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Map-making steeped in rich history

By John Perry

Emeritus faculty member, LTCC

The development of mapmaking was an extremely important part of the Renaissance and early printing because that was when the great modern age of exploration and empire began. Maps are so common in our society that we take them for granted, but it has not always been that way. Learning to make them was a gradual process and for a long while maps were great strategic secrets. They are still uncommon in many societies.



The Portuguese were some of the first to explore the world, map it, and create an empire. Their crusading spirit, geographical location, and early political unification were the causes. After expelling the Moors in the mid-13th century and vigorously declaring independence from neighboring Castile, the Portuguese had no choice but to turn to the oceans. In little more than a century they mapped routes around Africa to India and eventually to the Moluccas at the far end of Indonesia. En route they found many Moslems and pagans to fight or convert, but when they reached the Moluccas they had finally found one of the greatest economic opportunities of all time. Those were the fabled “Spice Islands” and the Portuguese exploited them forcefully. Soon the Portuguese wrested the spice markets of Europe from Venetian control, and then their new prosperity became the envy of all their neighbors. That was especially true of the neighbors who were developing into the new country of Spain.

The Spanish discovered and exploited much of the Americas in bitter rivalry with the Portuguese. But there was one thing the Spanish and Portuguese could agree upon: maps and other knowledge of their explorations should be held as the dearest state secrets.




All that changed in 1568, when the Spanish drove the Netherlands into an 80-year rebellion against them. During that rebellion the Spanish also seized control of Portugal and its empire for 60 years. The Dutch “Sea Beggers” considered that a virtual invitation to plunder the subservient Portuguese Empire. They seized control of the spice, chocolate and sugar markets among other things — and they then held Indonesia until the Japanese invasion during World War II. Portugal never really recovered.

My last column told how important the printed word was in the areas where the Protestants rebelled against the Church of Rome. The Netherlands was one of those areas and the Dutch Protestants had as their allies many Jews who had been forcefully expelled from Spain a generation or two earlier. Neither was at all sympathetic to the Catholic powers or ideas. Not only did most factions in the Netherlands like to print religious texts freely, they began to thoroughly enjoy making nice profits by printing the maps and world intelligence that their enemies held so dear.

Now the Dutch grabbed new areas, captured information, made their own maps and printed everything. Everyone else who envied the Portuguese, Spanish or the Dutch flocked to purchase the rare Dutch printed materials. The English and French were especially inspired by intelligence from the Dutch maps and books, and the Dutch felt that absolutely any help was welcome against their common enemies in Iberia. Emerging from all this turmoil were the five empires that shaped much of the modern world.

Now, let’s consider this excellent map of Portugal for a few moments. First, what we would consider the top is at the right side instead. The idea that north should generally be at the top had not developed, but even today a map shaped this way might be printed sideways to fit better on a page. What a fine, detailed map it is! You could almost think that it was made with information from a space satellite. In fact, it was drawn backwards on its copper printing plate in 1560 by a Portuguese cartographer named Vernando Alvaro Seccus. That was eight years before the Dutch rebelled against Spain.

In 1570, just two years into the Dutch Rebellion, famed Dutch cartographer Abraham Ortelius published such a grand book of maps and related geographical materials that the term “Atlas” was applied to it. Ever since that time we have continued to use that term for comprehensive books of maps and geographical information. Ortelius did something most remarkable for his time: he used Seccus’ map in his “Atlas” and gave him full credit for it. In a day when plagiarism and exaggeration were commonplace, he did not even mangle any of Seccus’ ideas.

This wonderful page from the original “Atlas” will be exhibited to the general public in a few weeks, after we have considered the printing of pictures in the next column. It is hand-colored and neither the coloring nor the paper should be exposed to light for a very long period of time.

All items exhibited by the Perry Foundation have been provided with private funds. Appropriate donations are welcome and should be tax deductible. Inquiries may be directed to me at Lake Tahoe Community College by calling (530) 541-4660, extension 252.


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