," emerged as a fascinating and enigmatic genre during the Renaissance. These works do not fit neatly into the conventional categories of map or chartmaking, but instead represent a unique "underground" geographical culture. Flourishing in the experimental and tolerant climate of the Renaissance, isolarii played an integral role in the early development of the history of cartography.

Historians of cartography have offered varied interpretations of the isolarii, reflecting their complex and multifaceted nature. Some view them as early regional island atlases, while others categorize them as emerging from the travel literature or as products of the geopolitical context of the Aegean islands, Crete, and Cyprus. Additionally, isolarii have been seen as expressions of Renaissance individuality, primitive tourist guides, and carriers of political content. These diverse interpretations highlight the genre's position at the crossroads of geographical, historical, travel, and nautical literature.

  • The Genre of Isolario

Isolario refers to manuscript or printed atlases, typically comprising maps of islands and sometimes coastal areas, organized thematically. These works, often described as "books of islands" or "island navigations," evolved from the geographical traditions of the ancient world, where islands held a significant place in geographical literature. The isolario can be seen as a cosmographic encyclopedia of islands, fulfilling various learned, practical, and informational needs from the early fifteenth to the late seventeenth centuries.

Travelers' memoirs, chronicles of sea voyages, and military accounts often influenced isolarii, contributing to their content and shaping their form.  The isolario, with its maps and encyclopedic nature, represents a specific genre that thrived in the Mediterranean, particularly in Florence and Venice.

  • The Birth of the Genre: Florence, Fifteenth Century

The isolario genre was born in the fertile intellectual environment of early Florentine humanism. The first significant work of this genre was Cristoforo Buondelmonti's Liber insularum archipelagi, created around 1420. This work, which includes maps and descriptions of seventy-nine places in the Ionian and Aegean seas, reflects the geographical interests of Florentine humanists. Buondelmonti's isolario combines historical geography and personal travel narrative, offering a rich tapestry of mythological, historical, and contemporary observations.

Buondelmonti's work set the template for future isolarii, blending cartography with narrative descriptions and personal anecdotes. His maps, though not always accurate, were among the first to systematically depict the Greek islands, influencing subsequent cartographers and isolarii authors.

  • The Golden Age: Venice, Sixteenth Century

The invention of printing significantly expanded the audience for isolarii. One of the first printed isolarii was Bartolommeo dalli Sonetti's Isolario, published around 1485 in Venice. This work, containing forty-nine maps and accompanying sonnets, marked a new phase in the genre's development. Bartolommeo's isolario, influenced by Buondelmonti's earlier work, catered to both scholarly and popular interests, combining practical navigational information with poetic descriptions.

The sixteenth century saw further developments in the genre, with works such as Benedetto Bordone's Libro... de tutte l'isole del mondo (1528), which aimed at a broader readership. Bordone's isolario, with its 111 maps, provided both practical information for mariners and enjoyable reading for the general public. This period also witnessed the rise of nautical isolarii, exemplified by the Turkish admiral Piri Re'is's Kitab-i bahriye, a comprehensive and detailed navigational guide to the Mediterranean coasts and islands.

  • Benedetto Bordone

Benedetto Bordone further transformed the isolario genre with his Libro... de tutte l'isole del mondo, first published in Venice in 1528. Bordone's isolario contained 111 maps, 62 of which depicted Greek islands, heavily influenced by earlier works of Buondelmonti and Bartolommeo dalli Sonetti. Bordone aimed his work at a broad, nonspecialist readership, blending practical maritime information with entertaining historical and mythological narratives. His work went through numerous editions, underscoring its popularity and impact.

Bordone's work is notable for being the first atlas to cover the entire world without relying on Classical geography. Prior to this atlas, only the Waldseemüller / Ptolemy Geographia, which was essentially a Ptolemaic atlas despite incorporating "modern" maps, had attempted to chart lands beyond the Old World. However, with this work, Bordone breaks from this tradition, mapping all the previously unknown regions of the world, including specific areas of America, and basing the book on contemporary isolario data rather than on Ptolemaic sources.

Bordone's work expanded the geographical scope of the isolario far beyond the traditional waters of the Mediterranean and Aegean, introducing the genre to the North Atlantic, Caribbean, African and Asian Coastlines and featuring many important firsts, including the notably the first mapping of Japan.   Bordone was the first isolario publisher to truly see the genre as a means of depicting the entirety of the known world. 

Benedetto Bordone Biography

Benedetto Bordone (1460-1531) was a polymath who was born in Padua and worked in Venice. He was an illuminator, engraver, miniaturist, editor, and geographer. It is possible he made the first globe in Italy. His most famous work is the Isolario, or Book of Islands, which included many of the earliest printed maps of islands in the New World.

Bordone, a prominent Venetian manuscript editor, miniaturist, and cartographer, was born in Padua, a city that was then part of the Republic of Venice. Although his exact date of birth remains unknown, historical records indicate that his parents married in Padua in 1442, and he himself was married in 1480. Bordone's contributions to the field of cartography, particularly through his seminal work, Isolario, have cemented his legacy as a pivotal figure in the Renaissance cartographic tradition.

Bordone's most renowned work, Isolario (The Book of Islands), printed in Venice in 1528, is a comprehensive compilation that describes all the known islands of the world. The book offers detailed accounts of each island's folklore, myths, cultures, climates, geographical situations, and historical narratives. It stands as a testament to the popularity of the isolario genre in 15th and 16th century Italy and serves as an illustrated guide for sailors, incorporating the era's latest transatlantic discoveries.

One of the notable features of Isolario is an oval depiction of the world, a map type invented by Bordone. This innovation was later formalized into the equal-area elliptical Mollweide projection three centuries afterward. Bordone's map portrays a distorted view of the New World, showing only the northern regions of South America and depicting North America as a large island labeled Terra del Laboratore (Land of the Worker), a likely reference to the region's active slave trade during that period, which also influenced the name Labrador.

The book also contains the earliest known printed account of Francisco Pizarro's conquest of Peru, making it a significant historical document. Among the numerous woodcut maps included in Isolario, twelve are dedicated to the Americas. These maps feature a plan of "Temistitan" (Tenochtitlan, modern Mexico City) before its destruction by Hernán Cortés, and a map of Ciampagu, the earliest known European-printed map of Japan depicted as an island.

Benedetto Bordone's familial connections are also of interest; he is reputed to have been the father of Julius Caesar Scaliger, a noted classical scholar, and the grandfather of Joseph Justus Scaliger, who is recognized as the founder of the science of historical chronology. The original maps from Bordone's Isolario are highly valued today for their historical significance and intricate craftsmanship. Through his work, Bordone has left an indelible mark on the history of cartography, providing invaluable insights into the geographical knowledge and cultural perceptions of his time.