Asia Ex Conatibus Geographicis Ioannis Baptistae Nicolosii S.T.D.
Nicolosi’s gorgeous four-sheet map of Asia.
This spectacular four-sheet map of Asia — produced by Italian geographer Giovanni Battista Nicolosi on a commission from the Vatican — is a tour-de-force of 17th century Italian cartography.
Published in Nicolosi’s seminal atlas Dell’ Ercole e Studio Geografico, the map features compelling and curious depictions of such varied locations as Tibet, Formosa (Taiwan), Singapore, and the Philippines, and documents the extent to which European trade and missionary activity in the region had helped shed light on a number of long-standing cartographic mysteries there. In addition, Nicolosi’s Asia is both one of the first post-Renaissance maps of Asia to be produced in the Italian schools of cartography, and the first map of Asia to use the landmark Nicolosi Globular Projection.
In addition to the innovative projection used, this map is saturated with information from a plethora of different sources. The scope of the map stretches from the Siberian Plains in the north to the immense archipelagos of Indonesia in the south, and from Persia and Oman in the west to Japan, New Guinea and the Philippines in the east. China figures relatively prominently and in great detail. This is especially so in the coastal regions, with which select European navigators would have some familiarity, but also inland do we find exciting details, which suggest that the Vatican had a much more profound and deep knowledge of the Asian landmass than one would expect. This is seen for example in the treatment of Tibet (split between Sheets 1 and 2) which, although located too far east, is neatly tucked between the ranges of the Himalaya and the provinces of Zhejiang (Sifan) and Sichuan.
By the mid 17th century Portuguese traders had been sailing on China for more than a century and intelligence reports had long since reached Europe. Consequently, European intelligentsia knew and understood the Great Wall of China in terms of function, monumentality, geographic scope, and historical significance, and Nicolosi depicts it on his map with considerable prominence, showing the individual turrets and colored in a soft red. North of the wall, it seems almost a cultural wasteland, with very few toponyms or features noted on the map.
In general, there are a number of interesting features on this map, which highlight the early days of European colonial expansion that we are in. The world is still far from fully mapped, and even maps of relatively well-known regions such as Indonesia remain riddled with myth and misinterpretation. At the same time, the European expansion of geographic knowledge (and direct mercantile and military influence) was constantly expanding and by the time Nicolosi was working, even remote and isolated areas such as Japan and Korea were being mapped with speed and accuracy. Korea is correctly shown as a peninsula, while Japan is a dense elongated archipelago that is starting to be reminiscent of the real thing.
An extremely interesting detail is the presence of the island of Formosa in the bottom of Sheet 2. This is the island of Taiwan. Between 1624 and 1662 (and again 1664-68), the island was ruled by the Dutch, who established it as Dutch Formosa and instigated a brutal form of early colonial rule. The purpose was to build (and possibly monopolize) stable trade relations with Ming China, but also to cultivate rice and sugar using imported Chinese labour. The Dutch presence on the island came to an end within a few years of this map’s publication and so its conclusion constitutes one of those rare windows into a short but decisive period of history.
The keen Dutch and Portuguese interest in trading with the Spice Islands of Indonesia meant that Europeans began mapping these complex archipelagos already from the early 16th century, although most maps of the region at that stage were considered highly confidential and of stout national interest. This also meant that Greater Indonesia here is mapped in great detail and with an impressive level of accuracy. Undoubtedly, Nicolosi had access to some of the treasured cartographic information on this region, for his rendition is unlike most of the other regions that he mapped in his continental charts. The Africa chart in particular is characterized by a very conservative approach that did not incorporate the latest reports and surveys. But in Southeast Asia, this is not the case. And even though islands like Borneo and Sumatra are slightly disproportionate in size compared to the surrounding regions, both the outline, positioning and content is remarkably accurate for a mid-17th century map.
There are nevertheless errors and myths that have been incorporated in this region. Irian Jaya or Western Papua, for example, has been depicted as a distinct island, separated from New Guinea. This distinction of Papua and Guinea as separate islands was not Nicolosi’s error, but had in fact been a recurring misunderstanding that dated back to 1590. Most scholars believe that it derived from an early mix-up of Irian Jaya (Papua) and the smaller island of Seram. Marco Polo’s Beach is shown below Java and Timor, foreshadowing the location of Australia. Hogeland and Batavia are shown on a poorly known stretch of land which would bcome Carpentaria in northern Australia, with the strait between New Guinea and Australia still poorly charted.
Another small but fascinating detail is the inclusion of the coastal entrepôt of Singapore (Sincapura) in the lower right corner of Sheet 3. The traditional western narrative about the emergence and development of Singapore as an international trade hub normally involves a process associated with Stamford Raffles and the British Empire. But Raffles arrived in Singapore in 1819, more than a century and a half after this map was issued. There was a Chinese cantonment here at this stage, but despite its ideal location on trade routes, the Brits considered it inferior and deemed that it desperately needed some British infrastructure in order to bloom. However, with Nicolosi’s map in hand, we can yet again confirm that the colonial development narrative, imposed in this case by the British, rarely corresponded to an objective reality and that in this part of the world, long-distance trade predates the arrival of the Europeans by centuries, if not millennia.
A final note should be made on the inclusion of the a fabled coastline and sound northeast of Japan, known (and labelled) as Terra di Jesso and Stretto di Jesso respectively. Jesso is another tenacious cartographic myth which characterised the exploration and mapping of the North Pacific for more than a century. The etymology of this toponym is the Japanese Ezo-chi; a term used for the lands north of the island of Honshu. During the Edō period (1600-1886), it came to represent the ‘foreigners’ on the Kuril and Sakhalin islands to the north of Japan. As European traders came into contact with the Japanese in the 17th century, the term was adopted and incorporated rather uncritically onto European maps, where it – like on Nicolosi’s map – often is associated with the island of Hokkaido.
The origins of Jesso’s importance can be traced back to Father Francis Xavier (1506-1552), an early Jesuit missionary to Japan and China. Xavier related stories that immense silver mines were to be found on a secluded Japanese island, and these stories were soon strengthened by Spanish traders spreading similar reports. The rumours became so tenacious and widespread that Abraham Ortelius included an island of silver above Japan on his 1589 Maris Pacifici map. Half a century later, the powerful Dutch East India Company sponsored two voyages of exploration to identify and possibly claim these rich lands for Holland. The first expedition was led by Abel Tasman in 1639, the second by Maarten Gerritzoon Vries in 1643. Believing the Kuril island of Urup to be continental, Vries named it Compagnies Landt after his employer. Vries erroneously perceived Urup as the westernmost fringe of America and mapmakers soon adopted this concept. Over time, variations occurred in which this undefined land came to be referred to as Jesso.
All of this was of course nonsense and would be swept aside in 1728 when Vitus Bering navigates and maps not only the strait between Asia and America, but also many of the peninsulas and islands associated herewith. But while Bering may have dispelled the cartographic darkness of this region, one of the most important motivations behind the Kamchatka Expeditions was ensuring that potentially resource-rich lands were claimed for Russia, and not some far-off European power. In that sense, even Bering was to some degree in pursuit of Father Xavier’s Jesso.
Nicolosi and the Dell’ Ercole e Studio Geografico
Giovanni Battista Nicolosi (1610-1670) was a Sicilian priest and cartographer working for the Vatican in Rome. Motivated by the ground-breaking maps of French cartographer Nicolas Sanson (especially those in his 1653 Index Geographicus), the Propaganda Fide of Rome commissioned Nicolosi to produce an atlas that could rival that of Sanson. Over the next seven years Nicolosi labored intensively to meet his employer’s demand and the outcome would be one of the most important Italian atlases produced in the 17th century.
Nicolosi’s Dell’ Ercole e Studio Geografico was published in Rome in 1660 and again in 1671 as a posthumous Latin edition. The title referred to a comparison between the labors of Hercules and those he himself had sustained to complete a full description of the earth. In the Ercole, Nicolosi presented large four-sheet maps of all the continents as they were known in the 1650s (Africa, North America, South America, Europe, and Asia – 22 plates in all). The atlas also contained an important double-map of the world, which incorporated many of the continental map innovations on a global scale (e.g. both the dubious depiction of the Niger River, as well as the first relatively accurate inclusion of the Rio Grande). Consequently, both the 4-sheet maps of the continents, as well as the two-sheet map of the world, have become highly sought after by collectors and institutions alike.
The Ercole was dedicated to Giovanni Battista Borghese and consisted of two folio volumes that had been printed by Vitale Mascardi. Composed of no less than 22 maps with associated explanatory text, the Latin edition of the Ercole (1670) was what really allowed Nicolosi’s ideas to be fully integrated into the cartographic mindset of Europe. In time, the Ercole became one of the most important geographical works of the 17th century. In part this was because of the incredible archives and sources available to a Vatican scholar in the 17th century, but the main reason was that Nicolosi approached global mapping in an entirely novel way. Essentially, he combined the traditions and perspectives of 16th century Roman and Venetian mapmakers with the latest approaches of contemporary greats such as Nicolas Sanson. This amalgamation of traditions and styles meant that Nicolosi could come up with an entirely new way of portraying the world – especially when it came to larger landmasses where the curvature of the Earth affected the way in which such terrain could be portrayed correctly.
Nicolosi was the first to employ the so-called pseudo-perspective projection in which the established meridians were perfected with the introduction of complimenting circular parallels. Over the next decades, and especially during the early 18th century, this projection technique – also known as the globular projection – became increasingly popular and was applied by seminal cartographers such as Guillaume de l’Isle and Aaron Arrowsmith. In the decades after Nicolosi’s death, the globular or Nicolosi projection replaced the stereographic projection popularized by Mercator, which had increasingly fallen into disuse by then. During the 19th century, the Nicolosi perspective became the standard cartographic projection technique and it even remains in use today.
4-sheets, unjoined. Original outline color.