Designing the World

Beginning in 1450, Florence became the most important center for the publication of the Geography by Ptolemy (ca. 100-ca. 178). Translated into Latin and accompanied by a planisphere, with twenty-six ancient regional maps and a number of modern plates, the work was transcribed in numerous luxury manuscripts in the workshops of Niccolò Germano (ca. 1420-ca. 1490) and Piero del Massaio (ca. 1420-ca. 1480). The manuscripts were commissioned by aristocratic families and religious orders in many European and Italian cities and entered the collections of numerous libraries, where they were conserved as treasured acquisitions.

During the same years, the reception of Geography in Venice was radically different. Instead of being produced as a luxury object, the text was utilized for its practical applications and studied also in cultural settings where vernacular language were used rather than Latin. Cartographer Andrea Bianco (active ca. 1430-ca. 1464), for example, reproduced the Geography’s planisphere in his 1436 nautical atlas. His version appears to derive from the earliest Greek manuscript of the Geography to have come to Italy (now Ms. Urbinas Graecus 82 in the Vatican Library), probably brought to Padua in 1434 by its owner, Palla Strozzi (1372-1462), when he was exiled there from his native Florence.

Around 1450, the Geography was partially translated into Venetian vernacular in an innovative effort to apply Ptolemy’s work to the modern world by augmenting his planispheric projection with more detail on the northern and southern latitudes. Not only was the circular space of the world maps inserted for the first time into a graduated hemisphere, but the first of Ptolemy’s projections was duplicated to include the southern hemisphere.

Ptolemy’s regional maps, for their part, were reconstructed with new pagination: each region was indicated with a cross on a small planisphere and then described in detail in a text and portrayed in an enlarged map, sometimes in the style of a nautical chart, along the bottom edge of the page. The graphic and cartographic methods adopted were clearly explained at each step in the process.

In contrast to Florence, which promoted the diffusion of the ancient text in humanist circles, geographers in Venice and Padua focused on the critical analysis and practical application of Ptolemy’s cartographic data.