Portolan Charts in the Caird Library and Archive

A new display outside the Caird Library explores some of the Museum’s portolan charts. 

Portolans are early navigational charts which developed in the Mediterranean from the 13th century. They focused on coastlines and marked ports and harbours. They are made from calf skin (vellum), and come in different shapes and sizes. Common characteristics include place names written at right angles to the coast, and elaborate wind roses with criss-crossing ‘rhumb’ lines indicating compass bearings.

Portolan chart of the north-east Atlantic by Joan Oliva, Messina
Portolan chart of the north-east Atlantic by Joan Oliva, Messina

The three charts on display show different regions of the world. The mythical island of Brasil features in a 1592 chart of the north eastern Atlantic. A chart of the Western Mediterranean shows stylised vignettes of important port cities. Portuguese colonisation in South America is stressed in a chart of the central Atlantic.

The charts were made by members of the Oliva family, a dynasty of mapmakers who lived and worked in the Mediterranean during the 16th and 17th centuries, and shared skills, knowledge and a distinctive – and ornate – style between them.

To learn more, come and see these treasures from the cartographic collections, on display until June 2017.

Mike Bevan, Archivist and Megan Barford, Curator of Cartography

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