Designing the World

Close analysis of the map makes it clear that for the Mediterranean areas, from the Black Sea to the Strait of Gibraltar, as well as for central and northern Europe, the epistemological model of the world map had reached its limit. That model was based on the integration of written and pictorial information, combining place names and descriptive texts with visual imagery of cities, temples, roads, rivers, mountains, and ships. For the above-mentioned regions there were established practices of writing and visual representation dating back to antiquity, but the rendering of proliferating data was necessarily becoming so miniaturized that the legibility of the work was seriously compromised.

Comparing the world map with the marine chart composed earlier in the workshop of Fra Mauro (active ca. 1430-ca. 1459/1464) according to the typical schema of medieval nautical cartography, we cannot help but notice that, despite fewer place names on the later world map, it is much harder to read. The world map, that is, appears to mark a limit of the cartographic model based on the practice of combining texts with images.

An alternative to the world map model emerged with the diffusion of the mathematical cartography of Ptolemy (ca. 100-ca. 178), in which a system of geographical coordinates allowed for the compilation of numerous regional maps whose sections corresponded to a planisphere that united them in a single image. The regional maps were thus enlargements of sections of the planisphere which allowed for an orderly, systematic aggregation of ever more dense and abundant geographical information. The addition of modern plates to new editions of Ptolemy’s Geography provided a model for geographic atlases which, instead of miniaturizing the knowledge of the world, amplified the scale of representation to such a degree that topographic detail could be incorporated.