This grubby and unassuming piece of paper contains one of the greatest landmarks in the history of cartography. How deceptive appearances can be. It is the first printed road map and the earliest map produced specifically for travellers. Published in Nuremberg in 1500 by Erhard Etzlaub (c.1455–1532), the south-oriented map shows a portion of Europe between Poland and eastern France, and Scotland and southern Italy. Hundreds of towns are marked along with rivers, mountain ranges and – key to the map – a series of dotted lines which converge on Rome. All roads lead to the Eternal City, the centre of Christianity in Europe and a place of pilgrimage. This map was made for the thousands of mainly northern Europeans who planned to travel to Rome to mark the jubilee year of 1500, one and a half thousand years after the birth of Christ. Its title is Das ist der Rom Weg von Meylen zu Meylen (‘This is the way to Rome from mile to mile’).
The map would have provided inspired guidance for the large numbers of people travelling beyond their localities, many surely for the first time. To begin with, the eight dotted routes leading from northern cities do not merely mark the way. Each dot is placed one German mile apart (around seven and a half kilometres) so that pilgrims would know how far they had travelled and how far they had to go. Additionally, marks in the map’s left and right borders give the number of daylight hours available during the longest day at each latitude, which would have helped with planning and indicated when it was time to find somewhere to sleep. At the bottom of the map is a circular diagram which the traveller could align with a compass in order to help them decide which direction to take. All of this was explained by Etzlaub in clear vernacular German text.
Etzlaub was a scientific instrument maker based in one of the centres of Renaissance science. His expertise is evident from his map, yet it also displayed his keen business acumen. The map was surely a phenomenal bestseller, and we know this despite the fact that we know of only ten examples today. Through close inspection of these examples, former British Library map librarian Tony Campbell found minor but multiple differences between them. He concluded that this must have occurred through the deterioration of the woodblock used to print them, which could only have been caused by extensive and repeated use. You’d have to do a lot of printing to wear down a piece of wood. The Rom Weg must once have been as common as an AA route guide.