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The Twelve Caesars World Map—Heightened in Gold!

Fine example of Claes Janszoon Visscher’s stunning and rare world map. Known as the Twelve Caesars Map, it is famous for the inclusion of the mounted Roman emperors in the decorative borders. This example is attractively heightened in gold.

Visscher’s maps are known as some of the most splendidly ornate of the seventeenth century. This world map is one of four with embellished panels that Visscher issued between 1614 and 1652. The initial state of this planisphere was published in 1639, one year after Visscher made a double-hemisphere map of the world. Pieter Goos engraved the latter and Shirley surmises that he also likely engraved this piece. The present example is the fifth and final state, dated 1652.

The map, on a Mercator projection, includes a spectacularly broad North America. Greenland is seemingly attached to the continent, making an oceanic Northwest Passage seem unlikely. However, the presence of the Strait of Anian (see below) between Asia and North America suggests that a northeast or inland passage might still be possible, especially as a ship is suggestively placed near Nova Zem[b]la. A note in Greenland discusses the voyages of John Davis in the late sixteenth century, while an Indigenous man carries a canoe and a bow nearby.

Near to the Strait of Anian is Quivira Regnum. Quivira refers to the Seven Cities of Gold sought by the Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado in 1541. In 1539, Coronado wandered over what today is Arizona and New Mexico, eventually heading to what is now Kansas to find the supposedly rich city of Quivira. Although he never found the cities or the gold, the name stuck on maps of southwest North America, wandering from east to west.

In the Atlantic are the mythical islands of Frisland and Brasil. The tale of Frisland is told below. Hy Brasil is an enduring Atlantic chimera emerging from Celtic folklore. It ranges on maps from just off the west coast of Ireland to the area around the Azores. The island was initially described as a rich paradise not unlike Atlantis; it emerged from the depths for a short period and then would disappear. It started to appear on portolan charts in the fourteenth century and continued to be a stalwart of maps and charts into the nineteenth century. The island was the subject of a fanciful pamphlet by Richard Head in 1675. Despite no accurate reports of its whereabouts, the island appeared on Admiralty charts and other reputable maps for centuries, usually at a latitude of 51°N and at a longitude of 17°W.

A large cartouche fills the empty north of the Americas. However, it discusses not northern feats, but more southerly expeditions. The cartouche outlines the voyages of Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci in the Caribbean. It then turns to the pioneering circumnavigation of Ferdinand Magellan, or, rather, of his crew, as Magellan himself died in the Philippines. It also mentions the circumnavigations of Francis Drake (1577-1580) and Thomas Cavendish (1586-8). All three of these voyages went through the Strait of Magellan, as did Sebald de Weert at the turn of the seventeenth century and Spilbergen during his circumnavigation (1614-1617).

The final voyage mentioned in the cartouche is that of Le Maire, a reference to the circumnavigation of Jacob Le Maire and Willem Schouten (1615-1617). In an attempt to undermine the monopoly of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), Isaac Le Maire, Jacob’s father, planned an attempt to find another entrance to the Pacific from the Atlantic. Schouten and the younger Le Maire sailed in 1615. They sailed between Tierra del Fuego and an island they called Staten Land, entering the Pacific around Cape Horn and crossing the South Seas. This is the geography reflected on this map, with a pointed Tierra del Fuego flanked by the Strait of Magellan and the Strait of Le Maire and an open seaway around Cape Horn.

In the far south is a massive southern continent which encompasses Australia and has a northward thrust in the South Atlantic. The shore is incomplete south of Cape Horn. The toponym Beach is on a peninsula of this continent near Southeast Asia. This is a reference to a place mentioned in Marco Polo’s travels and frequently transposed to a southern continent in maps.

The map is full of many more fascinating details. The St. Lawrence River extends to the middle of North America. Patagonian giants are tucked into South America. Korea is shown as an island (see below) and the Great Wall is shown in the interior of China. In Africa, twin lakes are separated in the south by Mountains of the Moon. Ptolemy describes such a lakes-and-mountains layout in his works, although the precise identification of the Mountains of the Moon may have been a fourth century addition to his text. Early modern geographers took up the configuration in their maps. In the lower corners are polar inset maps.

The border of the map is filled with vignettes and imagery. In the corners are the Four Continents personified. Europe is surrounded by agricultural bounty, with a fierce infantry rifle barrage in the background. Asia is clothed in riches and seated on a camel while cavalry attack behind her. America, nearly naked, is on an armadillo, glancing back to a fight waged with spears. Africa, also without clothes, is on a crocodile with only animals and no violence behind her.

Between these women, on the left and right sides, are panels that show the typical dress of Europeans, Asians, Africans, South Americans, North Americas, and those of Magellanica, who are again giants. These are interspersed with views of ports: Baía de Todos os Santos, Pernambuco, Havana, Mexico City, Rome, Amsterdam, Jerusalem, and Tunis.

The most famous decorations are on the top and bottom borders. These are the dozen Roman emperors, seated majestically on their noble steads. Each ruler and horse are laden with the most elaborate suits of armor and regalia.

States of the map

The map was first published in 1639. It was revised slightly and reissued in 1640, 1648, and 1649. The final state, of which this is an example, is dated 1652. It was sometimes included in Johannes Jansson’s Novus Atlas and in composite atlases.

Strait of Anian

This strait, believed to separate northwestern America from northeastern Asia, was related to the centuries-long quest to find a Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. The rumor of this strait and a Northwest Passage in general inspired many voyages of discovery, including those of John Cabot, Sir Francis Drake, Gaspar Corte-Real, Jacques Cartier, and Sir Humphrey Gilbert.

The term Anian itself comes from Marco Polo’s thirteenth-century accounts of his travels. Polo used the term to refer to the Gulf of Tonkin, but cartographers thought it could refer to this supposed strait between Asia and North America. The Strait of Anian, so named, first appeared in a 1562 map by Giacomo Gastaldi, and was later adopted by Bolognini Zaltieri and Gerard Mercator.

The Zeno Map and the mythical island of Frisland

The Zeno family was part of the Venetian elite; indeed, their family had controlled the monopoly over transport between Venice and the Holy Land during the Crusades. Nicolo Zeno set off in 1380 to England and Flanders; other evidence seems to corroborate this part of the voyage. Then, his ship was caught in a huge storm, blowing him off course and depositing him in the far North Atlantic. He and his crew were wrecked on a foreign shore, the island of Frislanda (sometimes Friesland or Freeland).

Thankfully, the shipwrecked Venetians were found by King of Frisland, Zichmni, who also ruled Porlanda, an island just south of Frisland. Zichmni was on a crusade to conquer his neighbors and Nicolo was happy to help him strategize. Nicolo wrote to his brother, Antonio, encouraging him to join him and, good navigator that he was, Antonio sailed for Frisland and arrived to help his brothers. Together, they led military campaigns against Zichmni’s enemies for fourteen years.

Their fights led the brothers to the surrounding islands, presumably enabling them to make their famous map. Zichmni attempted to take Islanda but was rebuffed. Instead, he took the small islands to the east, which are labeled on this map. Zichmni built a fort on one of the islands, Bres, and he gave command of this stronghold to Nicolo. The latter did not stay long, instead sailing to Greenland, where he came upon St. Thomas, a monastery in Greenland with central heating. Nicolo then returned to Frisland, where he died four years later, never to return to Venice.

Antonio, however, was still alive. He ran into a group of fishermen while on Frisland. These fishermen had been on a 25-year sojourn to Estotiland. Supposedly, Estotiland was a great civilization and Latin-speaking, while nearby Drogeo, to the south, was full of cannibals and beasts. Antonio, on Zichmni’s orders, sought these new lands, only to discover Icaria instead. The Icarians were not amenable to invasion, however, and Antonio led his men north to Engroneland, to the north. Zichmni was enthralled with this new place and explored inland. Antonio, however, returned to Frisland, abandoning the King. From there, Antonio sailed for his native Venice, where he died around 1403.

News of the discoveries and the first version of the Zeno map was published in 1558 by another Nicolo Zeno, a descendent of the navigator brothers. Nicolo the Younger published letters he had found in his family holdings, one from Nicolo to Antonio and another from Antonio to their other brother, Carlo, who served with distinction in the Venetian Navy. They were published under the title Dello Scoprimento dell’isole Frislanda, Eslanda, Engrouelanda, Estotilanda, & Icaria, fatto sotto il Polo Artico, da due Fratelli Zeni (On the Discovery of the Island of Frisland, Eslanda, Engroenland, Estotiland & Icaria, made by two Zen Brothers under the Arctic Pole) (Venice: Francesco Marcolini, 1558).

At the time of publication, the account attracted little to no suspicion; it was no more and no less fantastic than most other voyage and travel accounts of the time. Girolamo Ruscelli published a version of the Zeno map in 1561, only three years after it appeared in Zeno’s original work. Ruscelli was a Venetian publisher who also released an Italian translation of Ptolemy. Ruscelli had moved to Venice in 1549, where he became a prominent editor of travel writings and geography.

Ruscelli was not the only geographer to integrate the Zeno map into his work. Mercator used the map as a source for his 1569 world map and his later map of the North Pole. Ortelius used the Zeno islands in his map of the North Atlantic. Ramusio included them in his Delle Navigationo (1583), as did Hakluyt in his Divers Voyages (1582) and Principal Navigations (1600), and Purchas (with some reservation) in his Pilgrimes (1625). Frisland appeared on regional maps of the North Atlantic until the eighteenth century.

In the nineteenth century, when geography was popular as both a hobby and a scholarly discipline, the Zeno account and map came under scrutiny. Most famously, Frederick W. Lucas questioned the validity of the voyage in The Annals of the Voyages of the Brothers Nicolo and Antonio Zeno in the North Atlantic (1898). Lucas accused Nicolo the Younger of making the map up, using islands found on other maps and simply scattering them across the North Atlantic. He also accused Nicolo of trying to fabricate a Venetian claim to the New World that superseded the Genoan Columbus’ voyage. Other research has revealed that, when he was supposed to be fighting for Zichmni, Nicolo was in the service of Venice in Greece in the 1390s. He is known to have drafted a will in 1400 and died—in Venice, not Frisland—in 1402.

Scholars still enjoy trying to assign the Zeno islands to real geographic features. For example, Frisland is thought to be part of Iceland, while Esland is supposed to be the Shetlands. Some still believe the Zenos to have sailed to these lands. Most, however, view the voyage and the map as a reminder of the folly and fancy (and fun) of early travel literature and cartography. Whatever the truth, the Zeno map and its islands are one of the most enduring mysteries in the history of cartography. 

Korea as an island

The sequence of events and maps that led California to be portrayed as an island are much clearer than another famous peninsula-turned-island, Korea. Korea is briefly mentioned in the thirteenth century by Marco Polo as Cauli (Kauli), but otherwise Korea was not described again for European audiences until the late-sixteenth century.

As with Japan and China, most of the earliest bits of information about Korea came from the Jesuits sending letters sent back from East Asia. However, the Jesuits were not actually stationed in Korea; they could only glean impressions from Chinese and Japanese sources. For example, Father Luis Frois wrote of Korea in the context of a war with Japan in 1578. Frois explained that Korea was separated from Japan by a sliver of sea. It had previously been understood to be an island, he explained, but was now known to be a peninsula. However, why Korea was thought to be an island, by who, and how it was found to be a peninsula was not shared with Frois’ curious readers back in Europe.

The first known European to visit Korea was also a Jesuit, Father Gregorio des Cespedes. He accompanied Japanese troops during another war with Korea in 1592. The territory did not agree with Cespedes, who found it bitingly cold. He did not mention anything about the Korean peoples or their geography.

Travel writers, those who actually traveled and those who were more drawn to the armchair voyage, also wrote about Korea. Jan Huygen van Linschoten spent several years in Goa, India, where he had access to Spanish and Portuguese sources. In his Itinerario, first published in German and English in 1598, he suggests Korea is a large island called Core. Richard Hakluyt read the Jesuit letters, which were republished in sets of annual letters. In the second edition of his Principal Navigations (1599), Hakluyt included the information from Frois and Cespedes, scant as it was.

Given the relative dearth of source material, it is not surprising that early maps by Münster, Mercator and Ortelius omitted Korea entirely. The first map to show Korea was Orbis Terrarum Typus de Integro Multis in Locis Emendatus by Petrus Plancius (1594). It included “Corea” as a long, skinny peninsula barely attached to the northeast corner of China. Edward Wright, in the map accompanying Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations, adopted a similar depiction of Korea, as did other mapmakers from the 1590s onward.

Interestingly, the map that accompanied Linschoten’s Itinerario, by Arnold Floris van Langren, shows Korea as a large, round island. However, no other mapmaker is known to have followed this example. Another early island depiction that was widely adopted was that of Luis Teixeira in the 1595 edition of Ortelius’ Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. The long, thin island was used by several cartographers, including Jodocus Hondius, in the seventeenth century. Blaeu also used the Teixeira model before creating a new Korea in later maps that looked like a bat hanging from China, separated from the mainland by the thinnest of waterways.

Confusion over island vs. peninsula continued across seventeenth-century maps. For example, John Speed includes three separate versions of Korea across four maps in his A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World (1626). It is shown on the Teixeira island model, as a thin peninsula, and as a blunt island. These various hypotheses as to the shape of Korea continued to coexist for decades.

Finally, in the 1650s, Father Martino Martini gathered more information and created a new map of Korea. In China from 1642 to 1651, Martini spent a good deal of time with Chinese maps and their makers. Thus, he created new maps showing Korea as a thicker, nearly rectangular peninsula in Bellum Tartaricum (1654) and the Atlas Sinensis (1655).

Also in the 1650s, a Dutch sailor named Hendrick Hamel was shipwrecked on Jeju, an island near southern Korea. Hamel and his fellow survivors would spend thirteen years in Korea, escaping to Nagasaki in 1666. He wrote about the ordeal in a journal that was published in 1668. Although it lacked maps, the ample descriptions confirmed that Korea gave a detailed, first-hand view of Korean geography and culture.

Nevertheless, several maps were published in the early eighteenth-century showing Korea as an island. The island myth, which most likely stemmed from a misreading of Japanese and Chinese maps by early Jesuits, proved to be quite entrenched. Only in 1735 did Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville produce a map with a roughly accurate outline of the peninsula and a relatively detailed interior.

Condition Description
Heightened in Gold. Old color, recently refreshed. Trimmed to neat lines, with margins extended. Minor repairs along centerfold. Minor paper tear in top left image, invisibly repaired on verso. Minor thinness and reinforcements on verso.
Shirley, 350. KAP