It is only recently that collecting circles have begun to realize what a small group of scholars specializing in the history of cartography have known for some time: that this iconic double hemisphere world map constitutes a milestone in the development of historical mapping, and was one of the most important world maps published in the 17th century. It was produced by Sicilian geographer and mapmaker Giovanni Battista Nicolosi, on a commission from the Vatican, and constituted a pioneering innovation in the way in which the physical world was portrayed. This entirely new perspective on geography was groundbreaking and quickly adapted across the cartographic plane. It has consequently come to be known as the ‘Nicolosi projection’.
On top of all that, Nicolosi’s map is just second printed map on a hemispheric projection to show the Pacific Ocean at the center of the world, preceded only by the 1598 Francis Drake map.
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 influential 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 hemisphere map of the world, which incorporated many of the continental map innovations on a global scale. The example offered here constitutes an extremely well-preserved copy of the first state as issued in 1660, complete with original outline color.
This map is the product of Nicolosi’s novel approach to global mapping. Essentially, he combined the traditions and perspectives of 16th century Roman and Venetian mapmakers with the latest approaches of contemporary greats, above all 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 remains in use even today. In this way, when we try to understand how mapmakers have historically represented the shape of the world, Nicolosi belongs in a sequence that includes foundational figures like Ptolemy and Mercator.
The success of the Ercole — in particular the new projection model — meant that Nicolosi soon began working on a new Latin version of his opus, which he intended for much wider distribution. As part of this new project, Nicolosi began remedying his previous somewhat conservative approach to mapping by including a range of new place names in the second state of the maps. The 1671 edition – now titled Hercules Siculus Sive Stadium Geographicum – ended up being published a year after Nicolosi’s death, but had the intended effect in disseminating his models throughout Europe’s cartographic circles. This contrast between the first and second state is yet another reason why the original 1660 edition of his work has become so sought after by collectors and institutions.
The late 16th century Italian schools of cartography are often credited as a major source of inspiration for Nicolosi. Another major source of inspiration came, as mentioned above, from the great French cartographer Nicolas Sanson, who had published a similar hemispherical map of the world in 1651 (and another in 1652), to great acclaim. The inspiration drawn from Sanson is not only manifested in the overall expression and form of Nicolosi’s map, but also in the deliberate omission of any decorative embellishments. In his time, Sanson was often regarded as the father of a more precise and scientific school of cartography. To underscore this image, Sanson was among the first major cartographers to abandon pictorial decoration and embellishment. Nicolosi followed this school of thought, in part because he considered himself and his output as something approaching science.
Many of the map’s details have been directly adapted from Sanson, although Nicolosi also incorporates several new cartographic features and place names. The most famous alteration is that the Rio Grande (labeled Rio Escondido) is shown flowing southeast into the Gulf of Mexico, with an elaborate set of tributaries. This constitutes the first appearance of the true course of the Rio Grande on a printed map; or, more accurately, “tied” for first alongside Nicolosi’s four-sheet chart of North America from the same atlas. The accurate depiction of the course of the Rio Grande from the area of Santa Fe into the Gulf of Mexico was a drastic departure from Sanson and other contemporary mapmakers, who mistakenly mapped a river flowing from a lake in the opposite direction, emptying into the Gulf of California. The source of Nicolosi’s correction and inclusion remains a mystery, but is probably a reflection of the kind of access to archives and materials he had as a Vatican scholar and makes his world and North America maps of crucial importance to the cartographic history of the American West.
As with all 17th century maps of the world, Nicolosi’s chart captures the European understanding of the world during an age in which it was undergoing rapid, almost daily, change. This is seen in the strange composition of the Pacific and its western archipelagos. A very tentative outline of New Zealand in the Western Hemisphere, and a similarly vague Australia or New Holland, including Van Diemens Land (Tasmania) in the Eastern Hemisphere, reflects the pioneering Dutch ventures of Abel Tasman and Franchoijs Visscher to this region in 1642. Nicolosi is in other words incorporating territories discovered no more than a decade earlier, and furthermore by a competing nation that was hostile to the Catholic Church. Acquiring, assessing, and incorporating this material is another one of those important new inclusions that stand in contrast to his otherwise conservative approach. It is for example not surprising to find Nicolosi depicting California as an island, as his maps were issued during the heyday of this trend, just as it is unsurprising that the entire western half of North America at this stage simply is labelled New Spain.
In the Northwest Pacific, we see clear manifestations of the ample mythology associated with mapmaking. The Jesso and Anian concepts are both cartographic myths that have been extensively explored and explained by scholarship. The etymology of the idiom Jesso is most likely 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 was often 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 rumors 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 was led by Abel Tasman in 1639, the second by Maarten Gerritzoon Vries in 1643. 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.
Anian, on the other hand, was often used in 17th century maps as a term for the passage from the Arctic Sea and into the Pacific (known today as the Bering Strait). Cartographically, the Anian concept dates back to at least 1562, where it appears on a map issued by Giacomo Castaldi, but during the 16th century it was also used in maps by famous cartographers such as Ortelius, Zaltieri, and Mercator. The concept’s popularity in cartographic circles can probably be traced back to the late 16th century, when a Greek navigator, Ioánnis Phokás, supposedly was sent north from New Spain (twice no less) in 1592. His goal was to find and map this mythical Strait of Anian. Following the American coastline for more than twenty days, he finally reached the northern cusp of the continent. His story was eventually published in Samuel Purchas’ travel collection of 1625, cementing the term for the next hundred years or so. Yet the origin of the concept is one thing, defining more specifically where and what it was, was something altogether different. Consequently, from the early 17th century until the extensive survey of the Second Kamchatka expedition under the leadership of Vitus Bering (1733-43), the Strait of Anian was depicted in a plethora of ways on European maps. Nicolosi takes the somewhat progressive but widespread view at the time, that Jesso was part of an Asian landmass or eastern archipelago, and that Anian constituted the passage between that landmass and the new American continent.