I first heard about portolan charts a few months ago in Paris while conversing with Barry Ruderman. Portolan came from Italian ‘portulano’, a collection of sailing directions including names of ports and harbours.

This caught my attention because it brought together my link with the Mediterranean sea and my passion for maps.

Portolan charts are nautical charts which were first made in the 13th century in the Mediterranean basin and later expanded to include other regions. Most portolan charts were handmade, as opposed to engraved or printed maps.

Recently I had the opportunity to examine some portolan charts at the British Library with Dr Katherine Parker.
The first one was a coloured portolan chart of the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas with lists of all the islands and ports made by John Burston Dwelling in London around 1637.
An example would be the Mediterranean coast from Tarragona, which is now the southwest province of Catalunya to Genoa, an important port in the north of Italy.
The second one was a portolan chart of the Mediterranean, Adriatic and Black Seas signed by John Daniel in St Katherine, near the Tower of London.
Then we moved to the Manuscript Room to see a manuscript which contained an atlas portolan chart drawn by Joan Martines of Messina in 1578.
The map of the Iberian peninsula is fascinating and includes draws of Santiago, Lisboa, Granada, Valencia and Barsalona.
Afterwards we looked at another atlas by Grazioso Benincasa, showing Europe and part of Africa; 1468.
The British Isles map is from a convoluted period of time, taking place after the Hundred Years’ War and during the War of Roses.

Finally I had the opportunity to examine a 1508 portolano containing 13 coast maps, including a world map and a drought outline of the east coast of North and South America. This was followed by a fragment showing the area between India and the Red Sea, Canary islands and Mediterranean coastline of Africa.

It is amazing to think of the treasures that libraries and museums gather, with very few people knowing that they are even accessible. If you might be interested in discovering them, you will need to know what you are looking for as well as a British Library pass.

Wow look at this!

This is an optional, highly
customizable off canvas area.

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