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