Accurate maps help keep ships safe at sea. In the thirteenth,
fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, maps called "portolan charts"
recorded the accumulated experience and wisdom of generations
of Mediterranean seafarers. Portolan charts were practical, no-nonsense
tools made for the use of sailors who sailed "great waters." As
Tony Campbell, Map Librarian of the British Map Library put it
so well: "The medieval mappaemundi (world maps in the Christian
tradition) are the cosmographies of thinking landsmen. By contrast,
the portolan charts preserve the Mediterranean sailors firsthand
experience of their own sea, as well as their expanding knowledge
of the Atlantic Ocean" (Campbell 1987, 372).
Campbells "Portolan Charts from the Late Thirteenth Century to
1500," is one of the essays in The History of Cartography, volume
one (Cartography in Prehistoric, Ancient, and Medieval Europe
and the Mediterranean) edited by J.B. Harley and David Woodward.
This is the most important recent scholarly examination of portolan
charts and their history, and anyone studying the pre-1500 portolan
charts should refer to it. Campbells work has been essential
to this commentary. Campbell summarizes existing research on portolan
charts and suggests further study for a better understanding of
them. Fewer than 100 portolan charts made prior to 1500 have survived.
Of these, the three fifteenth-century portolan charts in the James
Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota are the subject
of this commentary.
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