"A ship is safe in a harbor; but that is
not what a ship is for."
Ralph N. Helverson
maps help keep ships safe at sea.
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).
Campbell’s "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. Campbell’s
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.
What is a