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The Mapping of North America

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AN UNRECORDED EIGHTEENTH SPANISH PORTOLAN ATLAS. Unfortunately, like many portolans, this atlas is unsigned and undated. It has been shown that of the six charts attributed to the Cresques family by Pujades, not one was signed. One of these is the remarkable Catalan Atlas of 1375. Its presentational purpose would be sufficient reason for withholding a signature, just as two of the three surviving copies of an atlas that Pietro Vesconte prepared for Marino Sanudo [Sanuto] to present to Pope John XXII are unsigned.

However, there are tools which can be used to help determine its origin. Harvey recognised that after 1350 the different places of origin developed their own traditions, and it starts to become feasible to say where a map was drawn from the placenames and other features that are shown. In general style, however, Italian maps can be distinguished earlier than this from Spanish ones. Broadly speaking (there are exceptions) Italian maps showed nothing beyond that which was relevant to navigation – coastlines and coastal settlements – while the Catalan ones showed some inland features – rivers and mountains – and were more likely to include vignettes and other decoration. The use of a fleur-de-lis to indicate north on the wind roses is a distinct Catalan trait.

A study of the language used illustrates a combination, which is not unusual. Here, a distinctly Iberian one stands out although French and Italian influences remain. For instance, the following on the Italian coastline are not written in that language:

Ligorna for Livorno

Sivitavexa for Civitavecchia

Rigoli for Reggio

Similarly, Lepanto is found in Greece instead of the more traditional Nepanto in Italian. Others are more specifically of Majorcan cartographic heritage written in Catalan:

Artadura, on the Dalmatian coast north of Split

Potencia in Istria

Bordeus for Bourdeaux

Belila for Belle Isle

‘s.XXX’ on the west coast of Asia Minor is ‘seen only on Prunes and Oliva charts’ (Map History). Combined with the undoubted decorative nature of the charts, it can be confidently concluded that they have a Catalan origin. Pflederer’s census lists 91 Catalan works of which 4 are assigned to Barcelona and no less than 66 to present day Palma, Majorca which at the time was known as Ciutat de Mallorca. A name in use through the eighteenth century.

Several outstanding cartographers lived and worked in Majorca, including Abraham Cresques, Angelino de Dulceto, various members of the Olives family, Petrus Roselli, Gabriel de Vallseca, Johannes and Mecia de Viladestes and the Prunes family. To examine the Oliva family of cartographers we find the census only records 4 charts produced in Majorca, 3 by Bartolomeo Oliva and 1 by Jaume Oliva, all sixteenth century. The brothers were the founders of the family dynasty of chart makers. The remaining family members worked elsewhere in the Mediterranean, namely at Messina, Naples and Marseilles.

The Prunes family remained based in Palma. Again, there are several members with poorly understood familial relationships and variations of the spelling of their names. We do know that Matteo Prunes was quite likely the father of Vicente Prunes who in turn was the father of Petrus Joan. An examination of the works produced by these individuals leads to some similarities of style. However, the closest match is to an atlas in the Museo Correr (Port. 21; Biadene no. 36), in Venice, which is signed ‘Petrus Joannes Prunes Meficit in civitate Maioricarum a 1 de guriol Anno Domini Nostri Jesuchristi 1651’. It consists of only three maps, of similar size to this work:

1 – Atlantic coasts of Europe

2 – Central and Eastern Mediterranean Sea

3 – Aegean Sea

In comparing the two, the layout of the first Correr chart is like our third. The geographical coverage is further east in the Correr but the ornamentation, the fleur-de-lis in the wind roses, the fauna etc., are all remarkably similar. The layout of the coastlines is also remarkably alike, the writing and abbreviations used are the same as are many of the city profiles. Richard Pflederer has concluded the same, in private correspondence he stated ‘Stylistically it is essentially identical with the chart in the Biblioteca del Museo Correr in Venice. This would lead me to confidently attribute this to Pietro Giovanni Prunes’.

Only one further work by ‘Petrus Joan Prunes’ is known to exist, in the Biblioteca dell’Accademia Etrusca, Cortona, Italy (no. 99). It was dated by Rey Pastor in 1960 to the 16th century but based on recently discovered biographical data can now clearly be dated later. Unfortunately, Cortona is extremely resistant to allow photography and no image can be found of this individual chart. Campbell (1986) wrote ‘very little extra Catalan material has come to light since [Pastor & Camarero, 1960]’.

What makes this particularly exciting is that only 17 Spanish produced atlases are identified in the Pflederer census, compared to twenty times that number of Italian origin. Campbell also highlights this point (Campbell 1987). This therefore is this a remarkable item.

Historical context:

The word ‘Portolani’ descends from the earlier Greek ‘Periplus’, meaning a written manuscript document which lists ports and coastal landmarks between two points. Each would have approximate distances and direction to aid navigation along the coast. Periplus in ancient Greece date back to c.500 BC. Later examples in Portugal are called ‘roteiros’, in Dutch, the equivalent is ‘rutter’, many of which were produced in print in the golden era of Dutch maritime power from the sixteenth century. The term ‘Portolan’ was first used in the nineteenth century to describe the school of charts that emerged in the middle ages, the earliest surviving of which is the Carte Pisane, c.1290.

Cortesão wrote that the ‘advent of the portolan chart … was one of the most important turning points in the whole history of cartography’. Contemporary cartography at the time was otherwise represented by Mappa Mundi, more theologically based and with little cartographic accuracy as we would know it today. However, portolan charts ‘gave a coastal configuration for the Mediterranean and Black seas of unparalleled accuracy for their time’ (Campbell, 1986). The Mediterranean is the natural meeting point of Europe, Africa and the Middle East. The point at which so many cultures, religions and products meet. As such trade across its waters was critical and accurate navigation was at the core of a navigator’s skills. This had been passed down the generations through practical experience.

Documentary evidence of charts goes back to the middle of the 13th century and may well pre-date that. The modern definition of a portolan is accepted as being a map focused on the sea and drawn by hand on vellum. They are constructed using a network of rhumb lines emanating from a central point, further lines emanate between the nodes on the usually hidden circumference. These lines represent the various constant compass readings or bearings, which with the use of a parallel rule could be transferred across the chart to plot the direction between any two places over open water. This circle generally fills most of the chart. All placenames are written perpendicular to the coastline to allow the maximum number of references and are always onshore to allow reading of the coastal profile. This basic formula remained unaltered throughout the 400 years of their production.

What did alter over time was their content. The scale bar as we know it was an early introduction, prior to that it was often within a circle. Italian maps rarely included ornamentation focusing on functionality. The Catalan portolans however did develop, including in some cases more inland features, especially rivers and sometimes mountain ranges. More decorative elements included scales, fauna and ornate compass roses, first seen in the Catalan atlas c.1375, attributed to Abraham Cresques of Majorca. Contemporaneously they continued to produce more functional charts for navigation.

The era of the Crusades brought large groups of Europeans into contact with the knowledge and goods of Byzantium for the first time in many centuries. These religious wars occurred largely in the eastern Mediterranean and occurred between 1096 and 1271. Crusaders returning to Europe brought with them numerous ideas and items, stimulating a new appetite for trade. This encouraged the rise of the Italian maritime powers in Genoa and Venice. The Islamic States were never maritime powers. There was also substantial Islamic presence in Spain, southern Italy and north Africa. Considerable trade occurred across the Sahara Desert also.

The western Mediterranean was dominated at the time by the Crown of Aragon (1162-1716), a loose monarchy or confederation. At its peak in the 14th and 15th centuries it consisted of much of present-day eastern Spain, parts of southern France, the Balearic Islands, Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily, the Kingdom of Naples. It even stretched to portions of Greece and several northern African cities.

The island of Majorca, the largest of the Balearic Islands, was taken from the Moors in 1229 after a three-month siege. The Ciutat de Mallorca benefited from its advantageous geographical location. It allowed extensive commerce with Catalonia, Valencia, Provence, various Italian republics and with its Moorish roots, with north Africa. Llompart recounts an early Dominican chronicler Pere Marsili who in 1314 wrote ”los homens d’aquela art (de marineria) aquella yla apeylan cap de creus com d’aquela a cascunas parts navegar pus cuvinetment es vist’ [men of the art (of navigation) call this island [Majorca] the Cape of Crosses, because from the island you can travel more conveniently to any destination]’. Llompart goes on to say that ‘Cap de Creus’ is the same as the Castilian word ‘crucero’ or the French word ‘carrefour’ meaning crossroads in English. It brought about a golden period in Majorca’s history. With this background and its existing artistic roots, it might seem natural that it became a centre for portolan production.


The fact that there is colour offset to the first chart indicates that it was folded before fully dry. That would indicate probable binding in Majorca. The decoration on the binding though, is likely not. The recto of the front cover bears the image of two ships or galleons with square sail, the whole framed by two ruled lines running parallel on the four sides and overlapping at the edges. On the leading margin is an inscription in Italian which translates as ‘Illuminated geographical maps on parchment’. The larger ship bears the flag of the Duchy of Savoy whilst the smaller one carries two Muslim insignia with a crescent on a red background. The larger is depicted having just fired two cannons. It might be recalling the famous Battle of Lepanto in 1571 for which the Duchy supplied some galleys. Although largely landlocked the Duchy’s access to the Mediterranean was through the port of Nice. The sea is illustrated in blue and the sky from large circular clouds made up of blue and brown colours.

The back contains a white cross pattée symbol within a barely visible double lined circle. This is a known Christian symbol, possibly a Maltese cross but still unidentified. The whole is within a similar double parallel ruled border. On both the front and back covers are traces of the four strips of fabric that in the beginning were used to close the volume, two positioned on the open side, one on the upper edge and one on the lower one. The fabric is light blue and has been glued between the parchment of the cover and that of the next, or previous, chart.


Four portolan charts, each hand drawn on quality parchment and framed by an orange-red border along the edges. Each chart is formed by a system of 32 rhumb lines emanating from a central point. The eight primary winds or directions are drawn in brown, the eight half winds in green and the sixteen quarter winds in red. At the centre of all but the second, is a hand-painted wind rose in blue and red with a fleur-de-lis pointing north. Several of the nodes in each bear further half or full roses.

The coastal outlines are drawn with a thin dark line reinforced with a colour to indicate the borders of different nation states, islands are in wash colour. The major rivers are indicated in blue with little accuracy and no orographic detail is included as often the case, neither the Alps nor the Atlas Mountains are indicated. Place names are written in red and black perpendicular to the coastline. This follows monastic scribal traditions, ‘The use of red, for example, to emphasize important words, or ‘red-letter days’, was an established medieval tradition, perpetuated by the chart-makers in their special treatment of the more significant place-names.’ (Campbell, 1987). A black cross or dots conventionally indicated rocks whilst red dots informed of sandy shallows.

All charts were intended to be rotated for best use, hence there is no top or bottom seen in the orientation of place names. This is exacerbated by the need to write toponyms at right angles to the coastline. The only feature pointing to any historical orientation are those of the city ideograms. Many portolans placed the neck of the animal parchment on which they drew at the western end of the chart and were designed to be hung from that point. Hence the views are always seen best when placing the west at the top. These are illustrated with a flag of the town, indicating political allegiance. The very size of these necessitates a stylized image, many have a central taller building indicating the significance of the place. They are usually placed inland so as not to interfere with the coastal names. One or two have clear recognizable features such as the lantern at Genoa with its crescent shape harbour. The presence of blue in the foreground would usually indicate its presence on the coast or banks of a river.

Each chart bears scales, the larger division subdivided into five sections by dots. Each of these represented ten miglia. This distance varied in different regions of the Mediterranean but is generally accepted today to be approximately 1.25 kilometres per miglia (Campbell 1987). The remaining blank areas were largely in Africa and are filled with zoomorphic beings.


This chart depicts the eastern Mediterranean basin from Italy to the Holy Land orientated with south at the top. Lower right is an image of Florence; travelling eastwards we find a town flying the Eagle flag of the Habsburg Empire. Nearby is most likely Ragusa (Dubrovnick) with the historic Serbian flag. Other readily identifiable towns are Thessalonica, then under Ottoman control and marked ‘Salonic’ in red. These are followed by Constantinople and Ankara. At the top of the chart are Cairo on the River Nile and Tunis. The island of Chios is shown with the Genoese colours of a red cross on white background, despite being lost to the Turks in 1566. Rhodes and Malta both display the white cross of the Knights Hospitaller, or Order of Saint John. Rhodes was lost in 1523, with Malta becoming their new home in 1530. Apart from the wind roses the remaining ornamentation includes a palm, a camel and three ornate scales.


This chart focuses on the Iberian Peninsula and the north west coast of Africa. The cities in Spain illustrated are Seville on the river, Granada with the flag of the Pomegranate or ‘Granada’, Valencia, Zaragoza the capitol of Aragon, Barcelona and in France, Arles. The coastline is coloured differently according to region. Andalucía, Aragon and Catalonia populate the Mediterranean shores. Larger islands are coloured in wash as here in the Balearic and Canaries. Traditional Catalan school colouring is used with red highlighting Formentera and Minorca. Majorca is in gold as often the case. Both the Canary Islands and Madeira are shown. Lanzarote is coloured with the Genoese flag. Although they had no control over the island, the link is due to the Genoese captain Lanceloto Malocello who rediscovered the islands in 1312 or thereafter.

The cities depicted in Africa are harder to determine although Algiers appears recognisable with nearby Oran flying the flag of Spanish Castille. The remaining spaces in Africa are filled with a large compass rose and five smaller ones, mountains and several faunas. These include two lions, three camels, an elephant, a unicorn being chased by two lions and a mythological figure in the lower corner playing a horn. Ornate scales frames the sides of the chart.


A fascinating chart illustrating the Atlantic approaches to Europe. It is remarkably like his chart in the Museo Correr. The coverage is slight further westward enabling it to take in Iceland. It extends from below the Canary Islands northwards to the British Isles. The Mediterranean is illustrated to the shores of Corsica and Sardinia. In the northern regions of the Atlantic several mystical islands had been depicted on maps for over two hundred years. These had morphed and disappeared one by one as knowledge improved. One of the more well-known was Frisland, which here represents a not unrecognisable Iceland (Campbell, 1987).

England is divided by a body of water from Scotland. This common depiction on portolans is derived from knowledge that the two were divided by a mountain range. Two rivers flowed from the centre, one eastward and the other westwards. The central feature appearing as a lake with red mark in the middle is more a representation of a mountain. Indeed, Andrews showed that this feature was particularly used by the Prunes family (Andrews 1925-26). Its depiction is identical to the Museo Correr chart. England is bordered in green; Scotland is outlined in yellow with Ireland in brown. The nearby coastline of the Low Countries takes a decidedly northward turn and is illustrated with a city view, most likely Antwerp, and its flag.

In the Atlantic we see a feature not included in the other charts: scales of latitude from 19o to 64o north. There are three, the middle section moved to allow space for the wind roses. Most portolans produced, particularly in the early period, related to the Mediterranean. It was only as exploration and trade moved out into the Atlantic and went north, and south along Africa, that latitude became more important. The Mediterranean is mainly an east west body of water and understanding latitude was of little consequence. Indeed, its depiction is historically rotated anti-clockwise by about 11 degrees, as can be seen in the following chart. The true east west line runs through Gibraltar, Crete and Cyprus.

The reason for this rotation is the difference between true north and magnetic north. It was easier to navigate by compass than using true north and by rotating the charts this could be compensated for and at the same time allow the Mediterranean to be depicted within an oblong sheet. To the south the Canary Islands and Madeira are accurately portrayed and coloured like the previous chart; Lanzarote maintaining the Genoese Cross. The Balearic Islands are coloured similarly.

The Iberian Peninsula is illustrated with city views of Granada, Valencia, Barcelona and one other unidentified. The Ile de France, or Paris region, is accompanied by the Fleur de Lis. Africa contains four city views, two of which are flying the flag of Castille. The remaining space is occupied by fauna including a large snail, four wind roses and one of two ornate scales.


This final chart is likewise of similar extent to one in the Museo Correr atlas, here the finish is decidedly superior. The centre point of the rhumb lines is similarly in Sicily. The whole of the Mediterranean basin is depicted as tradition dictates with a slight anti-clockwise rotation. Apart from its decorativeness the eye is drawn to the appropriately coloured Red Sea lower right. At the north western end, it displays a crossing as undertaken by the Israelites.

Along the northern side of the Mediterranean the following cities are represented; Granada, Valencia, Barcelona, Genoa, Venice, Ragusa (Dubrovnick), Thessalonica and Constantinople. In Africa they are most likely those of Cairo, Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers with Oran and Melilla flying the flag of Castille. The remaining space is filled with fauna, a few mountains, wind roses and two of the four ornate scales. The Balearics, as before, display Majorca in gold.


Nothing is known for sure about its first owner, but it might be possible to read something into it through the binding. The image on the cover illustrates the flag of the Duchy of Savoy, a white cross on a red background. At the likely time these charts were produced in Majorca the Duchy was being heavily influenced by its powerful neighbour France. Its great ally during much of the seventeenth century was Spain. Victor Amadeus I, Duke of Savoy (1587-1637) was born to Catherine Micaela, daughter of King Philip II of Spain. He was brought up in Madrid. Charles Emmanuel II, Duke of Savoy (1634-75) succeeded to the title at the age of four. With his mother Christine of France as Regent, he was free to pursue a life of leisure. It was only after her death in 1663 that he really assumed power. He greatly improved the wealth of the Duchy and developed its port at Nice. He was also known for reforming the army and for his admiration of Louis XIV of France. He constructed amongst other buildings, the beautiful Palazzo Reale in Turin. A cultured man, it is easy to see how he, or an influential citizen, might have been the person who bound these charts.

A further clue may be found in Uzielli and Amat di S. Filippo (263) who described in 1882 an anonymous atlas with four charts bearing the Maltese Cross on the binding. It was at the time, in the library of the Sola-Busca-Serbelloni family. The Villa Sola-Busca was built by the Duchess of Carretto, from whom it passed to the Brentano family from Lombardy. An interesting possible link.


An extremely rare find. We can with some confidence, assign this unsigned and undated work to Petrus Joan Prunes of Majorca. Only two of his works are known to survive. This example has clear links to the atlas surviving in the Museo Correr in Venice. This has one more charts and is largely of a higher quality finish and in better condition. In his census, Pflederer identifies only 17 Spanish produced portolan atlases, compared to twenty times that number of Italian origin.


Andrews, Michael Corbet. (1925-26). ‘The Boundary between Scotland and England in the Portolan Charts’, in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 60, pp. 36-66; Astengo, Corradino. (2007). ‘The Renaissance Chart Tradition in the Mediterranean’, in The History of Cartography, III pp. 174-262. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press; Biadene, Susanna. (1990). ‘Catalogo delle opera’, in Carte da navigar: Portolani e carte nautiche del Museo Correr, 1318-1732, ed. Susanna Biadene, pp. 39-125. Venice: Marsilio Editori; Campbell, Tony. (1986). ‘Census of Pre-Sixteenth-Century Portolan Charts’, in Imago Mundi no. 38 pp. 67-94; Campbell, Tony. (1987). ‘Portolan Charts from the Late Thirteenth Century to 1500’, in The History of Cartography, I pp. 371-463. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press; Campbell, Tony. A Critical Re-examination of Portolan Charts with a Reassessment of Heir Replication and Seaboard Function (accessed 17.12.2020); Cortesão, Armando. (1969-71). History of Portuguese Cartography. Coimbra: Junta de Investigações do Ultramar-Lisboa; Harvey, P. D. A. (1991). Medieval Maps. London: British Library; Jourdin, Michel Mollat du & Ronciere, Monique de la. (1984). Sea Charts of the Early Explorers. New York: Thames and Hudson; Llompart, Gabriel. Juan Ceva (trans.) (1997). Register of Medieval Cartographers Active in the Port of Majorca.; Map History. (2013). Table of ‘Significant Names’,; Martínez, Ricardo Cerezo. (1994). La Cartografía Náutica Española en los Siglos XIV, XV y XVI . Madrid: C.S.I.C; Pastor, Rey, J. F. & E. G. Camarero. (1960). La Cartografia Mallorquina. Madrid: Departamento De Historia Y Filosofía De La Ciencia; Pastoureau, Mireille. (1990). Voies Océanes de l’ancien aux nouveaux mondes. Paris: Editions Hervas; Pflederer, Richard. (2009). Census of Portolan Charts & Atlases. Privately printed; Pflederer, Richard. (2012). Finding Their Way at Sea. The story of Portolan charts, the cartographers who drew them and the mariners who sailed by them. Houten: Hes & De Graaf; Pujades, Ramon J. (2007). Les cartes portolanes: la representació medieval d’una mar solcada. Barcelona: Institut Cartogràfic de Catalunya; Rebassa, Tina Sabater, Antònia Vicens & Magdalena Cerda Garriga. (2016). ‘Las cartas náuticas de la Escuela Cartográfica Mallorquina. Aspectos artísticos y context productivo’, in Hortus Artium Medievalium, 22, p. 331-42; Uzzielli, Gustavo and Pietro Amat di S. Filippo (1967). Mappamondi, Carte Nautiche, Portolani Ed Altri Monumenti Cartografici Specialmente Italiani Dei Secoli XIII – XVII. Amsterdam: Meridian Publishing Company. Reprinted from the original in 1882; Winter, Heinrich. (1967). ‘Catalan Portolan maps and their place in the total view of cartographic development’, in Imago Mundi no. 11 pp. 1-12.

PRUNES, Petrus Joan

[Portolan atlas]

Mallorca, c.1625-50
A bound manuscript portolan atlas on parchment, 423 x 310 mm., consisting of 4 charts in pen, ink and wash colour, heightened in gold. The maps are glued to each other to form a booklet which has then been covered in parchment for binding. The front cover bears a battle scene between a Christian and a Muslim ship, the back cover a white cross pattée, a known Christian symbol. The parchment is white, regular and well-polished. The colours are bright, the writing legible throughout with gold leaf applied to the wind roses, on some flags and some islands all in good condition. The cover is in good condition but has some holes and is torn in some places. The colours are rather faded, notably the blue of the clouds and the sea on the front cover.
Stock number: 10924


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