Map aficionados will arrive from near and far for this weekend’s Map Mania Symposium at the New Mexico History Museum. Some will probably be guided to their destination by the reassuring voice of a GPS system built into their cars or accessed through their cellphones. Harnessing satellite communications to provide instantaneous global positioning has become the norm for navigation in the early 21st century, but the accuracy gained through this technology has come at the cost of another desirable trait of cartography: fantasy.

Pasatiempo last met up with the work of cartographic historian Chet Van Duzer two and a half years ago, when we paged through his opulent volume Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps, published by The British Library. In that book, he focused on the beasts that populate the otherwise empty oceans of medieval and Renaissance maps, ranging from the hostile (such as the sawfish that swims beneath vessels and slices them in half) to the beneficent (the whale that allowed the friar Bernardo Buil to construct an altar on its back) and the merely curious (like the marine dog and marine chicken). Among the many fauna-filled maps he considered, Van Duzer passed fleetingly over Pierre Descelier’s “large … and gloriously coloured manuscript world map of 1550,” which he found to be “not very rich in sea monsters,” although it did have a few.

That map, it turns out, was unusually interesting in other ways. It is the subject of his latest book, The World for a King: Pierre Desceliers’ Map of 1550, also published by The British Library and no less sumptuous than its predecessor. Van Duzer offers a précis of the map at the outset: “This book is about one of the most spectacular maps to survive from the sixteenth century, the world map made by the Norman cartographer Pierre Desceliers for presentation to King Henry II of France in 1550. It is composed of four conjoined pieces of parchment that together measure an imposing 135 x 215 centimeters (4 feet 5 inches by 7 feet 1 inch), and is elaborately hand-painted with illustrations of cities, kings, exotic peoples, animals, ships, and sea monsters, and has twenty-six long descriptive texts that seem to have been composed especially for this map.”

The scale of the map suggests that it was meant to be displayed on a table, with viewers ranged around it. Indeed, the inscriptions on the bottom half look normal to us, but those on the top half are upside down; that is a practical solution to aid legibility for readers standing on either side.

Van Duzer knows how to read a map — which is to say, a map’s details come alive to him as embodiments of history, tradition, and individuality. Three coats of arms are drawn on Desceliers’ map — those of Henry II; Anne de Montmorency, Constable of France; and Claude d’Annebault, Admiral of France. Van Duzer believes that they provide a framework for understanding why this undertaking came about. It strikes him as unusual that the insignia of any high officials would grace the map along with that of the king, but he thinks their presence suggests that this map helped resolved a political altercation.

Montmorency had fallen out of favour with Henry’s father, Francis I, toward the end of his reign, and Annebault had risen to become Francis’ favourite and most trusted counselor. But when Henry became king in 1547, he reinstated his friend Montmorency who, harbouring a grudge against Annebault and also eager to solidify his position as the king’s closest adviser, persuaded Henry to make Annebault understand that he was no longer welcome at court. In 1550, when Desceliers made his map, Annebault was still trying to find his way back into Henry’s favour — and into Montmorency’s as well. In fact, the best explanation of the coats of arms on Desceliers’ 1550 map is that the map was a gift from Annebault to Henry and Montmorency, part of his efforts to restore himself to their good graces, and perhaps a signal of his desire to cooperate with Montmorency. … This map’s extravagant decoration may be seen as Annebault’s attempt to give a gift so beautiful as to dim all memory of resentments past, and a nautical chart is certainly an appropriate offering from an admiral.

It does indeed fall in the tradition of nautical charts. These were the most common kind among maps that charted large areas or, as here, the world. It stands to reason: Most exploration in the 16th century was achieved aboard ship. Explorers experienced distant lands mainly from sailing along their perimeters, with forays to the interior being rare in comparison. “The cartographic emphasis was on the coastlines,” Van Duzer writes, “while the hinterlands were thought of largely as areas for decoration.” Apart from the paucity of sea monsters, Desceliers’ decoration is marvelous. It was almost certainly carried out not by Desceliers himself, but rather by a specialist artist in his workshop. Desceliers would have been more personally involved in the aspects more directly bearing on navigation: the accuracy of coastlines and land masses, the proper situation of cities, the overlay of a geometric grid of lines that would have been relevant to mariners plotting courses.

In many ways, Desceliers’ map is accurate by the standards of 1550. It reveals that he was reasonably conversant with the information coming in from European explorers in distant corners of the globe. Nonetheless, the mapmaker resists giving up on certain longstanding beliefs and traditions, some of which date back to Ptolemy and even earlier. One example “is his retention of the designation La zona torrida or La zone torride for the equatorial regions. The idea that the equatorial regions were uninhabitably hot had first been proposed by Aristotle in the fourth century BC, and was both elaborated on and debated throughout the Middle Ages; but during the European expansion explorers quickly realized that the equatorial zones were not only habitable, but inhabited. By 1550 Desceliers certainly should have known this.” 

So far as geographical accuracy is concerned, the map does quite well with Europe, although the scale is somewhat off and Scandinavia is plotted with considerable vagueness. The city of Paris appears prominent beyond reasonable proportions, but of course there was a political reason for that. Africa and Asia are pretty much on target, while South America and North America show considerable room for improvement. Desceliers includes a further continent called La Terre Australe (The Southern Land) along the bottom of the map. Van Duzer is of the camp that doubts that this has anything to do with what we know as Australia, a continent not represented on his map. He does not address the possibility that this Southern Land might represent Antarctica, the existence of which was no more than a hypothetical belief at that time.

In other details, Desceliers provides eye-opening information through both his imagery and the 26 descriptive captions that make this map so unusual. (Around the border are also “twenty-six decorative wind-heads, blowing into the world from one of the traditional wind directions”; one wonders if any meaning might be attached to this numerical coincidence.) Van Duzer reproduces the map in its entirety, with a large-scale folded version (at about 60 percent of the original size) in a pocket inside the back cover. For discussion within the book itself, he divides the map into 42 rectangular segments and presents each of these, beautifully reproduced in color, with insightful commentary that helps explain some of the peculiarities we encounter. The interiors of Desceliers’ continents are abuzz with human activity, filled with depictions of praying, hunting, and interactions both peaceful and bellicose.

We of the New World may satisfy our vanity by considering how Desceliers portrays us. In 1550, the region that is now New Mexico was still a vague concept in European minds, although by then explorers were wandering about looking for the Seven Golden Cities of Cibola, which was ultimately a wild goose chase. Desceliers probably knew nothing about this, but in any case his map doesn’t deal with it. For him, Neufve Espaigne (New Spain) consists of the Caribbean islands and the lands bordering the Gulf of Mexico. Alongside the appendage we know as Florida is the inlet of a river identified as Gofanto merosto (Gulf leading to the eastern sea). This body of water, which did not exist, is a holdover from earlier maps that attached it to the (fictional) Sea of Verrazzano, which the Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano dreamed up as a route that must facilitate passage through the newly discovered continent. A turkey in the margin “is one of the earliest surviving European depictions of the New World bird.” It stands near an architectural grouping (also in the margin) labeled Temixtitan, another name for Tenochtitlán — the ancestor of Mexico City. Except for that, New Spain is essentially left to the imagination.

Looking to the north, however, Desceliers has interesting things to tell us about Canada, where French explorers were more active. The name Canada, written boldly in gold, was new to mapmakers; it is thought to have first appeared on a map made in the period 1542-1544. As with more southerly regions, the Atlantic coast is charted in considerable detail, and just off Terre Neufve (Newfoundland) one of the map’s few sea monsters is spraying water from twin spouts. Things get still more interesting as we move westward. Two miners with pickaxes are busy extracting ore, alluding “to widely held hopes about the riches that the New World would contain.” Next to them stands a unicorn. Just above the unicorn is a picture of a battle between a band of pygmies and a flock of cranes, explicated by one of Desceliers’ text captions: “Above is an illustration of a people called pygmies, a people of small stature, of about a cubit. At the age of three they procreate and at the age of eight they die without having before their eyes shame, justice, or honesty. For this reason they are called brutes, not men. It is said that they are constantly at war with the birds called cranes.” 

Van Duzer transcribes all of the captions in their original French and provides accurate translations and enlightening commentaries. Here, he observes that the mythical tale of battling pygmies and cranes goes back to Homer, but that Desceliers’ depiction seems more directly derived from the 13th-century philosopher Albertus Magnus. Albertus set the story in Africa, but more commonly it related to Asia. “This,” Van Duzer writes, “is an interesting case of the migration of ‘monstrous races’ to the New World. Their presence in North America was perhaps inspired by Jacques Cartier’s report, in his account of his second voyage made in 1635-6, that Donnacona, ‘King of Canada,’ told him that there were ‘Picquemyans,’ or pygmies, in Canada.” Desceliers had included a similar scene on a map he made in 1546, but there he placed it in Asia. By 1550, Europeans were increasingly clear about the distinction between Asia and America, but Desceliers seemed not quite ready to commit to the cartological border between the two. In his fantasy, the Canadian pygmies and cranes belonged to those two regions separately — or perhaps it was one region together. ◀

“The World for a King: Pierre Desceliers’ Map of 1550” by Chet Van Duzer was published last year by The British Library.  

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