Re­nais­sance world­view

The World for a King: Pierre Desce­liers’ Map of 1550

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - by Chet Van Duzer

Map afi­ciona­dos will ar­rive from near and far for this week­end’s Map Ma­nia Sym­po­sium at the New Mex­ico His­tory Mu­seum. Some will prob­a­bly be guided to their des­ti­na­tion by the re­as­sur­ing voice of a GPS sys­tem built into their cars or ac­cessed through their cell­phones. Har­ness­ing satel­lite com­mu­ni­ca­tions to pro­vide in­stan­ta­neous global po­si­tion­ing has be­come the norm for nav­i­ga­tion in the early 21st cen­tury, but the ac­cu­racy gained through this tech­nol­ogy has come at the cost of an­other de­sir­able trait of car­tog­ra­phy: fan­tasy.

Pasatiempo last met up with the work of car­to­graphic his­to­rian Chet Van Duzer two and a half years ago, when we paged through his op­u­lent vol­ume Sea Mon­sters on Me­dieval and Re­nais­sance Maps, pub­lished by The British Li­brary. In that book, he fo­cused on the beasts that pop­u­late the oth­er­wise empty oceans of me­dieval and Re­nais­sance maps, rang­ing from the hos­tile (such as the saw­fish that swims be­neath ves­sels and slices them in half) to the benef­i­cent (the whale that al­lowed the friar Bernardo Buil to con­struct an al­tar on its back) and the merely cu­ri­ous (like the ma­rine dog and ma­rine chicken). Among the many fauna-filled maps he con­sid­ered, Van Duzer passed fleet­ingly over Pierre Desce­lier’s “large … and glo­ri­ously coloured man­u­script world map of 1550,” which he found to be “not very rich in sea mon­sters,” al­though it did have a few.

That map, it turns out, was un­usu­ally in­ter­est­ing in other ways. It is the sub­ject of his lat­est book, The World for a King: Pierre Desce­liers’ Map of 1550, also pub­lished by The British Li­brary and no less sump­tu­ous than its pre­de­ces­sor. Van Duzer of­fers a pré­cis of the map at the out­set: “This book is about one of the most spec­tac­u­lar maps to sur­vive from the six­teenth cen­tury, the world map made by the Nor­man car­tog­ra­pher Pierre Desce­liers for pre­sen­ta­tion to King Henry II of France in 1550. It is com­posed of four con­joined pieces of parch­ment that to­gether mea­sure an im­pos­ing 135 x 215 cen­time­ters (4 feet 5 inches by 7 feet 1 inch), and is elab­o­rately hand­painted with il­lus­tra­tions of cities, kings, ex­otic peo­ples, an­i­mals, ships, and sea mon­sters, and has twenty-six long de­scrip­tive texts that seem to have been com­posed es­pe­cially for this map.”

The scale of the map sug­gests that it was meant to be dis­played on a ta­ble, with view­ers ranged around it. In­deed, the in­scrip­tions on the bot­tom half look nor­mal to us, but those on the top half are up­side down; that is a prac­ti­cal so­lu­tion to aid leg­i­bil­ity for read­ers stand­ing on either side.

Van Duzer knows how to read a map — which is to say, a map’s de­tails come alive to him as em­bod­i­ments of his­tory, tra­di­tion, and in­di­vid­u­al­ity. Three coats of arms are drawn on Desce­liers’ map — those of Henry II; Anne de Mont­morency, Con­sta­ble of France; and Claude d’An­nebault, Ad­mi­ral of France. Van Duzer be­lieves that they pro­vide a frame­work for un­der­stand­ing why this un­der­tak­ing came about. It strikes him as un­usual that the in­signia of any high of­fi­cials would grace the map along with that of the king, but he thinks their pres­ence sug­gests that this map helped re­solved a po­lit­i­cal al­ter­ca­tion.

Mont­morency had fallen out of favour with Henry’s fa­ther, Fran­cis I, to­ward the end of his reign, and An­nebault had risen to be­come Fran­cis’ favourite and most trusted coun­selor. But when Henry be­came king in 1547, he re­in­stated his friend Mont­morency who, har­bour­ing a grudge against An­nebault and also ea­ger to so­lid­ify his po­si­tion as the king’s clos­est ad­viser, per­suaded Henry to make An­nebault un­der­stand that he was no longer welcome at court. In 1550, when Desce­liers made his map, An­nebault was still try­ing to find his way back into Henry’s favour — and into Mont­morency’s as well. In fact, the best ex­pla­na­tion of the coats of arms on Desce­liers’ 1550 map is that the map was a gift from An­nebault to Henry and Mont­morency, part of his ef­forts to re­store him­self to their good graces, and per­haps a sig­nal of his de­sire to co­op­er­ate with Mont­morency. … This map’s ex­trav­a­gant dec­o­ra­tion may be seen as An­nebault’s at­tempt to give a gift so beau­ti­ful as to dim all mem­ory of re­sent­ments past, and a nau­ti­cal chart is cer­tainly an ap­pro­pri­ate of­fer­ing from an ad­mi­ral.

It does in­deed fall in the tra­di­tion of nau­ti­cal charts. Th­ese were the most com­mon kind among maps that charted large ar­eas or, as here, the world. It stands to rea­son: Most ex­plo­ration in the 16th

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