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The Golden Age of Maritime Maps: When Europe Discovered the World [Hardcover]

Catherine Hofmann , Helene Richard , Emmanuelle Vagnon

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Book Description

Sept. 12 2013

"Portolan charts," so called from the Italian adjective portolano, meaning "related to ports or harbours," were born during the 12th century in the maritime community. These charts, drawn on parchment and crisscrossed with lines referring to the compass directions, indicated the succession of ports and anchorages along the shores, and were used by European sailors exploring the world up until the 18th century.

Not only used as navigational instruments on boats, they were also produced for wealthy sponsors in the form of illuminated images of the world, to illustrate the economic and political interests of the major European sea powers.

This book takes stock of the state of knowledge on these maps, bringing together contributions from a dozen European specialists, who trace the history and diversity of styles and places of production of these charts.

This type of mapping is approached from three angles. The first part, "The Mediterranean," refers to the manufacture and use of the first charts, centered on the Mediterranean, and the persistence of this tradition in the Mediterranean basin until the 18th century.

The second part, "The Open Sea," shows how these regional charts have evolved from a technical and iconographical point of view at the time of the great European voyages, in order to include the oceans and new worlds.

The third part, "The Indian Ocean," shows how these charts, in a maritime area where ancient civilizations coexisted, were dependent on other cartographic traditions (ancient, Arab, Asian) before joining the information reported by Portuguese sailors and European trading companies in the modern era.


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(star review) In the closing centuries of Europe's medieval age, that backward, isolated continent belatedly turned its gaze outward in search of trade and conquest. From that era of discovery came the Portolan charts, precursors of modern maps. Reproduced here in lavish full-color plates, this display of Portolan maps, many preserved at the National Library of France, documents Europe's expanding consciousness, its fumbling from blinkered ignorance to illumination and brief global dominance. The authors provide the historical context for these documents; the main body of the text is organized geographically, from the Mediterranean--so long the focus of insular European civilization--to the lands across the Atlantic and finally the traditional centers of human civilization on the far side of the Indian Ocean. Also included are appendices ranging from a lengthy bibliography to a full accounting of authors and photographers. From their roots in the 13th century to final decline in the 17th century, Portolan maps enshrined knowledge in works of magnificent artistry; the text and the high-resolution photographs document this flowering of creativity and curiosity. The work stands as one of scholarly love, like the maps themselves a grand partnership between abstract knowledge and concrete images. (Publishers Weekly 2013-12-16)

I'm an absolute map geek. It goes back to childhood when I could spend hours on the backseat of the family sedan with a roadmap, imagining where all the roads led and how far they could take me. I had a similar feeling (a similar rush?) from The Golden Ag (Aaron Blanton January Magazine 2014-01-03)

This work is for the maritime enthusiast. Included are essays by a number of European authorities who elaborate upon locations, styles, and evolution of portolan charts from the late Middle Ages to the Age of Discovery. The early portolans were 12th-centu (G. J. Martin, emeritus, Southern Connecticut State Choice 2014-05-01)

A must-have for anyone interested in cartography, especially in the Age of Exploration. The detail is great and allows the reader a close-up view of maps from the time period. In addition, the authors have highlighted sections of maps, for an even closer view. A great reference book! (Calliope Magazine 2014-06-01)

The color reproductions are excellent, and the maps chosen here are both aesthetically beautiful and historically interesting. (ProtoView 2014-09-01)

Beautifully designed... it is difficult to not pick it up and be sucked into this historical journey of the golden age of mapmaking that told the story of European exploration around the world. You will truly find a new appreciation for those who traveled by land and sea without the aid of modern technologies and get a deeper sense of their inner thinking of what the world was like and just how imaginative people truly are. (Kim Heimbuch San Francisco Book Review 2014-04-29)

About the Author

Catherine Hoffman, a paleographic archivist, is chief curator in the Department of Maps and Plans of the National Library of France. She is a board member of the journal Imago Mundi, and has published fifteen articles on the history of cartography in the modern era.

Hélène Richard, a paleographic archivist, is a former director of the Department of Maps and Plans at the National Library of France. In addition to her research on the history of books and libraries, she has published works on the history of maritime exploration in the 18th and 19th centuries and the associated nautical science.

Emmanuelle Vagnon holds a PhD in history, specializing in maps of the Middle Ages. She is senior researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research and the University of Paris.


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4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars June 30 2014
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A beautiful and interesting book that met my expectations.

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