Typus Cosmographicus Universalis
Vadianus’ 1534 Ptolemaic World Map: the finest woodblock impression of any early world map.
1. Produced shortly after the first discoveries of the New World, this map includes one of the earliest full depictions of South America and a gigantic Cuba instead of North America.
2. The example offered here is a first state in superlative condition.
3. The map features many of the classic elements of Ptolemaic cartography, including: the Mountains of the Moon and the Dragon’s Tail model of the Malay Peninsula.
4. And yet, it is a true product of the Renaissance: constantly questioning assumptions and promulgating new ones.
Our wonderfully preserved, first-state copy of Joachim Vadianus’ famous oval projection of the world, is one of the earliest maps to include, and name, the American landmasses. Moreover, it is also among the earliest obtainable maps to confidently depict an oceanic space beyond these new continents. It is consequently no exaggeration when we designate this chart an important addition in any ambitious collection of early American maps.
The map was published in 1534 by Christoph Froschauer, Zürich’s first printer, as part of Vadianus’ most famous cartographic publication, the atlas Epitome trium terrae partium Asiae, Africae et Europae compendiariam locorum descriptionem continens. It was issued in three different states, each of which can easily be identified by the banner text at the bottom of the map; in this first state, the text at bottom reads ‘TIGURI ANNO M D XXXIII.’ The first state is undoubtedly the rarest issue of the three and is often found in poor condition because nearly all the first states were mounted as folding maps in the atlas. This fact makes Neatline’s copy of this astounding chart all the more extraordinary, for not only is it in exquisite condition, with a clear and crisp printing and very few damages to the sheet, but it has almost no visible fold lines, making it a unique opportunity for the serious collector.
Our sheet is in its original uncolored state and measures 40.6 x 28.7 cm (16 x 11.25 in). All of the important and decorative features that one might expect to find on a world map from this formative period of cartography are present, rendered in a more simple and direct style than its contemporaries. Ultimately, this chart is an important component in the cartographic oeuvre of the 16th century; a body work that gradually shifted the dominant paradigm away from a Ptolemaic understanding of the world.
The Vadianus map was printed as a woodcut and was partly based on the seminal maps of Martin Waldseemüller (Universalis Cosmographia, 1506), and Peter Apian (Tipus Orbis Universalis, 1520). But it was particularly influenced by Sebastian Münster and Simon Grynaeus’s Typus cosmographicus universalis (1532), in which the Americas have been depicted in almost exactly the same fashion as by Vadianus. South America is recognizable to the modern eye, but North America has been reduced to a large sliver of land entitled Terra de Cuba. While the depiction of North America will develop rapidly from this point in time, we may consider the anomalous form of Cuba/North America as a visual representation of the earliest European awareness that a continental landmass existed beyond the Caribbean. More importantly perhaps, the map suggests that there lies another large body of water beyond this great landmass – possibly one leading to Asia.
Vadianus and Münster knew each other personally and corresponded regularly. An interesting feature of the Münster/Grynaeus map (and also found on the Waldseemüller and Apian charts) is a small passage between the two continents: an imagined Panama Canal if you will. Vadianus carefully replicated this feature on his work, as if subtly encouraging Europe’s agents of exploration to push through and expand the scope of humanity’s geographic understanding. Even though Vadianus drew very direct inspiration from Münster when it came to the shape and positioning of the American landmasses, he obviously did not accept Munster’s entire worldview uncritically. One place we see this in the Americas is in the omission of the Caribbean archipelago, which Münster includes and labels. Similarly, Vadianus omits Münster’s early depiction of Japan as an island just beyond North America.
Beyond the established cartographers mentioned above, another possible source which Vadianus might have consulted were the popular, but rare globes of other contemporary German-speaking cartographers, for example Johann Schöner. In 1520, Schöner produced a globe in which North America retains the same shape and position as Cuba in Vadianus’ map. While the resemblance is apparent, Schöner’s globe also contained elaborate depictions of the Caribbean islands, as well as a clear rendition of the Pacific Ocean and Japan. In general, we can surmise that there are no sources on which Vadianus drew unequivocally. He certainly preferred a more uncluttered aesthetic touch than that which characterizes both the Münster map and the Schöner globe. There are nevertheless some elaborations, with ships in the north and south Atlantic and a lonely and not-so-intimidating sea monster in the southwest Pacific.
The Ptolemaic worldview
While Vadianus’ chart in many ways adheres to the common world conception of the time, there are also significant improvements and other alterations. The principles and basic history of Ptolemaic geography have been outlined in the ‘Context’ section below. Here, it will suffice to first briefly describe the expected features that represent what might be termed a common understanding of what the world looked like cartographically, followed by a discussion of the ways in which Vadianus departs from established tradition.
The Old World, represented by Europe, Asia, and Africa, is largely shown the way one would expect at this time. Africa has roughly the correct outline, with both the Horn and Cape clearly depicted, but it is largely devoid of toponyms and replicates a number of myths spanning back to Antiquity. The Nile, in many ways the cradle of western civilization, has always been a contentious topic of geographic debate. According to Ptolemaic tradition, the great river’s source is to be found in a great interior range known as Mons Lunae, or Mountains of the Moon. In this map, these have been depicted further south than usual and flow into two great lakes, which also date back to Ptolemy’s original descriptions and possibly represent early conceptions of Lake Victoria and Lake Albert. Similar renditions can be found in most of the contemporaries already discussed, as well as in the world maps of Laurent Fries. The great Saharan desert is simply labeled Aethiopia interior and includes a few simple pictographs of mountains and a large Saharan river.
Out in the Indian Ocean we find the island of Madagascar, which not only has been placed too far from the mainland, but also has been warped into an unrecognizable from, with a long promontory extending at the southern end. Interestingly, a large cartouche covers this space in the Münster/Grynaeus map, precluding them from depicting this at the time almost mythical island, and consequently Vadianus from emulating it. Instead we may look to both Waldsemüller and Apian for good parallels.
One would perhaps expect Europe to be the most accurately depicted, given the age and sources of this map, and in many ways it is. It certainly carries the most detailed and accurate labels, but there are still a number of strange features worth noting. While one cannot help but see the enlarged, erroneous shape of the Black Sea, the most significant oddity must be the enormous land bridge that extends from Scandinavia and into the Polar region (not to mention conveniently out of the map). While land bridges between Scandinavia and the North Pole are not uncommon in maps of this period, it is extremely uncommon to see one depicted with such girth. The Münster/Holbein map has something akin to this, but that may well be interpreted as Lapland or the upper parts of Scandinavia. In the case of Vadianus, we can make no such concessions.
On both the Münster and the Vadianus map, the peninsula is marked Septentrio (Latin, meaning ‘of the north’), and its extension forms a large bay to the north of Russia. While this has been termed ‘Mare Congelatum’ — ‘Frozen Sea’ — on the Münster map, Vadianus simply labels the entire Arctic Sea as the ‘Oceanus Septentrionalis Sive Scythicus Circulus Arcticus’ — ‘Northern or Scythian Ocean encircling the Arctic.’ The reference to the Scythians, ancient nomadic warriors from Siberia, reminds us of the antiquity of this worldview.
Another anomaly, and one that may explain the inclusion of this massive land bridge on both the Münster and the Vadianus maps, is the complete omission of Greenland. Albeit poorly charted, Europeans had known about this gigantic landmass since at least the 10th century, and in the 16th century Norwegian whalers would sail on her eastern coasts each summer. One imagines that both cartographers, having heard of the phenomenon and wanting to include it in their maps, may have elaborated on Waldseemüller’s initial attribution of Gronelant to the Scandinavian Peninsula (1507). Even though Waldseemüller soon clarified the geographical relationships and by 1517 depicted Greenland in more or less accurate form (albeit with the top omitted), many 16th century cartographers adapted this line of thinking to envision Greenland as an enormous northern promontory extending from the north of Scandinavia (e.g. Laurent Fries).
Asia also appears largely as we know from other maps of the period, although there are a number of more or less subtle amendments that in many ways improve the map considerably and herald a new age of cartography. A common feature of the era is the depiction of three large headlands extending from the south of the continent and constituting roughly the Indian, Malay, and Siamese Peninsulas. We see Vadianus depart from Ptolemaic tradition in his depiction of the Indian Subcontinent: it is both more slender and more accurate than was the norm at the time. The improvement builds, at least in part, on the many Portuguese voyages of trade and exploration that were mounted in the Indian Ocean in the early 16th century. Reports from these contributed to permanently dispelling many of the notions promulgated by Ptolemy himself. We are in other words dealing with an amalgamation of the established Ptolemaic rendition of the world and fundamental cartographic revisions that were required in an age of exploration.
One of the most interesting features of Asia in Ptolemaic maps is the warped and oversized depiction of some features over others. An example is seen immediately to the right of the southern India, where we find an oversized depiction of Sri Lanka. In this case, the exaggerated dimensions are no doubt due to the age-old significance and status of the island as a hub of international trade. Not only did much of the maritime Silk Road hinge on Sri Lanka as a central node in a vast mercantile network, but European travelers had been frequenting the island for commercial purposes since Roman times.
A cartographically more significant warping is found in the dramatic and curved extension of the Malay Peninsula. Known among collectors and specialists as ‘the Dragon’s Tail,’ this feature was widely used to show a schematic representation of the still largely unexplored and geographically complex Southeast Asian Archipelago. The Dragon’s Tail model was originally proposed by Henricus Martellus Germanus, a German mapmaker working in Florence in the 1490s. By extending the easternmost peninsula and curbing it inwards, he came up with a reasonable compromise to resolve the long-contentious issue of Ptolemy’s land bridge connecting southeast Asia and southern Africa.
The Dragon’s Tail constitutes a transitional element in the shift away from a Ptolemaic view of world geography, which perceived the Indian Ocean as an enclosed space, bounded on its southern side by a mythical land bridge between the African and Asian continents. This had been rejected by sailors for centuries, but was not broadly accepted by cartographer until a feasible alternative model could be formulated. While there was a dawning awareness of the Antarctic shelf, it was also known not to form the type of physical connection hypothesized by Ptolemy. The Dragon’s Tail was an acceptable compromise, in that it evolved from the old model of the world, but took the increasing amount of new information into account as well. And finally, the broad swoop of the Dragon’s Tail may also reflect an early awareness of the cultural and geographical coherence of the Southeast Asian Archipelago.
A feature that stands out on the map are the twelve wind-heads that surround the ovoid map proper. Their presence is to be expected on a prominent 16th century chart, but it is worth noting that Vadianus in this manner deliberately displays the world’s wind regime in the ancient style of Ptolemaic geographers. From the 13th century forward, a functionalist mapmaking tradition had grown alongside the more scholastic visions of Ptolemaic geographers. Many of these maps had been designed specifically for navigation and were often hand-drawn on vellum or parchment, and produced in very few copies.
Within this tradition, which was more oriented towards maritime navigation than conceptual visualization, new cartographic concepts developed and transcended from the world of portolans to the world of mass produced printed maps and charts. Among these innovations were the new eight point star compass roses, which in turn sustained the early rhumb line networks that by which sailors navigated in the Mediterranean, North Sea, and Indian Ocean. On this chart, each of the twelve wind-heads bear the names originally given to them by the Roman scholar Seneca in the 1st century CE (found in the 5th book of his Naturales quaestiones). Ten of them flank the map’s fringes, while larger winged wind-heads form the central component of the upper and lower titular banners.
Context is everything
The Ptolemaic understanding of the world dates back to the second century CE. It stems from the pivotal work of Roman geographer Claudius Ptolemy and his monumental scientific treatise, Geographia, which was written in Alexandria around 150 CE and covers an area from the Canary Islands in the west to the coasts of China in the east. Ptolemy conceived of the work as a revision of an even earlier geography written by Marinus of Tyre, but this has since been lost to the ages. A gazetteer, atlas, and study of the world’s geography rolled into one, Ptolemy’s work was so influential that it remained the dominant way of understanding the physical expanse of the world until the 15th century…but not without a few hiccups along the way.
During the Dark Ages, the writings of Ptolemy suffered the same fate that many ancient philosophers and thinkers did: the fogs of oblivion. Its salvation came from a somewhat unexpected quarter when it was taken to Abbasid Baghdad and translated into Arabic in the 9th century CE. This was the Golden Age of Islam and over the coming centuries Arab and Persian geographers adopted and elaborated many of Ptolemy’s teachings and created some of the earliest preserved maps in existence.
One such scholar is particularly worth noting. Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī was a Persian polymath at the Abbasid court in Baghdad. As head librarian in the Caliph’s House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikmah), he produced a number of decisive scientific treatises on astronomy, mathematics, and geography. His work has been so influential to the development of human knowledge in a number of fields that his name was eternalized in the word ‘algorithm’ (the latinization of his name).
As Europe came into contact with the Arab world during the Crusades, Christendom rediscovered lost parts of its ancient heritage. The intellectual and scientific accomplishments of the Arabs overshadowed those of their European counterparts at this point in history, but European ambitions were mounting, and especially the Papacy sought to accumulate and assess the knowledge accumulated and refined by the Arabs.
Historical consensus holds that the first translation of Ptolemy into Latin happened at the cosmopolitan court of Roger II in Sicily. Sadly, this has not survived, but its existence is evidenced by a number of 13th and 14th century Ptolemaic maps produced within the Christian world. An example of this can be found in the Urbinas Greacas 82: a 13th century proto-world map held in the Vatican Library. This impressive chart, annotated in Greek, was probably compiled by an ecclesiastical scholar in the eastern Mediterranean and is based on Arab-Ptolemaic conceptualizations of the earth.
It was not until 1406 that Ptolemy’s Geographia was translated from Arabic back into Latin with wider success. Published in Florence, it quickly became an unavoidable and decisive text for anyone dealing with questions of geography. In 1477 it was reissued in Bologna, now for the first time including engraved maps of all the regions described, and from that point on it became the leading paradigm followed by European cartographers and scholars.
Much of Ptolemy’s knowledge of Asia came from the mercantile expeditions across the Indian Ocean carried out by ancient Greek and Roman mariners. Over time, however, new important sources needed to be considered. Marco Polo’s accounts, for example, dramatically changed the geographic perception of China and contributed much to ending the understanding of the Indian Ocean as bounded on all sides. Similarly, the discovery of the Americas by Columbus, Vespucci, Cabral, and others also posed a difficult challenge to the Ptolemaic understanding of the world. Finding logical ways to incorporate and explain these new discoveries is what ultimately allowed the Ptolemaic tradition to be surpassed by more scientific and observation-based ways of mapping the world. The Vadianus map represents the cusp of exactly that great achievement.
Excellent. Left margin partially extended with very minor reinstatement, as often seen with the map. The map in its first state generally is very rare on the market, the vast majority of these maps have suffered significantly over time, due to having been folded and mounted within the atlas.
Shirley, R.W., The Mapping of the World, Plate 62, #70, p. 78.
Nordenskiold, A.E., Facsimile Atlas, p. 105 and fig. 66.
Wolff, H., America, Early Maps of the New World, pp.71-72, #87.