This is a guest post by Abraham Kaleo Parrish, Geospatial Data Visualization Librarian in the Geography and Map Division.
In 1528 Venetian cartographer, miniaturist, and editor Benedetto Bordone published Libro di Benedetto Bordone : nel qual si ragiona de tutte l’isole del mondo, con li lor nomi antichi & moderni, historie, fauole, & modi del loro uiuere, & in qual parte del mare stanno, & in qual parallelo & clima giacciono (Book of Benedetto Bordone : in which we reason of all the islands of the world, with their ancient & modern names, histories, fables, & ways of life, & in which part of the sea they are, & in what parallel & climate they lie). This book belonged to a genre of isolarii, or island books, which was popular in the Mediterranean during the 15th and 16th century Renaissance, particularly in Venice where many printed works were being published at the time.
The genre can be thought of as an encyclopedia of islands containing maps along with text descriptions of localities, significant history, maritime information, mythology, and an analysis of the physical geography and land use. Although primarily intended for sailors, isolarii found many uses including just pure reading pleasure. While earlier isolarii focused on just the Mediterranean region, the expansion of European exploration prompted Bordone to improve his Isolario by expanding geographic extent to 111 islands covering the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Far East and included smaller scale maps to situate the islands to each other – a sort of cartographic index. Bordone’s book, including the text and maps, were printed with the woodcut method in black and red ink. Printing allowed for the mass production and lower cost of the isolario, which may have contributed to its widespread popularity at the time.
Cuba is a good example of a new world island beyond the traditional scope of the Mediterranean in Bordone’s Isolario. On the Cuba map, as with all the other island maps, a compass rose is placed in the background marine area with the compass rhumb lines covered by the island in the foreground. Before compass points were assigned degree values or cardinal and ordinal directions, they utilized names of winds signifying the direction from which said wind blew. Bordone’s compass rose utilizes this nomenclature with a symbol or first letter of the name of each wind – probably to save space and reduce clutter on the map print. Many of the wind names are reflective of places in the Mediterranean region where it originated. Bordone gives Latin as well as Greek equivalent wind names on a table in the introduction of his book on page 17.
Starting with the north cold winter wind Tramontana symbolized with an arrow on the compass rose and moving clockwise we find the northwest wind Greco (from Greece) symbolized with the letter G. Continuing in a clockwise direction, a cross symbolizes the east wind Levante as it comes from the Levant in which lies the holy land. Blowing from the Arabian and Sahara deserts, the warm dry wind Sirocco symbolized with the letter S represents the southeast direction. The letter O represents the warm and humid wind Ostro coming from the south followed by Garbino or Libonotus, the southwest wind from Libya represented with a symbol most closely resembling the letter H. Completing the compass rose is the west wind Ponente, symbolized with the letter P and the cold strong northwest wind Maestro, with a symbol closely resembling the letter M. Bordone’s maps don’t necessarily always have north facing upwards and instead have the compass rose rotated to align with the orientation of the island as best fitted in its frame. This can be seen on the Cuba map which has the island oriented with northeast upwards. This most likely is due efficient space management as a north upwards map of Cuba at the same scale would have resulted in a larger extended map frame on the page.
Bordone printed the text of the book in Italian and his description of Cuba includes things such as the geography, people, flora and fauna, and accounts of visitors to the island, which at the time was a growing Spanish colony which had just imported slaves from Africa after a large portion of the native Taino had died primarily from newly introduced diseases like smallpox. A rough translation to English reveals that Cuba is a very large island with a long form, oriented towards Maestro (wind signifying the Northwest direction) 1,300 miles (I am assuming this given distance is the perimeter of the island). It also has a beautiful port, capable of every large number of boats, and on its Ostro (Southern) side more islands with every amenity. He describes the island as having a lot of people with excellent and delicate food.
Of the fauna he remarks on the abundance of geese and ducks as well as serpents four cubits long (about 6 feet) in the likeness of a crocodile, likely referring to caimans which are indigenous to Central and South America. He also describes monstrous dogs who do not bark, which could be a reference to the domestic Dogo Cubano, also known as the Cuban Bloodhound which could be up to six feet long, three feet high and up to 160 pounds and were bred by early Spanish conquistadors and explorers from Iberian Mastiffs, Bulldogs, and Bloodhounds and often used by the Spanish to capture cimarrones (runaway slaves).
Bordone also describes the island of Cuba as having running hot water that no one could hold inside their hands. This may be a reference to San Diego de los Baños, a hot springs in the western part of Cuba which still runs a Balneario (bathhouse) with waters between 86 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit accompanied with a smell of sulphur.
Other islands of interest in the Isolario include the first European printed map of Japan as an island, referred to as Ciampagu by Bordone.
He also included an unusual island in that it was located in the middle of a lake, which he called Temistitan, better known as Tenochtilan, the ancient Aztec capital on Lake Texcoco and captured by the Spanish in 1521 just seven years before Bordone published his Isolario. The historic Tenochtilan was located in the center of what is now Mexico City sans the lake.
It has been speculated that Bordone’s inclusion of Tenochtitlan, which couldn’t be directly sailed to from the ocean, among the islands of his book was due to its similarity to his home city of Venice also containing navigable canals and bridges. Bordone also included a more detailed bird’s eye view of Venice in his Isolario as he did for Tenochtitlan.
There are dozens more interesting islands to explore in Bordone’s Isolario which provide a fascinating centuries-old historical account of these geographic wonders which often served not only as key strategic and supply stops for sailors around the world, but also played important roles in geopolitics and economics as well as accumulating and distilling a wide range of cultures.
Besides the first 1528 digitized edition held by the Rare Book and Special Collections referenced above, the Geography and Map Division also holds a 1547 and 1560 edition in its vault under the title Isolario di Benedetto Bordone nel qual si ragiona di tutte l’isole del mondo, con li lor nomi antichi & moderni, historie, fauole, & modi del loro viuere & in qual parte del mare stanno, & in qual parallelo & clima giaciono (call numbers: G1029 .B6 1547 Vault fol. and G1029 .B6 1560 Vault fol).
Other notable creators of the isolarii genre in this period include Antonio Millo, Battista Agnese, Bartolommeo Dalli Sonetti, Piri Reis, Henricus Martellus Germanus, Christoforo Buondelmonti, Domenico Silvestri, Giovanni Francesco Camocio, Tommaso Porcacchi, Vincenzo Coronelli, and Donato Bertelli. Among the best examples of this group and held in Geography and Map Division is an isolario created by Venetian Thomaso Porcacchi and the half-blind engraver Girolamo Porro titled L’isole piv famos del mondo, descritte da Tomaso Porcacchi da Castiglione Arretino, published in Venice in 1686 (G1029 .P6 1686 Vault).
Isolarii, Fifteenth to Seventeenth Century (Vol. 3, Part 1, Chap. 8), George Tolias, from Cartography in the European Renaissance / edited by David Woodward. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, c2007.
Uneasy Reflections: Images of Venice and Tenochtitlan in Benedetto Bordone’s “Isolario”, David Y. Kim Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics March 2006 Volume 49-50 pp. 80 – 91