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Looking at Ptolemy's Geography

The rediscovery, translation, and printing of Ptolemy’s Geographia in fifteenth-century Italy revolutionized ideas about cosmology. Astronomical knowledge from Alexandria fascinated Renaissance readers throughout Europe. With Ptolemy’s text in hand, a reader could observe the night sky through the eyes of an ancient mathematician-astrologer and then retreat to the study and draw up a map of the entire world. Numerical charts included plot points for all the ancient cities, leaving it up to the ambitious cartographer or amateur geographer to compile the rows of data into a single legible map. Leon Battista Alberti was one of the first to experiment with Ptolemaic geography. In his Descriptio urbis Romae (1444), Alberti used Ptolemy’s numerical system to recreate a map of ancient Rome. Alberti’s reliance on surveying instruments went against Ptolemy’s advice to let the stars and movement of the planets guide chorographical study.

Leonardo’s own maps strike the perfect Ptolemaic balance between scientific precision and artistic invention. His map of Imola combines an orthographic precision with an innovative aerial view that pleased Leonardo’s patron Cesare Borgia. Other topographical studies of the Val di Chiana and Tuscan hills reflect the fluid movements of Leonardo’s hand—the landscapes are portraits of the artist’s living earth. Ptolemy himself made the analogy between maps and portraits, a connection that Leonardo elaborated upon by referring to his anatomical drawings of the human body as atlases of the world. Leonardo looked both to the celestial sphere and to the silted marshes of the Arno with Ptolemy in mind.

[Alexandria R. Tsagaris]

Claudius Ptolemy, ca. 100–170 CE

Geographicae enarrationis libri octo

Edited by Michael Servetus with maps by Lorenz Fries. Second Edition.

Vienna: Gaspar Trechsel / Lyon: Hughes de la Porte, 1541

David Rumsey Map Collection G1005 .P7 1541 F

Gift of Mr. David Rumsey

Claudius Ptolemy produced his eight-volume treatise, Geographia, around 150 CE in Alexandria. Combining astronomical observation with mathematical expertise, Ptolemy revolutionized the concept of mapmaking. His work unveiled the notion of latitude and longitude—the planar coordinate system that established locations for different lands, mountain ranges, and bodies of water on the spherical Earth. Ptolemy charted more than 8,000 places in the ancient world, from the Canary Islands to Korea. Rediscovered and translated from Greek into Latin at the beginning of the fifteenth century, the Geographia renewed interest in cartography and exploration; the maps Christopher Columbus used were based on the projection techniques described in volume one of Ptolemy’s treatise.

Leonardo was particularly inspired by Ptolemy and the concepts in Geographia. He adopted the Ptolemaic approach of recording different types of terrain as well as studying forces of nature, such as wind. Additionally, he used the bird’s-eye view perspective, which allowed him to chart locations with orthogonal precision, evident in his sketches and maps of Milan. Leonardo also considered his representations of human anatomy as a form of mapping. His use of shapes on a linear plane in depicting bodies, most notable in the “Vitruvian Man,” stemmed from the Ptolemaic ideal of proportional distances. Moreover, he understood anatomical dissection and the process of understanding the complex inner workings of the body as a voyage across unexplored lands. As Leonardo commented, “Here shall be figured the tree of the vessels generally, as Ptolemy did the universe in his cosmography.”

[Michael Genender]

Claudius Ptolemy, ca. 100–170 CE

Translated by Pietro Andrea Mattioli, ca. 1500–1577

Author of additional tables, Giacomo Gastaldi, ca. 1500–1566

La geografia di Claudio Ptolemeo Alessandrino

Venice: Giovanbattista Pedrezano, 1548

David Rumsey Map Collection G1005 .P8 1548 T

Gift of Mr. David Rumsey

This is the first Italian translation of Ptolemy’s Geographia, the fountainhead of early modern mapmaking. As the first pocket atlas, the most important atlas to appear until Ortelius’s 1570 Theatrum orbis terrarum, it testifies to the birth of cartography. It utilized the copper engraving technique, which facilitated reproducibility and became the standard in printing maps. It interpolated contemporary discoveries into the Latin Geographia, including the first engraved maps of America’s coastline from Labrador and Newfoundland to Florida and South America. Similarly, it contains the first separate map of the Indian peninsula. The representation of space was being entirely reconceptualized. Maps, beyond providing reference, grappled with the world as a knowable entity.

Leonardo was a pivotal figure in this cartographical turn. A devotee of the Geographia, he created maps of numerous Italian territories in which he pioneered the technique of ichnographic rendering, looking vertically onto a horizontal section of landscape rather than obliquely at each component, as was done in medieval maps. He is credited with the first world map naming the New World “America,” representing it as a continent separate from Asia, as well as depicting Antarctica long before the discovery of Magellan’s Strait. Though these maps did not circulate publicly, they bear witness to an imagination centrally concerned with the problem of envisioning a rapidly transforming world. This concern, in the sixteenth century, transformed cartography into a spatialized repository of knowledge, enabling the readers of this pocket atlas to reassess the measure of their existence across the space of an ever-expanding world.

[Lorenzo Bartolucci and Helen D. Krüger]

Claudius Ptolemy, ca. 100–170 CE

Vatican Ptolemy: Tolomeo Vaticano

Madrid: Testimonio Compañía Editorial, 2005

David Rumsey Map Collection G1005 .V3 1500 2005

Gift of Mr. David Rumsey

This spectacular facsimile of the “Vatican Ptolemy” is lavishly illustrated and adorned with thirty maps. The original was created in fifteenth-century Florence. One of the many treasures of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, this Latin version of Ptolemy’s Geography, translated from the Greek by Jacopo Angeli da Scarpezia, originally belonged to Pope Alexander VI (r. 1492–1503), as evidenced by his coat of arms on the binding. The pope’s son Cesare Borgia would employ Leonardo as a military engineer.

Because they had both a pragmatic and a theoretical use in commerce, warfare, and scholarship, cosmographical works mapping out the oikoumene—the entire known world—enjoyed a wide circulation during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. They were known as “Ptolemys,” after the famous Alexandrian astronomer and geographer Claudius Ptolemaeus. Until the late sixteenth century, Ptolemy’s measurement tables and geocentric model provided, along with Aristotelian physics, the basis for describing the nature and features of the terrestrial world.

In the sixteenth century, the codex was updated with a second mappa mundi reflecting news of a recently discovered continent called America. In 1507, Martin Waldseemüller published the first map naming the new continent, where one observes, at the top, the towering figure of Ptolemy complemented by the Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Leonardo seems to have read Vespucci’s letters from the New World and knew a number of his family members.

[Nelson Shuchmacher Endebo]