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Abraham Ortelius: Asiae Nova Descriptio

Map: AS1207
Cartographer: Abraham Ortelius
Title: Asiae Nova Descriptio
Date: 1592
Published: Antwerp
Width: 19 inches / 49 cm
Height: 15 inches / 39 cm
Map ref: AS1207
The importance of Abraham Ortelius’s map of Asia is many fold. It is the first map of the continent to be bound within an Atlas, as Ortelius was the compiler of the first collated and uniformly bound volume of maps. It was the most widely distributed map of the continent of its time and arguably the most influential map of its generation. It was consulted by academics, professors, heads of state and intellectuals throughout Europe and possibly beyond. It was also used as a foundation map by generations of map makers long after Ortelius had died in 1598.

Geographically, the map is fundamentally a reduction of Ortelius’s own wall map of Asia published in 1567. That map drew heavily on the extraordinary wall map of Asia issued by Giacomo Gastaldi in Venice on four sheets between 1559-61.

Even over two hundred years after his death, one of the greatest authorities on this region was the Venetian merchant adventurer, Marco Polo. The detailed descriptions of his travels were interpreted on maps for centuries and on printed maps for decades. However, Gastaldi was working in a Venice that had become one of the most cosmopolitan and busiest trading hubs in the world, with a combination of financial might, a powerful merchant marine and an intrepid and adventurous population. This in turn gave Gastaldi access to other now more obscure accounts of travellers in Asia, the most influential of which was Ludovico di Varthema. Di Varthema was a wealthy Italian merchant adventurer who undertook an extraordinary journey from his birthplace in Bologna. Beginning in 1502, he travelled across the Mediterranean, through the Levant, Egypt, Arabia, Persia, India, Bengal, Myanmar, and throughout the East Indies. In most cases he was in disguise and in the company of traders. It is believed that during this period, he became the first Christian to enter Mecca in modern times. Eventually, di Varthema revealed himself as an Italian to the Portuguese on the west coast of India and took a Portuguese ship back to Lisbon arriving back in Italy in 1507. In 1510, he published a book on his travels and adventures. It was well written, highly descriptive, extremely detailed and immediately became a best seller; it was re-issued almost immediately after its first publication and went through multiple printings. It must have been an absolutely invaluable resource to Gastaldi.

Indeed, Ortelius also acknowledges his debt to Varthema, citing him together with Marco Polo as authorities for Asia on his two maps of the world.

Not to be outdone, Marco Polo is cited twice on this map by name, once on the northeast corner, describing the ancient city of Quinsay, now modern Hangzhou. The city is placed in the province of Ania, which was also described at length by Polo and which gave its name to the Straits of Anian between Asia and America, a name which persisted for centuries. In the north, a panel cites Marco Polo and Pliny describing the “Mare Scythicum” or Sea of the Scythians, a large mythical bay on the north coast of modern Siberia.

Finally, the other source credited in providing both Gastaldi and Ortelius with information was the Portuguese portolan or chart maker Fernao Vaz Dourado, based in Goa. He produced a series of extraordinary manuscript maps of India and the Far East which would have been based on first-hand information and therefore again highly prized by both Ortelius and Gastaldi.

Our example of this map is in particularly fine original hand colour. Latin text on verso (image available on request).

[Marcel van den Broecke "Ortelius Atlas Maps, An Illustrated Guide" 2nd Edition: Ort 7] [AS1207]