Sir Robert Dudley

Sir Robert Dudley’s Dell’Arcano del Mare is the earliest printed sea atlas to cover the entire world, the first made by an Englishman, and the first to use the Mercator projection. It was first published in Italian at Florence in 1645, then again in 1646 in a three volume folio. It is remarkable for its inclusion of a proposal for the construction of a navy which Dudley designed and described. It was reprinted in Florence in a two volume folio in 1661 without the charts of the first edition.

Dudley’s father, the Earl of Leicester, was a financial backer of Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of 1577-81. As such, it has been suggested that Dudley had access to information only available to Queen Elizabeth and her inner circle, although whether this special access is reflected on Dudley’s charts is unclear. Dudley consulted the journals of his brother-in-law was the famous Thomas Cavendish, the third person to circumnavigate the globe after Magellan and Drake.

The distinctive Baroque style of Dudley’s charts is attributable to the elegant engraving of Antonio Francesco Lucini. The six-volume work covered navigation, shipbuilding and astronomy, with 130 maps in two volumes. Unlike the vast majority of his contemporaries, Dudley’s maps are all his own and were not copied from other mapmakers. They have an instantly recognizable style: closer to the pre-17th century manuscript portolan charts than the richly decorated maps of Mercator, Hondius and Blaeu.

Later map-makers chose not to copy Dudley’s style and so it remains unique in the annals of cartography. The engraving by Antonio Francesco Lucini, who stated that he spent 12 years and used 5,000 pounds of copper to produce the plates, is of exceptional quality, as is the calligraphy.

Today parts of Dell’Arcano del Mare are on display at the Museo Galileo in Florence.

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