The famous Cantino World Chart is one of the most influential maps ever made and it has a very interesting history. It is an anonymous Portuguese manuscript world map. It is the earliest surviving map showing the new discoveries by the Portuguese in Brazil, Newfoundland, Greenland, Africa, and India. And, because it is the first map to shed the regressive influences of both Medieval and Renaissance mapmaking, it is also the first truly modern world map. It is named for Alberto Cantino. He was the agent in Lisbon for Ercole d’Este (1431 – 1505), Duke of Ferrara, Italy. As his agent, he represented the Duke in political and commercial affairs. But Cantino was also the Duke’s spy!
It was only three years earlier in 1499 that Vasco da Gama returned from India with his ships laden with spices and other valuable commodities. The Italian merchants had been for centuries the intermediary dealers importing expensive goods from the East (Arabia, India, Southeast Asia) and reselling them at a profit north of the Alps. But now, because of the daring and bold enterprise of the Portuguese, the Italians no longer held a monopoly in the luxury goods, spices (pepper, ginger, cinnamon, etc.), medicines, precious metals, jewels, hardwoods, expensive cloth, and dyes from India. The Portuguese had cut out the middle man. The major German trading and banking companies of the Fuggers, Welsers, and Inhoffs, which had been buying pepper from the Venetians and Genoese for resale to the rest of Europe, were now buying pepper directly on the docks of Lisbon from the Portuguese ships returning from India. And at a better price because the Italian middle men had been eliminated from the trade. Overnight, Lisbon had become the centre of European trade in exotic goods. And Lisbon was suddenly a hotbed of intrigue and espionage. Trade secrets such as those shown on the Cantino map were eagerly sought for by foreign merchants because it could allow them to gain an economic advantage over their competitors or suppliers.
The world map is hand-painted and richly highlighted in gold on parchment measuring about 105 x 220 cm. The beautiful illuminations and illustrations on the map, particularly in Brazil and Africa, were made by Flemish miniaturists then working in Lisbon. An inscription on the back of the parchment reads in translation: “Nautical chart of the islands newly found in the regions of the Indies. Given by Alberto Cantino to the Duke Ercole.”
This highly influential map, through copies of it made in Genoa, was the model for a long series of manuscript and printed maps made in Italy, Germany, and Central Europe throughout the 16th century. The depiction of the New World on the famous woodcut wall map of the world by Martin Waldseemüller of 1507 can be traced back to the Cantino planisphere. And, even though updated geographical information was continuously being brought back from the new lands and seas being discovered and explored by the Portuguese and Spanish, the geographical ideas of the New World and of South Asia on the Cantino chart continued to be depicted on maps made in Germany for more than one-hundred years before they were improved!
In December 1501, Cantino paid 12 Venetian gold ducats to an unknown Portuguese official to have a map made showing all the latest geographical discoveries. That is equivalent to about $1,700 in 2018 dollars. At a time when the average worker’s daily pay was counted in cents, this was equal to more than 100 years of income! That is a lot of money! The Cantino planisphere is one of the earliest charts made to depict places, in this case, on the coast of Africa, located by means of latitude readings with an astrolabe, an early astronomical instrument similar to a sextant. It is thought that the map was copied from the Padrão, or Portuguese standard world map, upon which all the latest discoveries were recorded. But some of the lands depicted were so newly discovered and so recently reported in Lisbon that they must have been drawn onto the Cantino planisphere before they were recorded on the official Padrão standard map. While the map was still being drawn during 1502, several Portuguese ships returned to Lisbon from their overseas voyages and added new geographical information to the map.
This new geography was: July 22, 1502: The return of Gonçalo Coelho (c. 1452 – 1512) from Brazil. In April 1500, Pedro Álvares Cabral (c. 1467 – c. 1520), commander of the Second Portuguese India Armada, discovered the east coast of Brazil. While the remainder of the fleet continued to India, he sent one of his ships back to Lisbon with the news of the discovery. A follow-up expedition was sent to Brazil. The small fleet of ships was commanded by Goncalo Coelho and included Amerigo Vespucci, who later wrote a famous account of this voyage. They left Lisbon in May 1501, sighted the coast of Brazil in August, and explored the Brazilian coast until February 1502.
September 10, 1502: The return of Vespucci from Brazil to Lisbon. This had an interesting effect upon the manuscript parchment. After the coastline and place-names of Brazil were originally drawn onto the parchment from the report after the return of one of Cabral’s ships, an added patch of parchment was pasted over the coast of Brazil. This allowed the coastline of Brazil to be modified and updated with additional place-names. Someone, perhaps the mapmaker working on the map or Alberto Cantino himself, in possession of his newly made map, appears to have interviewed Amerigo Vespucci himself, and the cursive handwriting of place-names added to piece of parchment glued on top of the parchment may be Vespucci’s.
September 11, 1502: João da Nova (c. 1460-1509), the commander of the third Portuguese expedition to India, returned to Lisbon with cargoes of black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, lac, and other assorted goods. The Cantino chart shows the Indian Ocean islands and coast of India the ships had visited.
October 1502: Two ships from the Miguel Corte Real expedition returned to Lisbon and reported the results of their survey of the entire east coast of Newfoundland that are depicted on the map. This is the latest geographical information depicted on the chart.
Soon after, Alberto Cantino left Lisbon for Genoa and took the planisphere with him. In Genoa, he gave the map to Francesco Cataneo, Genoese ambassador to Aragon and France. Cantino then traveled on to Rome. While in Genoa, the Cantino planisphere was copied by Nicolo de Caverio, one of that city’s leading cartographers. The Cantino planisphere duly reached its destination and was lodged in the archives of the House of Este in Ferrara, where it remained until 1592. In that year the map suffered the fate of the entire ducal library and collections, and was transferred to Modena when Pope Clement VIII robbed Cesare d’Este of his duchy.
The locations of significant Portuguese sources for costly trade goods such as brazilwood and spices, and the sailing routes to the emporia were valuable but confidential trade secrets. The Portuguese could not allow this intelligence to get into the hands of potential competitors. Manuel, king of Portugal, passed a law in November 1504 establishing censorship of all map production with complete prohibition of any depiction of coasts beyond West Africa.
During a political uprising in 1859, the Cantino planisphere was removed from the palace in Modena. The Cantino planisphere was rediscovered by Giuseppe Boni, Director of the Biblioteca Estense, in that same year, in the shop of Giusti, the pork butcher, where it had been pasted on a screen. So that it would better fit for this new purpose, strips of the parchment were cut off along the top edge, removing part of the inscription on Greenland, and along the left edge, removing part of Columbus’s imagined Asia, the large landmass to the west of the Caribbean.
This monument to the cartographer’s art and to Portuguese world exploration is now kept at the Biblioteca Estense Universitaria in Modena, Italy.