Introduction to Portolan Charts
History - the Carte Pisane
What can be known about portolan charts from their history?
The Carte Pisane
If a definition of portolan charts is problematic, what can be known about them from their history? Genoa and Venice were the first known centers of their production; later on, Catalan mapmakers, particularly in Majorca, were outstanding. The earliest surviving portolan chart is from the late 13th century, about 1290. It is in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Called the Carte Pisane because it was owned by a Pisan family; its maker is not known. The map’s birthplace is uncertain: most scholars believe it was made in Genoa. The writing on this chart is in several languages, which is not unusual for the fifteenth century. This is one reason why the origin of many portolan charts is difficult to determine (Campbell 1987, 388-9, 404). The Carte Pisane holds an unusual distinction in the history of mapping. Although it is the earliest portolan chart extant, the Carte Pisane has all of the same physical and intellectual characteristics of the portolan charts that come after it.
The mystery is that it has no known ancestors. The Carte Pisane seems to have emerged full-blown from the seas it describes. It has the grid pattern based on circles and compass directions that later portolan charts have; its portrayal of the Mediterranean is startling in its accuracy. Where are the earlier charts showing the development of this form of mapping? (Whitfield 1996, pp. 17-20 discusses this). To add a further touch of mystery, the depiction of Italy on the Carte Pisane is not nearly so accurate as that found on the portolan charts that immediately follow it (and this one is supposed to have been made in Italy!). Also, the portrayal of the Atlantic areas "is deplorable looking" in the words of a major scholar of this and other early portolan charts, James E. Kelley, Jr. (Kelley 1979, 19). What sources were used in making the Carte Pisane? Nobody knows. Was it a compilation from many earlier charts, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, or did one cartographer simply make it entirely as his own work? With the detail that is given of names and coastlines, the Carte Pisane seems to reflect the results of many voyages and the use of many earlier charts which contributed to the knowledge shown on it. This is true of the portolan charts that survive—the mapping presented on them seems almost certainly to result from the combined knowledge and mapping of many years.