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Fourteenth-century sea charts of the Mediterranean

Posted 31/5/2015

There are two main classes of sea charts of the Mediterranean preserved from the late 13th to the 16th centuries: those that show only the coastal lines of Europe, North Africa, a short part of the Atlantic coast and sometimes parts or all of the Black Sea on the one hand and those that also provide information about the inland behind those coasts. I usually work with the latter class. My main goal is to determine the cultural elements that are inscribed in those charts and their regional and socio-cultural origins.


The main positions since the nineteenth centuries were two: the portolan charts were fully independently produced in Italy, at Majorca and some time later in Aragon, while the Arabic an later Ottoman charts are copies of such northern products; the northern products were taken over wholesale from Arabic or Persian charts of the Mediterranean. Neither of the two positions is correct. Portolan charts are fascinatingly complex mixtures of elements from different cultures along the Mediterranean: Arabic, Byzantine, Italian, Jewish, Majorcan, Ilkhanid (Mongols in iran), Turkic, Slavic, Persian. Some of these elements come from images, others from oral knowledge and again other from books and maps. The second fascinating feature of these Mediterranean charts is the fact that they were obviously translatable and appreciated across political, linguistic, cultural and religious boundaries. Thirdly, in addition to this permeability of symbols, names and forms, all chart-makers invested time and efforts to adapt the charts to their local culture.


Once, the models had become fixed no major changes were integrated into them, despite their continued malleability and openness to change. Only in the seventeenth century, when new expectations arose and new standards were introduced, did the sea charts change fundamentally. One might even say they experienced a paradigm shift.


In this sense, the fourteenth-century portolan charts of the Mediterranean are a good representation of the historiographic type that characterizes the sciences in Islamicate societies. We should perhaps reflect on what these two cultural phenomena share with each other.


Sonja Brentjes

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