Portolan charts, meant for the serious business of navigating
safely at sea, were often made with such artistry that they are
works of art as well as tools for navigation. Yes, these maps
are usually colorful, fascinating and quite wonderful to look
at! An examination of three portolan charts in the James Ford
Bell Library dating prior to 1500 will illustrate some similarities
among them and will raise some questions about these fascinating
and rare maps.
All three portolan charts show islands in the west, suggesting
that Europeans had begun voyages to such islands or at least had
incorporated these real or imaginary islands in their thinking
about western voyages. The portrayal of islands in the Atlantic
is the reason why they were acquired by the James Ford Bell Library.
The portolan charts may be visited in reverse chronological order,
because of these western islands. This reverse chronology also
serves as a reminder that the "newest" maps are not always the
most accurate and important.
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