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First State of the Most Influential Map of Eastern Asia Published in the Sixteenth Century

Rare and highly influential map of India, China, and Southeast Asia by Giacomo Gastaldi, one of the most celebrated Italian cartographers of the sixteenth century.

The present map, the last in a set of three maps of Asia produced by Gastaldi between 1559 and 1561, comprises the easternmost section of the continent. The map is interesting for its considerable impact on sixteenth-century mapping of Asia, as well as for its important geographical and toponymic content—for example, this is the first use the modern name of the Philippines on a European map.

In the lower right of the map, above the scale bar, it is noted that the map was created based on a fifteen-year privilegio, or copyright protection, granted by Pope Pius IV. Also in this area, Fabio Licinio is named as the map’s engraver.

On the right border of the map, a large table lists ancient and modern place names. While the first and second maps in Gastaldi’s three-part Asia series contained this information in a separate gazetteer, here they are included on the map itself.

The map is bounded in the west by the Arabian Sea and in the east by China and the East China Sea (Mare de Mangi, from Marco Polo’s use of Mangi as the name for southern China). The southwestern tip of Japan (Giapan) can be seen in the East China Sea. Interestingly, Korea is not visible in this map.


A Gulf of Cheinam, also referenced by Marco Polo, bounds the map to the northeast. South of the Gulf of Cheinam, a large inlet leads to a city, Quinsai, illustrated by a large group of buildings. Quinsai likely corresponds to present-day Hangzhou, but it may instead correspond to Beijing.

North of China, a mountainous region is labeled Ania Pro. Ania, or Anian, was first described by Marco Polo as an area around the Gulf of Tonkin, but appears for the first time in the present map in a northern location. About five years later, Bolognini Zaltieri published a map depicting a Strait of Anian separating the Asian and American continents. This myth continued to be propagated over the next two centuries in maps and written descriptions, driven by the desire to locate a Northwest Passage connecting North America to Asia. Many voyages of discovery were motivated by this desire, and the myth of a Northwest Passage was not unequivocally disproven until the mid-nineteenth century.

Southwest of Ania is the city and region of Cambalu, with the city of Caracoran in the Tangut region west of that. The Tangut region references the Tibetan-speaking Tangut tribes who lived in the present-day northwestern Chinese provinces of Gansu and Shaanxi and were conquered by the Mongols in the thirteenth century. Caracoran (Karakorum), in present-day Mongolia, was the ancient capital of the Mongol empire, used by Genghis Khan in 1220 as a base for his invasion of China. The capital was then moved to Cambalu (Khanbaliq), present-day Beijing, in 1267 by Kublai Khan, founder of the Mongol (Yuan) dynasty (1206–1368) in China. Cambalu’s placement on the present map, far to the west of Beijing’s actual location, reflects geographers’ apparent lack of identification of Marco Polo’s Cathay with the China known to Europeans at the time.

In the north, west of the Tangut region, are two large deserts, Lop and Camul. These correspond to parts of the Takla Makan and possibly Gobi Deserts. These deserts are indicated to possess ghosts who create illusions for lost travelers.

India and the Gulf of Bengal

South of these deserts is the region of Indostan, or Hindustan. The region and city of Delhi (Delli) can be seen in the north of the Indian peninsula. The important early Portuguese trading hubs of Goa (Coa), Kochi (Cochin), and Kozhikode (Calecut) can be seen on the west coast of the peninsula. Off the southeast coast of the peninsula is the Isola de Zeilan, or Sri Lanka (Ceylon), where Gastaldi indicates that sapphire and topaz can be found.

To the east of India is the Gulf of Bengal, with a large, many-pointed compass rose at its center. This is a compass rose of eight winds, a system developed by Medieval mariners on the Mediterranean. The eight wind names, shown here as initials, were expressed in an Italianate Mediterranean lingua franca primarily composed of Genoese (Ligurian) mixed with Venetian, Sicilian, Provençal, Catalan, Greek, and Arabic terms. Thus, T, or Tramontana, is north; G, or Greco, is northeast; L, or Levante, is east; S, or Scirocco, is southeast; O, or Ostro, is south; and P, or Ponente, is west. Southwest in this system would be L again, for Libeccio, but in the present map it is marked A, perhaps for Africus, the Roman name for this direction in the classical twelve-wind system.

Peninsular and Maritime Southeast Asia

In the southeastern Gulf of Bengal is northern Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, whose lower tip is curiously separated by a narrow waterway. Singapore (Cingatola) is depicted in this part of the peninsula. Just north of the waterway is Malacca, which the Portuguese conquered in 1511. At the top of the Malay Peninsula is the region of Siam, where the Portuguese settled in the early sixteenth century, and the important trading port of Martaban. In present-day Thailand, is a large lake, Cayamay Lago, or the mythical Lake Chiang Mai.

Lake Chiang Mai was believed to be the source of Southeast Asia’s major rivers and was commonly depicted in maps of this era. One possible explanation for this myth comes from Hindu and Buddhist iconography and cosmology. In this tradition, the center of the universe was the sacred mountain Sumeru, from which a river flowed into a lake. Four great rivers then flowed from this lake. Another theory involves an auspicious lake that led Chiang Mai to be chosen as the capital of Lan Na, one of the first major Tai (Siamese) kingdoms in Thai history. Lan Na was founded in the early fourteenth century and remained active until it was conquered by Myanmar (Burma) in the sixteenth century. Finally, there was a small lake in Chiang Mai—Nong Bua—of which Europeans could have misunderstood the size.

To the east are the Philippines, correctly located and called by their modern name (Philippina) for the first time on a European map. The first appearance of the name in any form on a European map is in Gastaldi and Giovanni Battista Ramusio’s 1554 map of Asia, where it is called Filipina. The present map is the first Western printed map to refer to Luzon (Lozon). Near the eastern border of the map is the island of Mactan (Matam), the Filipino island where Ferdinand Magellan was killed in 1522 during his quest to circumnavigate the globe and find a westward route to the Spice Islands. Southeast of the Philippines are the Moluccas, or Malaku Islands, of eastern Indonesia, which are indicated to possess many spices. The largest of the Moluccas, Halmahera (Gilolo) is depicted at the southern border of the map.

Sources for Gastaldi’s map

Additional information about the present map’s creation and some of the place names used can be found in three different areas. In the lower left of the map, the cartouche contains a dedication to Marcho Fucharo (Marcus Fugger, 1529–1597), indicating that Gastaldi likely had access to the Fugger family library, one of the most important libraries compiled in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. During the sixteenth century, the Fugger Library was perhaps the best private library in the world, even better than the Vatican Library.

Aside from the Fugger collection, Gastaldi used many identifiable sources. As stated above, many place names and details come from Marco Polo’s accounts of his travels. Additionally, the Portuguese and Spanish voyages of discovery and the Portuguese trading network in the area provided rich sources of information. For example, Antonio Pigafetta’s account of Magellan’s voyage influenced Gastaldi’s depiction of the Philippines and other Southeast Asian islands. Magellan’s voyage constituted the first recorded European sighting of the Philippines.

Baron A.E. Nordenskjöld notes another possible source:

Finally, it must be remembered that Gastaldi, under the guidance of Ramusio, is supposed to have aided in repairing or repainting the famous wall-maps in Sala dello scudo in Venice . . . If such was the case, it may be considered probable that the monumental maps of Africa and Asia by Gastaldi have had some connection to [Gastaldi's map of Asia], that these copper-plate engravings are a reproduction of the originals of the wall maps in that form which was given them in the middle of the sixteenth century. (p. 406)

The present map was later expanded farther south, as described by Thomas Suarez:

In its original form the map extended only to the equator, so that most of the Indonesian islands were not included. To remedy this, in about 1565, two narrow sheets were made by the great Italian engraver Paolo Forlani to supplement the main body of Gastaldi's map... This lower addition bears an inscription in the lower left corner which reads ‘si vende...’... indicating the location of the shop of the publisher Bertelli. (e-book location 4468–4483)

While each of the three maps was intended to be sold as a separate sheet, they were sometimes bound into custom “atlases” made up for purchasers. These composite atlases are sometimes referred to as Lafreri atlases, after Antonio Lafreri, the publisher of the present map, as he was known for having gathered his prints into bound selections for collectors.

There is evidence that Gastaldi intended this series to be part of a larger set of maps of the four continents of Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. However, this ambitious project was never realized.

Gastaldi’s three maps of Asia were perhaps the most influential of this region in the sixteenth century. At least three other important maps of the century were based off Gastaldi’s series: Abraham Ortelius’ 1567 map of Asia, Gerard de Jode’s 1578 map of Asia, and the ca. 1570 globe gores likely by brothers Giulio and Livio Sanuto.

European commercial activity in India and the East Indies

The present map depicts many important trading centers for Europeans in India and the East Indies at this time. While Europeans traded many goods with Asia, the most important at this time were spices. Spices were traded with other areas of Asia starting before the common era, and Arabic traders dominated the market until the Middle Ages. Around the tenth century, Venice and Genoa began trading in the Levant and developed a strong rivalry. After defeating Genoa in the naval war of Chioggia (1378–81), Venice gained a monopoly on trade in the Middle East for the next century, trading with buyer-distributors in northern and western Europe.

Toward the end of the fifteenth century, explorers began to venture farther, looking for new routes to reach spice-producing regions. This goal was the impetus for voyages of discovery including that of Columbus in 1492. In 1501, a Portuguese expedition brought spices from India to Europe via the Cape of Good Hope, after which Portugal dominated naval trading routes through much of the sixteenth century. While Britain, the Netherlands, and France all later established themselves in the spice trade, Portugal was the dominant trading power at the time of the present map’s creation.

The Arab port of Goa was established as the headquarters of Portugal’s trading empire in 1510, and became a Portuguese colony for nearly 460 years. In 1511, the Portuguese captured Malacca, a port that controlled trade and shipping from India to Indonesia and China, which it controlled until 1641, when it was taken by the Dutch. In contrast to Asian merchant communities that generally operated without armed vessels or significant government interference, the Portuguese trading network involved a series of highly fortified bases linked by a fleet of armed ships.

Despite their outsize importance, spices in fact only made up a quarter or less of trade in Asia. Trade was also robust in textiles, porcelain, precious metals, carpets, perfume, jewelry, horses, timber, salt, raw silk, gold, silver, and medicinal herbs, among others.

With these historical influences and a rich variety of source material, this is perhaps the single most influential map of the region published in the sixteenth century.


The map is rare on the market.  We note no examples of this first edition of the map on at auction or in recorded dealer catalogs in at least 15 years.

David Brafman, “Dusting off Dunhuang: A History of Travelers on the Central Asian ‘Silk Roads,’ in Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China’s Silk Road, eds. Neville Agnew, Marcia Reed, and Tevvy Ball (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2016); Edward Brooke-Hitching, The Phantom Atlas (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2018); Barry M. Gough, “Strait of Anian,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, lasted edited March 4, 2015,; “Hindustan,” “Kathiawar Peninsula,” “Kochi,” “Kozhikode,” “Lan Na,” “Xi Xia,” Fosco Maraini and Edward Peters, “Marco Polo,” Mikhail Platonovich Petrov and Guy S. Alitto, “Takla Makan Desert,” all in Encyclopaedia Britannica; Ladan Niayesh, “From Myth to Appropriation: English Discourses on the Strait of Anian (1566–1628),” in The Quest for the Northwest Passage: Knowledge, Nation and Empire, 1576–1806, ed. Frédéric Regard (London/New York: Routledge, 2015); Baron A.E. Nordenskjöld, “The Influence of the ‘Travels of Marco Polo’ on Jacobo Gastaldi’s Maps of Asia,” The Geographical Journal 13, no. 4 (1899): 396–406; “North-West,” World Heritage Encyclopedia, accessed May 11, 2020,; Benjamin B. Olshin, The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014); Cynthia Smith, “Taprobana: Sumatra or Ceylon?” Library of Congress, posted January 29, 2020,; Thomas Suarez, Early Mapping of Southeast Asia (Singapore: Periplus Editions, 1999); Christopher L.C.E. Witcombe, Copyright in the Renaissance: Prints and the Privilegio in Sixteenth-Century Venice and Rome (Leiden, The Netherlands/Boston: Brill, 2004); Tooley, Italian Atlases, 63; Karrow, 30/92 Anm; Woodward, Forlani 36 Anm; Quirino, Philippine Cart., xv and 95. AH
Giacomo Gastaldi Biography

Giacomo Gastaldi (1500-1566) is considered the foremost Italian cartographer of the sixteenth century, alongside Paolo Forlani. His skills of compilation are comparable to those of Mercator and Ortelius, yet much less is known of his life than of his two contemporaries. Gastaldi was born in Villafranca, Piedmont, but had established himself in Venice by 1539. He originally worked as an engineer, but turned to mapmaking from the 1540s onward.

It was in Venice where he made his reputation as an engraver, geographer, and cosmographer; for example, he was asked to fresco maps of Asia and Africa in the Palace of the Doge, or the Council of Ten, Venice’s governmental body. He also frequently consulted on projects for the Savi sopra la Laguna, drawing maps for this body which oversaw the regulation of fresh and salt water around Venice. 

His contemporaries also recognized his skill, as he was named cosmographer to the Republic of Venice, was a member of the Accademia Veneziana, and was a major source for other geographers and mapmakers including Camocio, Bertelli, Cock, Luchini, and Ortelius. He even had his own distinct style of copper engraving that made him a pioneer in his day and makes his works iconic today.

Gastaldi enjoyed an especially productive relationship with Giovanni Battista Ramusio, Secretary of the Venetian Senate, who used Gastaldi's maps for his famous travel account collection, Navigationi et Viaggi. Gastaldi also tutored Ramusio's son in cosmography.