Until 2017 Urbano Monte’s extraordinary 1587 map of the world had only been viewed as a series of 60 manuscript sheets. But this isn’t how Monte’s map was designed to be experienced. In its completed form each individual sheet is part of a sprawling 16th-century world map. Monte intended for the sheets to be assembled on a 10-foot wooden panel and ‘revolved around a central pivot or pin through the north pole’.
Of course, the prospect of realising Monte’s vision by piecing together all 60 sheets in accordance with his plan is fraught with risk – these precious manuscripts are 435 years old. Happily, we live in the digital age and it’s possible to assemble the 1587 map into a glorious virtual whole without actually affixing a centuries-old manuscript to a 10-foot wooden panel.
A pioneering planisphere
The collection of individual manuscripts is a stunning work of cartography even in its unassembled form, but pieced together into a digitised whole the remarkable scale of Monte’s vision is finally revealed. As Monte’s plan to revolve the map around a central pivot suggests, the 1587 masterpiece is a planisphere that seeks to portray the globe as radiating from a central North Pole. In its completed form we are able to appreciate a fascinating, brilliantly ambitious Renaissance attempt to visualise the world.
Monte drew on numerous sources – geographic reviews, maps and projections – and emerging scientific ideas, with the aim of depicting the globe on a two-dimensional plane. His 1587 planisphere employs azimuthal equidistant projection, meaning that all points on the map are proportionally plotted from a centre point, in this case the North Pole. It’s an ingenious map-making solution that wasn’t commonly used until the 20th century.
Monte’s planisphere is clearly an innovative work of map making that reflects a studious scientific mind, but beyond the variable accuracy of its cartography, the map is a thrilling work of imaginative creativity. Monte’s act of world-building is a brilliant mix of scholarly detail and pure fantasy.
The map is dotted with tiny, often fantastical illustrations. Alongside zoologically approximate renderings of animals from distant lands – panthers, vipers and camels can be found in various corners of Africa – are mythical beasts – a unicorn frolics in Mongolia, mysterious demons stalk the desert terrain east of Persia.
The planisphere is also crammed with cut-out details and annotations, including illustrated profiles of notable world leaders. Among the dignitaries deemed worth of inclusion by Monte you’ll find ‘The Emperor of Turkey’ (identified as Murad III), ‘The King of Spain and of the Indies’ (Philip II), ‘The chief of Christians, the Pontifex Maximus’ (Pope Sixtus V), ‘The King of Poland’ (Stephen Báthory) and, perhaps surprisingly, ‘Matezuma who was King of Mexico and the Western Indies’ (more commonly known as Moctezuma II, the Aztec Emperor whose reign ended 67 years before the map’s creation). Queen Elizabeth I is notably absent.
A closer examination of Monte’s self-portrait reveals another idiosyncratic detail. On first inspection, you’ll find a portrait of the author in 1589, two years after the map was completed. Look a little bit closer and you’ll see that this illustration is pasted onto the manuscript and can in fact be lifted to reveal a second self-portrait, dated 1587. It’s not clear why Monte opted to update the map with a more recent depiction of himself, but the intervening years certainly weren’t kind to his hairline.
Forgotten genius or gentleman scholar?
Considering the scale of his ambitions – his 1587 planisphere is the largest known early map of Earth – Urbano Monte is not remembered as an especially esteemed cartographer and little is known about his life. Dr. Katherine Parker notes in her essay A Mind at Work – Urbano Monte’s 60-Sheet Manuscript World Map, that “Monte’s map project seems a monumental undertaking to modern eyes, yet during his time he was simply a gentleman scholar embarking on a deeper study into one of the most popular areas of scholarship, geography.”
Geographical study and map-making was popular among the Italian upper classes. Monte is known to have come from a wealthy family and would have been well-placed to access the latest geographical studies and discoveries.
He was certainly influenced by the cartography of Gerardus Mercator and Abraham Ortelius and his position in society would have granted him privileged knowledge of very recent discoveries. The 1587 planisphere includes Japanese place names that don’t feature on any other western maps of the time. This is probably because Monte met with the first official Japanese delegation to visit Europe when they came to Milan in 1585.
Nonetheless, it’s impossible to pore over Monte’s incredible planisphere and dismiss it as the work of an inconsequential dilettante. The 1587 map is an ingenious work that provides a fascinating insight into the rapidly broadening horizons of Renaissance society.