How man mapped his world

How man mapped his world

Wonders of the Orient, the emergence of the New World and the first view of Manhattan — charting the age of exploration and discovery through highlights from the Ex Libris Jean R. Perrette Collection

The age of technology has made maps digital, portable and ever-present. Constant knowledge about position, movement and approximate travel time makes the process of the journey definable and tangible.

The idea of the quest has taken on a different meaning in a world where ‘getting lost’ seems virtually impossible. The terra incognita that once frightened and inspired our predecessors has, it seems, been ‘found’.

A view of the Jean R. Perrette Collection
A view of the Jean R. Perrette Collection

Jean R. Perrette of Breton — the westernmost region of France that looks out to the Atlantic — has acquired an expansive collection of atlases, geographies and travel narratives that spans five centuries and ranges from the Old to the New World. Ahead of the 5 April sale of works from his collection, we map five moments in history that chart man’s attempts to configure his world. 

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  • Early Cartography of the Old World

Claudius Ptolemaeus (2nd century). Cosmographia. Translated from Greek into Latin by Jacobus Angelus (fl. early 15th century). Estimate $600,000–800,000. This work is offered in the Ex Libris Jean R. Perrette Important Travel, Exploration and Cartography auction on 5 April at Christie’s New York

Claudius Ptolemaeus (2nd century). Cosmographia. Translated from Greek into Latin by Jacobus Angelus (fl. early 15th century). Estimate: $600,000–800,000. This work is offered in the Ex Libris Jean R. Perrette: Important Travel, Exploration and Cartography auction on 5 April at Christie’s New York

Not until the 16th century does the term ‘map’ enter into the English language. The earliest editions of the map emphasize the interpretive and visual over empirical accuracy.

With twelve windheads framing the first coloured world map and the first documentation of the area North of the Alps, the Wardington copy of the 15th century Ulm Ptolemy conceptualizes the modern map and world by adding lines of longitude and latitude — although there are inconsistencies: a closed Indian Ocean; a landform that links Asia and Africa; absent discoveries by the Portuguese in Africa.

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  • Recognition of the Far East and China

French Jesuit missionary Nicolas Trigault’s 17th century documentation of Italian Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci’s work in China came to light in the De Christiana Expedition apud Sinas (1615). Trigault illuminates the wonders of the Orient as seen through the eyes of Ricci who lived and worked in Canton and Najing and died in Beijing in 1610. 

As one of the most prominent books on China and an instant bestseller that was translated into French, German, Spanish and Italian, this rare first edition mapped China culturally. The first European physical map of China did not materialize, however, until 1655 with the Blaeu-Martini Novus Atlas Sinensis.

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  • A whole New World

Across the ‘pond’, the New World emerges in Hernando Cortés’s De Nova Maris Oceani Hyspania Narratio (1545), followed by his Historia del Nueva España (1770) and Francisco de Xeres’s La Conquista del Peru & Provincia del Cuzco (1535). These pivotal texts mark the first recognition and announcement of lands and civilizations in the New World and make the direct claim of the Americas as ‘New Spain’ — a component of the Spanish Empire.

As the Age of Exploration continues and other European empires each attempt to assert dominance, France ruffles its feathers in Canada. Marc Lescarbot’s Histoire de la Nouvelle-France (1609) documents the history of Canada via French exploration of the New World and a fine copy in contemporary vellum of Samuel de Champlain’s Les Voyages du Sieur Champlain Xaintangeois (1613) physically puts Canada on the radar with a very rare map of ‘New France’.

The lower territory, the eventual United States of America, materializes in Edward Waterhouse’s unique work A Declaration of the State of the Colony and Affairs in Virginia (1622) that includes an account of a recent massacre of colonists with an inserted broadside of a packing list intended for new colonists. 

As details become more numerous, so the image of the natural world sharpens. Beschrijvinghe van Virginia, Nieuw Nederlandt, Nieuw Engelandt, en d’eylanden Bermudes, Berbados, en S. Christoffel (1651) offers the first view of Manhattan.

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  • Terra incognita

The pursuit of the ‘unknown’ or unexplored led to the frequent revision of coastlines and geographic details; considerable trial-and-error preceded the outline of the mappa mundi. In fact, the elegant Wrest Park copy that outlines the coasts of New Zealand and Western Australia precipitated from the 1792 expedition of Antoine Bruni d’Entrecasteaux in search of La Pérouse — the French ship lost on an earlier Pacific voyage.

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  • Through the waterways

Luis de Camoens (ca. 1524–1580). The Luciad, or Purtugals Historicall Poem. Translated from Portuguese into English by Sir Richard Fanshaw (1608–1666). London Humphrey Moseley, 1655. Estimate $15,000-20,000. This work is offered in the Ex Libris Jean R. Perrette Important Travel, Exploration and Cartography auction on 5 April at Christie’s New York

Luis de Camoens (ca. 1524–1580). The Luciad, or Purtugals Historicall Poem. Translated from Portuguese into English by Sir Richard Fanshaw (1608–1666). London: Humphrey Moseley, 1655. Estimate $15,000-20,000. This work is offered in the Ex Libris Jean R. Perrette: Important Travel, Exploration and Cartography auction on 5 April at Christie’s New York

The word ‘map’ that comes from the Latin mappa — or ‘tablecloth’ or ‘napkin’ — and the French word carte from the Latin carta, referring to a formal document, signals an influx of the aesthetic and the interpretative.

The link between exploration, discovery and literature becomes clear in the presentation copy of The Luciad (1655) — Sir Richard Fanshaw’s translation of Camões’s epic poem on the Portuguese maritime adventurers. As the landmasses of the world emerge, the map indeed comes full circle in its figurative form.