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.
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.
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.