Staff at the Bodleian and other specialists have written a book, Treasures from the Map Room, which has essays on 75 maps from the collection. They include historically important maps, interesting quirky ones and some of our personal favourites. From the Gough Map of 1370 to the map created by the artist Layla Curtis for the NewcastleGateshead Festival of the Visual Arts in 2006 the book shows the range of material held in the Bodleian’s collections, and includes maps hand-drawn by J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and General Gordon, beautifully illustrated Venetian portolans, military and scientific mapping as well as cartographic works of art. We feature here one of the maps from the book, which is published today.
This woodcut world map, published in Ulm in 1486 and based on much earlier information, has an intriguing link with the European discovery of the Americas. The map data comes from Claudius Ptolemy (fl. 146-c.170), who composed his Geographia in Alexandria in ca. 160 AD. He provided coordinates for 8000 places, tied into a grid of longitudes and latitudes; an extraordinary achievement for the time. It is not known if he ever made the maps his work describes, but the text survived in Arabic manuscripts as a set of instructions for making maps of the known world. In the early fifteenth century it was translated into Latin by Jacopo d’Angelo; the maps were later revised by Nicolaus Germanus (fl. 1451-1456), a German Benedictine. He aimed to follow Ptolemy’s instructions and his maps must be close to those Ptolemy himself might have compiled. Ptolemaic atlases are amongst the earliest printed books. A version with the maps engraved on copper was produced in 1478, but this woodcut version has a unique charm.
This copy belonged to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, whose coat of arms is in the book. Ferdinand and Isabella supported Columbus’ voyage across the Atlantic. Although Ptolemy’s locations were amazingly accurate for their time, his calculation of the Earth’s circumference was an underestimate. Columbus (who owned a 1478 edition of the Geographia) believed the distance to China to be less than it was, based partly on this. As Ptolemy’s geography demonstrates, the understanding that the world was round was nothing new even in Columbus’s day. But this world map raises intriguing questions. Would Columbus have planned to travel west to China, and encountered the Americas on the way, without this misconception? Would Ferdinand and Isabella have been so supportive if they had not also owned a copy of the book that supported his theory?
‘Typus orbis terrarum’ from the ‘Geographia’, by Claudius Ptolemaeus Alexandrinus, trans. Jacobus Angeli, ed. Nicolaus Germanus. Ulm: Johann Reger, for Justus de Albano, 21 July 1486; with the maps from the edition of Ulm, Lienhart Holl, 1482. Arch. B b.19 (Bod-inc. P-529 (2))
The full article is in Treasures from the Map Room: a journey through the Bodleian collections. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2016. ISBN 978 1 85124 250 4. Available from the Bodleian bookshop.