The quintessential explorer’s map: the first printed sea chart of the Gulf of Mexico, from one of the most interesting and important characters in the pantheon of pioneer cartographers.

Carta particolare della Baia di Messico con la Costa.

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Cartographer(s): Sir Robert Dudley
Date: 1647
Place: Florence
Dimensions: 76 x 53 cm (30 x 21 in)
Condition Rating: VG+
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Listen to Kristoffer introduce this map:

This incredibly rare map of the Gulf of Mexico is among the most important charts to be published in Sir Robert Dudley’s iconic maritime atlas, Dell’Arcano del Mare (1645-47), a magnificent six-volume masterpiece that independently advanced the standards for nautical cartography. The map covers the entire Gulf littoral, stretching from the east coast of Florida and western Cuba in the west, to inland Mexico in the west. In the lower left corner, we even see a sliver of Mexico’s Pacific coastline, including many new toponyms that had not figured on maps prior to this one. In the north, the entire Louisiana to Texas coastline is depicted, and in the south the map includes all of the Yucatan Peninsula, as well as the important island of Cozumel.

There are many reasons that this is considered one of the Arcano’s most important maps, but above all is the fact that Dudley led an expedition to this part of the New World in the late 16th century, and therefore had first-hand knowledge of the region. One would be hard pressed to find a chart of the Gulf of Mexico that was more pioneering than that offered here, which we co-own with Geographicus Antique Maps in Brooklyn. Our sheet is an excellently preserved first edition, first state of this map, which itself constituted the first printed nautical chart of this region in history. Furthermore, it was issued in the world’s first printed nautical atlas, which was also the first printed atlas to fully apply the new Mercator projection to all of its maps. It is thus a map of ‘firsts’ — and a particularly fine example at that.



Dudley’s sources

What makes Dudley particularly unique was the way in which he used his maps to merge his own insights and experiences with a plethora of information that he spent a lifetime collecting from fellow captains, navigators and, of course, the great nautical archives of both Elizabethan England and late-Renaissance Florence. This combination of cartographic ingredients made Dudley’s maps stand out from his contemporaries, and because his distinctive style went largely un-copied by later mapmakers, the Arcano remains one of the most unique and direct testimonies to the Age of Exploration that we still have available to us.

We know that Dudley was an avid sailor, who captained a fleet of ships to the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico at least once. We also know that he collected information from other captains and navigators throughout his life, both those he met en route, but perhaps more importantly also from some of the greatest living explorers back home. Dudley was close friends with the likes of Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, and he was married to the sister of Thomas Cavendish, only the fifth man to circumnavigate the globe. For long periods his standing at the English court was such that he had unrestricted access to the archives of the Crown. Later in life, his position in Florence allowed him equally free access to the archives of the Medici Family, which contained many of the early Italian explorers’ and cartographers’ notes and findings. He was, in other words, extremely well-informed. But unlike his peers, he spent decades accumulating, sorting, and analyzing the information prior to publishing it.

The map’s aesthetic makes it quite clear that this was a chart compiled specifically for the purpose of nautical navigation. Indeed, Dudley’s insistence on applying the Mercator projection throughout his atlas was directly intended to assist navigators in plotting a more reliable course over open waters. Having sailed on this region of the world himself, Dudley included many completely new maritime observations, such as the prevailing wind regime, dominant currents, and depth soundings along the coast of Florida and in the Bay of Mexico, where many large Spanish ports were located. Gone are most of the decorative elaborations and all of the pictorial inland topography we are used to from his contemporaries. Instead, we are provided with extremely detailed coastlines – both in regard to outline and place names – as well the direction and strength of prevailing currents and winds. When on occasion ornamental elaborations have been added, these are distinctly maritime, being either ships plowing the open seas or features on land that were either well-known or visible from the deck of a ship tacking along the coast (e.g. the ruins of the Maya city of Tulum, southwest of Cozumel).

There are numerous elements that make Dudley’s maps unique for their time, including a plethora of place names that do not figure on other maps of the period and which cartographic scholarship has been unable to pinpoint in a modern context. This speaks to Dudley’s process of gathering contemporary information prior to actually compiling his maps. Some of these places could have been landing sites for early and perhaps unknown explorers; men who gave their anchorages a Christian name that generally went unrecorded (besides by Dudley) and therefore were lost to history. Other places may well have been large indigenous settlements or seasonal trading places that vanished as part of the colonization process. We simply do not know. But then that is exactly what makes Dudley’s maps of the New World so enticing and desirable: the sense of stealing that last glimpse of a lost world.

Well-known cites and trading hubs such as Havana, Aqua Pulca (Acapulco), Veracruz and Campeche are naturally also included on the map, just as some of the large inland centers have been correctly plotted. A nice example is Mexico City (Messico), which at this early stage of the Spanish Empire still is depicted in the middle of Lake Texcoco, where until the 1520s the great Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had stood.



Rivers and estuaries

Knowing full well how crucial accurate maps were for navigators in unfamiliar waters, Dudley’s focus was always on the coastlines. In this map, the entire littoral is densely labelled and most of the toponyms pertain either to rivers or to capes and promontories. This demonstrates an impressive familiarity with the region, but we should not imagine that Dudley had actually sailed on all of these coastlines.

One of the most important features pertaining to a more accurate mapping of the Gulf are the many deltas and estuaries that Dudley includes on his map. In most of these cases, the rivers creating them disappear innocuously into the hinterland, revealing once again the perspective from which this map was both conceived and compiled. Few of the names attributed to the rivers correspond to later historical names, and so reaching a consensus about what exactly they represent remains difficult to this day. One hotly debated issue has been whether the large bay on the Louisiana coast represents the Galveston Bay, fed by numerous smaller rivers such as the Jacinto and Trinity, or whether it is in fact the Mississippi Delta. While the geographic location may suggest Galveston, the depiction of a large river (Rio da Santo Spirito) emptying into the bay is perhaps more indicative of it being the Mississippi.

Phillip Burden, an important antiquarian map scholar and dealer, contributed to this debate by suggesting that in light of the manner in which Dudley compiled his maps, and considering the primordial period in which this one was produced, the depiction could well have represented both bays at the same time. It is perhaps not difficult to imagine that there were occasions of confusion or mis-recollection when considering the scope of Dudley’s records and the period over which they were collected. Burden goes on to identify a number of rivers from Dudley’s toponyms where he feels there is sufficient consensus to establish the attribution. These include the Rio Montanhas as the Sabine River; the Rio d’Oro as the Trinity River; and the Rio Madalena as the Nueces River. Finally, Burden proposes that the Rio Escondido is the most likely candidate for the Rio Grande.


Early Florida


One of the most celebrated features on this map is its depiction of Florida, which we know was a part of the New World that Dudley sailed on himself. It is not strange that anyone fascinated with the cartographic history of Florida would pine for this particular map, for despite being located in the upper right fringes of the map, it is one of the most fascinating and accurate 17th century depictions of the peninsula available. Before concentrating on Florida itself, let us look briefly at the waters surrounding it. Along the southern shores we find a number of depth soundings as well as detailed information on seasonal winds and currents, along with notes on possible wrecks; all crucial information for mariners entering these waters for the first time. Also shown south of the promontory is a cluster of islands. These are the Tortugas, however, and not the Florida Keys, which Dudley omitted from his map.

In the sliver of water depicted along Florida’s east coast is a large label denoting it as the ‘Channel of the Bahamas’ (Canale di Bahama), but adding that these are dangerous waters (pericoloso). The inlets and bays around Florida are also interesting. In the northwest we find an extended bay with several islands, including a larger one labeled Isla Tuca guarding its entrance. Despite its odd geographic position compared to the rest of the peninsula, and the general lack of a label in the bay itself, several place names along the coast provide tantalizing clues as to what is actually depicted here. Following the labels on Florida’s western coast, we find the name Baia di Tampa ò Tuca. Just below that, we find a cape or point with the same name, and slightly further south, a river also named Tampa. This is no less than one of the earliest maritime charts of the Bay of Tampa in existence.

Moving south, there is another large bay with several islands in it. Both on the northern and southern approach to the bay’s entrance, we find areas marked by dotted lines and labeled seccagna, the old Italian word for ‘annoying.’ The real treat though, is the labeling of the bay as Bahia di Juan Fonce, which most people agree is in reference to Ponce de Leon. Ponce de Leon had originally arrived in the New World with Columbus, and in 1513 he led the first European incursion on the North American mainland by landing in Florida. While historical records suggest that he primarily explored the Atlantic coast, it is possible that he rounded the keys and sailed up the western coast as well. Later historians attributed to Ponce de Leon an ambition to discover the fountain of youth, but there is no serious historical evidence for this.

A final section worth looking at is on Florida’s Atlantic coast, where we see a long bay that is fronted by elongated coastal banks. Some of these banks are connected to the mainland, while others appear to be long, narrow islands. This manner of depicting Florida is one of the ways in which Dudley sets himself apart from other mapmakers of the period. Many of the early printed maps of Florida, such as that of Jacques LeMoyne (1591) or Abraham Ortelius (1597) do not show any such feature, whereas some of Dutch maps of the region have similar elongated islands along the east coast (e.g. Cornelis Wytfliet 1597 or Joannes de Laet 1630). A string of small islands is also found along the east coast of Florida on Henry Briggs’ famous map of North America from 1625, which Dudley no doubt would have studied carefully prior to compiling his own. The fronting embankments create a long bay in the north part of the depicted coastline, which has been labeled Bahia Santa Lucia. If this is indeed, as some claim, an early depiction of the Biscayne Bay, it would constitute one of the earliest cartographic labels of the area that today is Miami.


Sir Robert Dudley

Sir Robert Dudley (1574-1649) was an English polymath specializing in navigation, shipbuilding, and cartography. We hold him to be one of the most interesting and important cartographic thinkers in the 17th century, and a bold and daring man to boot. He was seemingly the illegitimate son of Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester; a somewhat dubious character who has become famous for being Queen Elizabeth I’s boy-toy. We say ‘seemingly illegitimate’ because much of Dudley’s later life was spent trying to gain the Crown’s recognition as his father’s formal heir. Despite his standing as a bastard, Dudley enjoyed great access to the English Court, at least during Elizabeth’s lifetime, and he would was likely schooled by the greatest teachers of the age. 

His father was one of the major financial backers behind Sir Francis Drake’s voyage that circumnavigated the earth, allowing Dudley not only access to ship’s logs and manuscript charts, but also private conversations and personal insights — all from a very early age. Another great Elizabethan explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh, appears to have been his personal tutor at some stage (possibly during Raleigh’s first period of captivity in the Tower of London).  

At the age of 17, Dudley was ready to marry, and it was arranged that he would wed the courtier Frances Vasavour. While the Queen approved of the union, she apparently thought it premature due the couple’s young age. This lead Vasavour to marry another man in secret and Dudley to find a new prospective consort. She came in the form of Margaret, the daughter of a wealthy merchant with good connections at court. Margaret was the sister of Sir Thomas Cavendish, the first Englishman to emulate Drake’s bold attack on the Spanish and his subsequent flight across the Pacific. Cavendish was only the fifth man in history to circumnavigate the globe and a key figure in shaping the young Dudley to become an explorer himself. The opportunity to pursue this dream came sooner than expected, in that Margaret’s father gave the couple two fully equipped vessels as a wedding present (or possible dowry). The Leicester and Roebuck allowed Dudley to organize his first maritime expeditions and gain experience as a fleet commander. Having had little prospect of following in his father’s footsteps by inheriting his titles and lands, Dudley now set his eye keenly on the role of explorer and privateer.

The Elizabethan Era was a time of expansion — both of the empire and of the mind. Advanced ship’s technology, combined with generations of mapping and a considerable degree of grit and courage, had allowed Europeans to break free of their own continent and engage – for better or worse – with the rest of the world. The problem was, of course, that there were several European entities vying for the same prize. Among the strongest contesters in the 16th century were the Spanish, English, Portuguese, and Dutch, but the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) had divided the world between the Spanish and Portuguese, leaving most of the New World in the hands of the Spanish. 

Neither the English, nor the Dutch, thought this division was a very good idea, and immediately started challenging the status quo. Wars soon ensued, and for our case, the key conflict was between Spain and England. In many ways, it was this conflict which set the stage for the first English explorers. Both countries understood that an all-out war would be detrimental to their trade and colonization efforts, especially in light of the fact that no party could be assured a final victory. Instead, strained peace accords were repeatedly drawn up and broken, and Spanish suitors lined up to entice the ‘Virgin Queen’ of England into marriage. As a consequence of the strenuous peace efforts and the obvious consequences of war, formal hostilities on the open seas were brought to an end. In the void, the phenomenon of privateering arose, in which formally independent English captains were given a charter to attack and raid Spanish vessels in open waters. 

In 1594, Dudley set sail on his first mission, which he was adamant would entail the taking of both Spanish vessels and treasure. He equipped a fleet of four ships — two galleons and two pinnaces — and prepared to set sail for the New World. However, once again the Queen interfered, considering Dudley too young and inexperienced to engage directly with the Spanish in the Caribbean. He was ordered instead to sail on Guyana to patrol the waters there. Dudley experienced some trouble en route, with one of his pinnaces sinking and the other seemingly disappearing during the Atlantic crossing, but he also managed to capture two Spanish vessels, which he manned under his own banner. 

Upon arriving in Guyana, Dudley set up base and conducted several shorter expeditions to survey the coast and assess the Spanish positions on the mainland. He anchored for repairs in Cedros Bay on the island of Trinidad. Here he met an indigenous man who promised he would guide them to the fabled city of Eldorado if the group sailed up the Orinoco River. Dudley sent part of his team, but the man abandoned them halfway and the team struggled to make it back to Trinidad. It was not until the spring of 1595 that Dudley sailed north towards Puerto Rico. En route, the fleet captured their first Spanish merchantman, which did wonders for morale.

After this first real success, Dudley and his crew were ready for more and continued north towards Bermuda. A violent storm blew them off course, supposedly pushing Dudley’s flagship, The Beare, as far north as New England. Following this, Dudley returned to Europe, sailing first on the Azores and then on England itself, where he arrived in Cornwall in May of 1595. Once back in European waters, and prior to actually landing back home, Dudley engaged a large Spanish man-of-war in an intense two day battle, which the English supposedly won.

After his return to England, and with the exception of a few more maritime expeditions in the Crown’s name, Dudley set his sights on securing his position in society. His first wife, Margaret Cavendish, had died childless and the year after his return from the New World, Dudley married Alice Leigh. She was the daughter of Sir Thomas Leigh of Stoneleigh, another very wealthy merchant and the former Lord Mayor of London. Now began a long struggle in which Dudley tried to convince the English Court that his parents had in fact been secretly married and that he therefore was entitled to inherit both his father’s (Early of Leicester and Earl of Warwick) and grandfather’s (Duke of Northumberland) titles and lands. The legitimacy of Dudley’s claim was tried by an English court, but following Elizabeth’s death in 1603, some of Dudley’s popularity had waned and Dudley’s petition was ultimately rejected by the Star Chamber. This rejection was later ratified by the newly appointed King James I. 

Since both his father and all of the putative witnesses to his parents’ supposed union were dead, and his mother only wrote a vague letter to the court, Dudley’s claim was dismissed on the basis of lacking evidence. Deeply frustrated with the English establishment, Dudley decided to leave England in 1605. He left his wife and children behind and instead took along his cousin, Elizabeth Southwell, disguised as his page. Having arrived well on the continent, the couple declared themselves as converts to Catholicism and were married in Lyon the following year. A papal decree was necessary due to the familial bonds between them, but the fact that Dudley was already married and had children did not figure into the calculation, as this was a marriage executed by a the Church of England and therefore not recognized by the Vatican. The move was not only a snuff to his wife, but to all of English society and it enraged King James so much that he revoked Dudley’s travel license in 1607.

By then Dudley had moved to the Renaissance city of Florence, where he was hired to oversee the design and construction of warships for Ferdinand I, the Grand Duke of Tuscany and head of the Medici Family. During these very fruitful and productive years in Dudley’s life, he continued to cultivate close connections to the English court. In 1611, Dudley sold Kenilworth Castle – his father’s great estate – to the Prince of Wales. But by 1618 Dudley’s influence had waned to such a degree that King James permanently bestowed the earldoms of his father on new members of the nobility. A final effort to be vindicated was made when Dudley convinced Ferdinand II — the new Grand Duke and Holy Roman Emperor — to acknowledge his claim to his grandfather’s title as Duke fo Northumberland. Surprisingly, he seems to have managed this, but rather than swaying opinion in Britain, it only enraged King James further, who responded by halting all attempts at reconciliation.

Dudley remained in the employ of the Grand Duke of Tuscany from 1608 until his death in 1649. During the initial part of this period (1610-1620), he oversaw both the design and construction of a new fleet of ships at the docks in Livorno, while also writing up his many records and diaries into a formal memoir that focussed on navigation and seamanship. Even though the memoirs presumably were secondary to his work in the shipyards, the consolidation of his personal notes, thoughts, and experiences into memoir form nevertheless constituted an ideal foundation for his true masterwork: Dell’Arcano del Mare. 

In 1644, shortly before publishing this work, news arrived from England that King Charles I had granted Dudley’s second wife, Alice, the title of Duchess for life. This was in effect a recognition of Dudley’s legitimacy, but it did not mandate the restoration of his titles or lands. Some years later, in 1649, Robert Dudley died an old man in his villa outside Florence. He was buried at the Church of San Pancrazio in Florence. All of his notes, manuscripts, tools, and scientific instruments were bequeathed to Ferdinand II and the House of Medici, where they remain to this day. Many of his original maps and instruments are on permanent display at the Museo Galileo.

Dell’Arcano del Mare (‘Secret of the Sea’) was a seminal publication by any measure. It was the first printed nautical atlas in history and the first time an atlas fully applied the new spatial projection model that had been promulgated by Gerard Mercator in the late 16th century. The complete work consisted of six volumes that Dudley published himself over several years (1645-47). The Arcano included 130 charts, all of which Dudley had designed and compiled himself, and which did not build on previously issued maps. This was completely unheard of and could well have been deemed frivolous and arrogant, had it not been for the sheer quality and consistent reliability of his work.

The maps were engraved by the master-hand of Antonio Francesco Lucini, who stated that he spent 12 years and used 5,000 pounds of copper to produce the plates. The charts are indeed of exceptional quality, both in regard to accuracy and innovation, but also in regard to craftsmanship and aesthetics. In addition to the unique maps, the Arcano included abundant information on navigation, astronomy, maneuverability, ships’ design, construction methods, and defensive features. It even contained a concrete proposal for a new Tuscan fleet, which was to consist of five different types of new ships, all of which were designed and meticulously described by Dudley in this massive work.

Condition Description

A stunning, generously-margined example. Very good. Slight foxing. Wide margins. Some centerfold wear.


OCLC 1004393949. Tampa History Center, Touchton Map Library, L2011.070.109. Burden, P., The Mapping of North America, #282. Jackson, J., Flags Along the Coast: Charting the Gulf of Mexico, #159. Martin, James C., and Martin, Robert S., Maps of Texas and the Southwest, 1513 - 1900, plate 9, pages 80-81. Lowery, W., The Lowery Collection, #109.