Navigating the Mediterranean World

The Manuscripts Division is pleased to announce the acquisition and digitization in DPUL (Digital Princeton University Library) of a 1640 portolan navigational chart of the Mediterranean Sea (Princeton MS. 254). This portolan chart (image below) shows the Mediterranean, from the Iberian peninsula in the west (top) to the Greek Isles and the Holy Land in the east (bottom). It is oriented 90 degrees clockwise relative to modern maps, with Sicily (where it was produced) at the center. The well-known Italian cartographer Placido Caloiro e Oliva, active in Messina from 1611, prepared this manuscript map on the flesh side of a single parchment skin (85 x 44 cm, at widest points), writing in brown ink and decorating it in shades of red, green, blue, and brown watercolor. The map provides the Italian names of coastal ports and harbors, all of which are readable online using DPUL’s magnification tool. We also see rhumb lines, compass roses, cartouches, and other details. Twelve major port cities are indicated, including Genoa and Venice, each with buildings and festooned with colorful banners displaying the arms of that place. Some rivers are shown in blue, the Red Sea in red, and the north African coast (left) with two palm trees. At the top is an image of the Virgin and Child (85 x 85 mm), below which the mapmaker has signed and dated the map in gold: “Placidus Caloiro et Oliva fecit in Nobili urbe Messanae anno 1640.” He is one of at least sixteen Oliva family members active as mapmakers in the period 1538-1673. This portolan chart was acquired with matching funds provided by the Program in Hellenic Studies, with the support of the Stanley J. Seeger Hellenic Fund and matching funds provided by a gift of the Orpheus Trust to the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies, in honor of the 40th anniversary of Hellenic Studies at Princeton. The chart will be on view in Welcome Additions, the Library’s first exhibition in the new Ellen and Leonard Milberg Gallery (6 March–23 June 2019).

Portolan charts were first produced in thirteenth-century Italy, based on careful observations by sea pilots of harbors, trade routes, compass directions, and estimated distances. Production of these navigational maps, which marked a significant advance over western cartography rooted in ancient models, spread to Spain and Portugal during the Age of Exploration and continued until the eighteenth century. Later portolani covered not only the Mediterranean, but also the British Isles, Baltic Sea, west coast of Africa, and the Americas. The Manuscripts Division already had a small portolan atlas with four double maps (Kane MS. 57), executed in the style of Jaume Olives (fl. 1557–1566), a mapmaker from the Majorcas. It has been digitized. The Scheide Library has a portolan atlas of 1642 with three double maps (Scheide M33), said to have been produced in Messina by Giovanni Battista Caloiro and Placido Oliva. The Manuscripts Division also has a late eighteenth-century Italian manuscript isolario for the islands of the Greek Archipelago (C0938, no. 735). Its 56 maps show many minor islands but sometimes omit major islands, such as Chios, Mytilenē, Rhodes, and Crete. This isolario was also acquired in cooperation with Program in Hellenic Studies, with the support of the Stanley J. Seeger Hellenic Fund and matching funds provided by a gift of the Orpheus Trust to the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies. For more information, contact Don C. Skemer, Curator of Manuscripts, at

Portolan Chart, 1640

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