The World As You Know It: New Beinecke Exhibition Cards The Rise of Cards

After the cartographer Judah Ben Zara was banished from Spain in 1492 when Ferdinand and Isabella expelled their kingdom’s Jewish population, the exiled cartographer continued his craft in the Middle East. His only surviving maps—two in Egypt and one in Galilee—are among the few surviving examples made outside of Europe during this period.

One of these maps, a portolan map of the Mediterranean he made more than a decade later in Tsefat—a city in what is now northern Israel—is on display as part of the new exhibition, The World in Maps 1400–1600, at Yale Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, presenting a selection of the library’s most impressive and historically important maps from the late medieval and early modern period.

What’s fascinating is that Ben Zara’s cards look exactly like those made in Spain and Italy at the time,” said Ray Clemens, Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts, who curated the exhibit with Kristen Herdman, a Ph.D. Candidate in the Medieval Studies course. “He brought his mapmaking knowledge from Spain, but he used different materials than mapmakers based in Europe.”

A portolan card
A detail from a portolan map of the Mediterranean drawn by the cartographer Judah Ben Zara in 1505. Sailors used portolans to locate ports. The maps often featured artistic flourishes, such as the pennants and castles pictured here. (Photo by Stephen Gamboa-Diaz)

In particular, peptide mass fingerprinting, an analytical technique used to identify proteins, revealed that the 1505 map was made on goatskin, Clemens said, while contemporary European maps in the library’s collection were made on either sheepskin or calfskin.

He lived where there were no sheep or calves,” he said, “so he improvises.”

Yale has one of the most important chart collections in North America, including the continent’s largest single collection of portolanas—navigation charts used by seafarers to find ports. Ten of the Bergecke Library’s portolan, which form the centerpiece of the exhibition, are displayed in the two flat showcases on either side of the building’s ground floor. In addition, a selection of maps from Asia is displayed in a curved box on the library’s mezzanine level. On the opposite side of the mezzanine, a second curved display case contains examples of forged maps, including the infamous Vinland map, once considered the finest depiction of the New World. Eighteen smaller showcases lining the east and west sides of the mezzanine display materials dealing with various historical, cultural, or technological aspects of mapmaking.

Map books in a showcase

Portolans are not technically charts, but rather nautical charts that provide little geographic detail about the interior of the land masses they represent. Like other examples from the period on display, Ben Zaras shows the orb terrarium – the district around the Mediterranean Sea – with numerous large and small ports from Spain to Greece to Egypt and today’s Morocco. (Red indicates major ports, black indicates smaller ports.) Red and black lines, called loxodromes, criss-crossed the chart and helped seafarers chart the course from one port to another. The charts often clearly mark shoals and other treacherous features near shore.

Although Ben Zara and his contemporaries lacked the benefit of satellite imagery or even hot air balloons to get a bird’s eye view of the terrain, their depictions of the Mediterranean coastline are impressively accurate. They often added whimsical, artistic flourishes. For example, palm trees, billowing tents and an ostrich characterize the North African coast on Ben Zara’s Portolan. He painted the waters of the Red Sea red – a visual cliché on portolan charts. And like other Portolans of this period, Ben Zara’s map shows a land bridge near the north shore of the sea, which represents the place where the Israelites fled Egypt in the biblical Exodus account.

In the biblical story, the sea naturally closes after the Israelites crossed the divided waters and drowned Pharaoh’s troops,” Clemens said. “The presentation on these and Portolan maps shows how they served both historical and geographical documents.”

In the exhibition, Ben Zara’s Tsefat map is paired with a facsimile of his first known map – currently held in the Vatican Library – which he made in Cairo in 1497. These maps share the flat box to the left of the library’s security desk with the oldest map in the library’s collection – a portolan map made in 1403 by the Genoese mapmaker Franciscus Becharius.

The case also contains the oldest known portolan from Portugal, completed in 1492 by the cartographer Jorge de Aguiar. By this point in history, the Portuguese had successfully explored the west coast of Africa for European interests, and Aguiar shared what they learned about the African coast in two insets on the map. According to the exhibit’s label, Columbus brought a similar map with him on his first voyage to America.

The flat box to the right of the security switch shows portolans, which were made after European cartographers began incorporating the New World into their work. A post-1637 portolan of the Atlantic outlines the routes of the slave trade between Africa and Brazil. An illustration of Elmina Castle, an early European trading settlement in modern-day Ghana that became a base for slave traders, features prominently on Africa’s Gold Coast.

A portolan map of slave trade routes.

A portolan map of the Atlantic outlining the slave trade. A key stop in the slave trade in modern-day Ghana, Elmina Castle is prominently featured beneath a Dutch flag, which on the map is dated after 1637, when the Dutch took control of the region.

A curved enclosure at the north end of the mezzanine gives a sense of how Asian cultures viewed their place in the world. Manuscript maps of Asia are extremely difficult to find outside of China, Japan, and Korea, but the Beinecke Library has a small collection of printed maps made from earlier originals, Clemens said. A large political map of Korea at the center of the case is an 18ththCentury Reproduction of a map probably made during the Joseon Dynasty in the 16th centuryth-Century.

It’s important because it shows Korea’s eight provinces, but it’s also just a beautiful map,” said Clemens.

A display case on the east wall contains two specimens Since sphere (“On the Ball”), a 13thCentury text by the astronomer Johannes de Sacro Bosco which, contrary to contemporary myth, shows that medieval people viewed the world as a sphere.

One of the specimens made in the 15th centuryth 19th century, contains an illustration of an astronomical model with the earth at the center, the sun at the periphery, and depictions of the moon in its various phases as it orbits the earth. The second copy, created between 1526 and 1527, contains a fold-out map of the world. It’s a version of a TO card that was common in medieval Europe. These maps were simple charts consisting of a “T” typically dividing the world into Asia, Europe, and Africa enclosed by an “O” representing the bodies of water surrounding land masses. While used for instruction, TO cards were not meant to reflect the shape of the world, Clemens explained.

A medieval TO card
A fold-out map of the world from a 16th-century copy of Da sphaera (‘On the Sphere’) by the astronomer Johannes de Sacro Bosco. (Photo by Allie Barton)

A showcase of Arabic world maps contains a copy of a 17thth-Century copy of the world map from “A Book of Marvels and Things Created” dated 13th-century cosmographer Zakariyya’ al-Qazwini. Mecca is at the center of the map, with the rest of the world spreading out in a circle. The Red Sea is a rectangular blue mass. The Mediterranean Sea is elongated in the top left of the map.

A circa 1450 treatise by Geoffrey Chaucer on the use of an astrolabe is contained in a box containing manuscripts on the astronomical instrument used by sailors to determine latitude. He dedicated the work to his son.

At the end, the exhibition turns its gaze to the sky. The last small display case on the west side of the building contains several copies of Galileo’s first printed moon images. The famous astronomer’s detailed sketches of the cratered lunar landscape – the first ever made with the help of a telescope – led many Europeans to the dark side of the moon. Before Galileo’s discoveries, many people believed the moon made its own light, Clemens said.

A black-and-white image of Earth taken in 1966 by Lunar Orbiter 1, the first US spacecraft to orbit the moon, forms the background for the exhibition of Galileo’s materials.

When Galileo looked through his telescope, he got a new perspective on the moon,” said Clemens. “I thought it fitting to include the first Earthrise photo as it gave us all a unique perspective of Earth from the Moon.”

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