Portolan chart

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
The oldest original cartographic artifact in the Library of Congress: a portolan nautical chart of the Mediterranean Sea. Second quarter of the 14th century.
Portolan chart by Jorge de Aguiar (1492), the oldest known signed and dated chart of Portuguese origin (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, USA)

Portolan or portulan charts are navigational maps based on compass directions and estimated distances observed by the pilots at sea. They were first made in the 13th century in Italy, and later in Spain and Portugal. With the advent of widespread competition among seagoing nations in the Age of Discovery, Portugal and Spain considered such maps to be State secrets. The English and Dutch relative newcomers found the description of Atlantic and Indian coastlines extremely valuable for their raiding, and later trading, ships. The word portolan comes from the Italian adjective portolano, meaning "related to ports or harbours."

Contents and themes[edit]

These charts, actually rough maps, were based on accounts by medieval Europeans who sailed the Mediterranean and Black Sea coasts. Such charts were later drafted for coastal resources in the Atlantic and Indian oceans. At the beginning of the Age of Discovery, charts had been made for the coast of Africa, Brazil, India and past the Strait of Malacca into Japan, knowledge vital for the slow rise to prominence of the English Armada and of Dutch merchants, following in the wake of the Iberian powers. Frequently drawn on sheepskin, portolan charts show coastal features and ports. In that period, the smaller ships could use more of the coastline as harbours than now. They might need to seek refuge more often, and crew intentionally beached some ships for maintenance and repairs. Thus, mariners wanted to learn about nearly any protected bay or flat beach, not only for safe harbour but also as previous coastal reconnaissance.

The straight lines criss-crossing shown on many portolan charts represent the thirty-two directions (or headings) of the mariner's compass from a given point. This is similar to the compass rose displayed on later maps and charts. Naming or demonstrating all thirty-two points is called "boxing the compass".

The portolan combined the exact notations of the text of the periplus or pilot book with the decorative illustrations of the conceptual T and O map. In addition, the charts offered a realistic depiction of the shore. They were meant for practical use by mariners of the period.

Portolans failed to take into account the curvature of the earth; as a result, they were not helpful as navigational tools for crossing the open ocean. They were most useful in close quarters' identification of landmarks. Portolani were also useful for navigation in smaller bodies of water, such as the Mediterranean, Black, or Red Seas.


The oldest extant portolan is the Carta Pisana, dating from approximately 1296. The cartographer Angelino Dulcert produced a portolan in 1339.

See also[edit]


  1. Francesco Maria Levanto, Prima Parte dello Specchio del Mare, Genova, G.Marino e B.Celle, 1664. Disponibile anche in ristampa anastatica dell'edizione originale, Galatina, Congedo, 2002. (Italian)
  2. Konrad Kretschmer, Die italianischen Portolane des Mittelalters, Ein Beitrage zur Geschichte der Kartographie und Nautik, Berlin, Veroffentlichungen des Institut fur Meereskunde und des Geographischen Instituts an der Universitat Berlin, vol. 13, 1909. (German)
  3. Bacchisio Raimondo Motzo, Il Compasso da Navigare, Opera italiana della metà del secolo XIII, Cagliari, Annali della facoltà di lettere e filosofia dell'Università di Cagliari, VIII, 1947. (Italian)
  4. Patrick Gautier Dalché, Carte marine et portulan au XIIe siècle. Le Liber de existencia rivieriarum et forma maris nostri Mediterranei, Pise, circa 1200, Roma, École Française de Rome, 1995. (French)

External links[edit]