Drawing Lines to Tame the Unknown: A Typology of Littorals in Early Modern Maps

by Zoltán Biedermann

As Europeans re-mapped the world during the ‘Age of Discoveries’, an interesting question arose: what to do with those parts of the globe that were known to some extent, but had not yet been subject to precise measurements? Maritime cartographers like Bartolomeu Velho, one of the leading Portuguese professionals of his time, were of the conviction that the user of a chart should be able to distinguish between elements based on direct observation, and others based on rough estimate. The difference can be seen on an Indian Ocean chart attributed to Velho, made around 1560. Whilst the northern shore of the Persian Gulf is rendered in some detail, the more treacherous southern shore is given as a continuous, at times gently undulating, line. The same happens in parts of the Red Sea and East Africa.

Other mapmakers took a different approach. In Venice, Giacomo Gastaldi had no first-hand information about distant seas, but he chose not to dwell on his limitations. Instead, he launched into drawing wildly meandering, implausibly elaborate coastlines – all over the world. Printers in the Low Countries, including Abraham Ortelius, soon copied Gastaldi’s designs. They catered to a growing market for print maps among the European upper and middle classes. Their products were not for mariners. They were for armchair travellers. Print capitalism thus produced deeply flawed, but richly detailed and appealing images of the world.

Both strategies – an emphasis on how much was left to explore, or an exaggeration of how much was already known – sat well with the emerging global ambitions of European societies.

Il Disegno Della Seconda Parte Dell' Asia

Working in Venice, Giacomo Gastaldi had limited access to fresh navigational data gathered in the Orient. He made a virtue of necessity. In flagrant contrast with contemporary maritime chart, Gastaldi’s designs displayed an abundance of information on inland areas, mostly gleaned from overland travellers and some older books. For the coastlines, no distinction was made between the charted and the uncharted. All shores appeared dramatically contorted, as if they had been thoroughly explored. An overabundance of detail masked ignorance, the boundary between truth and speculation was blurred.

Turcici Imperii Descriptio

From around 1570, Abraham Ortelius flooded the European market with thousands of printed maps such as this. They were often included in map books, now considered the first modern atlases. Even a quick glance suggests the design here was copied from Gastaldi. As the printing industry in Venice underwent a crisis, Antwerp – and soon Amsterdam, Paris and London – took over as centers of map production. They often reproduced knowledge originally crafted in southern Europe, but without acknowledging its origins.

[Chart of the Western Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf]

[Chart of the Western Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf] in Portolan atlas. Bartolomeu Velho, [Lisbon?]: [c.1560]. Image courtesy of the Huntington Library.

In Lisbon, Seville and Goa, cartographers like Bartolomeu Velho produced the most advanced maritime charts of their time. Each chart was hand-drawn to the highest scientific standards. Inland areas, which could not be subjected to measurements as accurate as those made on the seas, were left largely blank. Surveyed littorals appeared in a clear and precise visual idiom known as the ‘portolan style’. Unexplored shores, in contrast, were rendered through slightly undulating lines. This impeded an entanglement of the known and the unknown.