This Newly Digitized 16th-Century Planisphere Is the Largest-Known Early Map

Explore continents, islands and unicorns with scholar Urbano Monte’s epic map that’s been digitally pieced together by Stanford’s David Rumsey Map Center

David Rumsey Map Collection

In 1587, a Milanese scholar named Urbano Monte created a huge map of the world, drawn with meticulous and colorful detail on 60 sheets of paper. Monte specified that the sheets should be assembled and displayed on a wooden board, but for the past four centuries, they have been bound inside an atlas.

Fortunately, we can now view Monte’s map in the way that he wanted it to be seen and explored. As Claire Voon reports for Hyperallergic, David Rumsey of Stanford's David Rumsey Map Center has scanned all 60 pages of the map and digitally pieced them together to reveal a vibrant, sophisticated depiction of the Earth’s geography—complete with the occasional unicorn and mermaid.

Spanning more than 10 feet in diameter, Monte’s cartographic marvel is believed to be the largest-known early map of the world, according to the Rumsey Map Center's website. Known as a "planisphere," the map is aligned in a “north polar azimuthal projection,” meaning that the North Pole is at its center. When he published his work in a four-volume, geographic treatise, Monte noted that a central pivot should be affixed to the North Pole, which would have allowed the map to rotate.

Monte was an Italian nobleman, and his affluence afforded plenty of leisure time to pursue his interest in cartography. His passion for the discipline seems to have been sparked by the first Japanese embassy to come to Europe in the 1580s. According to a report by the Rumsey Map Center and Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc., Jesuit missionists abroad selected four teenage boys for a pilgrimage to meet the Pope. They went on to open an embassy in Milan in 1585. Monte was, reportedly, fascinated by their culture. His first-known cartographic work was a map of Japan, which also appears on his planisphere. The country is oddly shaped, but includes copious and specific place names that the report notes shows “the depth of research” Monte put into his work.

Other details reveal that Monte was well-versed in contemporary geographic theories and explorations. On the outer ring of the map, for instance, are eight islands (which look more like small continents because of the projection). One of these is Tierra de Fuego, which was first sighted by Ferdinand Magellan on his 1519-1522 voyage across the Pacific Ocean. And Monte deliberately opted for a north polar azimuthal projection—as opposed to the now-ubiquitous Mercator projection—so his map would resemble a three-dimensional sphere.

“Monte's map reminds us of why historical maps are so important as primary resources: the north polar azimuthal projection of his planisphere uses the advanced scientific ideas of his time; the artistry in drawing and decorating the map embodies design at the highest level; and the view of the world then gives us a deep historical resource with the listing of places, the shape of spaces, and the commentary interwoven into the map,” the center notes on its website. “Science, art, and history all in one document.”

Monte’s map is now on display at Stanford University, along with a digital version on a touch screen. For those who can’t make it to California, the Rumsey Map Center has posted images of the entire manuscript on its website, where the map can be explored in all its fascinating detail.

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