MapCarte 320/365: Piri Re’is Map by Piri Re’is, 1513

MapCarte320_piriAfter the discovery of the Americas, numerous maps were made by the various sefaring nations of the period, most notably the Spanish and Portuguese. Possibly the most intriguing and, certainly, one of the most elegant maps was made not by the obvious cartographers but by a Turk, Piri Re’is. Only a portion of the map remains. At one point it would have included the whole world as seen by the Ottomans but only the western segment has survived. This alone, though, tells a remarkable cartographic story.

The map is significant as being the only 16th century map to display the Americas in its correct longitudinal position relative to Africa. As a portolan chart it is used predominantly for navigation. The coastal detail is impressive and the ocean is marked with numerous compass roses, rhumb lines (lines of constant bearing) and scale bars. The map is embellished with beautiful tall ships as well as many vignettes depicting indigenous people, flora and fauna, towns and settlements. The colours bring the map to life with careful shading of the coastline allowing it to stand proud in a visual sense and the use of red and blue alternating rhumb lines acting as spokes away fro the compass roses. Colour, generally, is well balanced, used sparingly but effectively as a differentiating tool.

MapCarte320_piri_detailThe labelling is particularly impressive and illustrates a compilation of collective knowledge derived from 20 maps used as sources. Maps from Alexander the Great, Ptolemy, Columbus and Portuguese explorers all played a part in the design of the map which reminds us that maps need not be entirely original. What is important, however, is to acknowledge the sources which this map does in its copious notes in the lower left.

The coastline of the Americas continues south and along the bottom. Could this be Antarctica or simply an artistic extension of the unknown southern tip of the Americas. Of course, it’s intriguing to wonder what the rest of the map might have looked like. Piri Re’is himself was a distinguished naval captain who rose to the post of Admiral of the Ottoman fleet. He won numerous battles and surveyed, mapped and wrote the famous Kitab-I Bahriye (Book of Navigation) in 1521. He was executed in 1553 for failing in his attempt to defeat the Portuguese in the Persian Gulf. He left a remarkable cartographic legacy with this map.

MapCarte 239/365: Carta Pisane by anon., c.1275

MapCarte239_pisaneThe form of a map goes a long way to defining whether it is well designed but rarely is a well designed map devoid of function. The balance between the two is likely harmonious if we see beauty in the form and function. Sometimes the simplicity of the function defines the form itself and beauty is derived largely from how the map is designed to work. This is certainly true of the Carte Pisane, the world’s oldest known portolan chart. Derived from the Italian word Portolano, or port, this map is designed to allow mariners to navigate between coastal settlements.



Their construction is simple, being based on the use circles, lines and grids with numerous compass directions. Coastlines and names were added according to known compass directions so the map’s appearance is strictly according to the knowledge of compass and wind direction between two ports. It’s a simple and ingenious approach to making a map to support one function – getting from A to B by sea. The shape of a coastline was accentuated by labelling the ports at 90 degrees to the coastline.

There is little need for any interior geography and the commercial importance of various trading regions is clear given the relatively poor shape and detail of the British Isles.

History can teach us much about map design. The portolan chart and Carte Pisane are exquisite examples of early map-making.