Introduction to Portolan Charts

1466 Roselli Portolan

"A ship is safe in a harbor; but that is not what a ship is for." — Ralph N. Helverson

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 planning voyages in the "great waters." As Tony Campbell, former Map Librarian of the British Library (1987-2001) 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 (1987). This has become the standard scholarly examination of portolan charts and their history, and is the starting place for anyone studying the pre-1500 portolan charts. Campbell’s work was essential to this commentary, originally written by former Bell Library curator, Carol Urness in 1999. Campbell summarized existing research on portolan charts at the time of his writing, and suggested further study for a better understanding of them. More recently, a significant and revisionary work on portolans was published by Ramon J. Pujades i Bataller, Les Cartes Portolanes; la representació medieval d’una mar solcada (Barcelona: Institut Cartogràfic de Catalunya; Institute Estudis Catalans; Institute Europeu de la Mediterrània, Lunwerg, 2007).  This site has been revised to reflect his work.  Campbell also innumerates differences and emendations between his seminal article and Pujades' work on his web site:

Fewer than 100 portolan charts made prior to 1500 have survived.* Of these, the three fifteenth-century portolan charts in the collection of the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota are the subject of this commentary.

*Richard Pflederer has published several volumes cataloging the portolan chart collections held by libraries and museums around the world.  See Pflederer, Census of Portolan Charts and Atlases (2009), Catalogue of Portolan Charts and Atlases of the British Library (2001), Catalogue of Portolan Charts and Atlases of the Huntington Library (2004), Catalogue of Portolan Charts and Atlases of the Newberry Library (2005), Catalogue of Portolan Charts and Atlases of the National Maritime Museum (Greenwich) (2006), and Catalogue of Portolan Charts and Atlases of the Archivo di Stato di Firenze (2013).

This exhibit presented by the James Ford Bell Library.

Introduction to Portolan Charts