Fourteenth Century Maps and Charts

Very few maps were drawn during the 1300s and even fewer still exist. Just as today’s newspaper reporters grasp for the latest news event, cartographers wanted to know the latest land discoveries so they could be the first to include them on their maps. From those maps, we can learn what navigators in the fourteenth century really knew about the layout of the known inhabited world? We can tell that explorers had made a lot of progress since the 1200s.

Maps and charts are not always the same thing. Most charts are maps, but not all maps are charts. Maps are meant for finding one’s way around a given space. They show the location of bodies of land, bodies of water, buildings, and such things as the location of Blackbeard’s hidden treasure. Charts, specifically sea charts, are meant for helping ship captains and other mariners navigate through bodies of water. Sea charts often contain additional information such as the depth of the sea in various places, or tide levels.


European sea charts have been around since the 1200s. The earliest only charted the Mediterranean Sea. Before that, mariners relied on lists of ports without any illustrations called portolans. The plural in Latin is portolani. Yule Oldham of the Royal Geographical Society explained that portolani were “made by seamen for seaman, … by practical men for practical purposes.” We will show you an example shortly.


A second type of map that was popular during Medieval times was known as a planisphere. Planispheres were more illustrative than portolans and often based on the Church’s interpretation of how the earth looked. Historian Yule Oldham wrote, “Planispheres were usually circular in shape and fanciful in conception. They represented the whole of the Ecumene by the light of monastic tradition. Jerusalem occupied the centre. Paradise graced the top, while the rest was adorned by sketches of more or less fabulous creatures [sea monsters and mermaids].”

Pietro Vesconte

A Genoese cartographer named Pietro Vesconte was busy drawing both portolans and planispheres in Venice between 1310 and 1330. Fortunately for historians, he signed and dated his work.

Vesconte drew this planisphere of the world, known as a Mappa Mundi [literally Map World] in either 1320 or 1321. We rotated it 180 degrees because like Muhammad al-Idrisi, Vesconte oriented his maps with north at the bottom.

The Mediterranean Sea is where the seam divides the top and bottom halves. Unlike Ptolemy and al-Idirisi, Pietro Vesconte gave Asia an east coast. Notice how Oceanus circles the Ecumene implying that any mariner could sail around the world to reach the other side. [The sea is green and land is white.]

Pietro Vesconte, Mappa Mundi, Venice, c1320. Rotated. (1)

Here is a closeup of the Mediterranean Sea.

The next example is a portolan of the Atlantic drawn in 1321 and signed by Perrino Vesconte. Historians do not know if the name is a diminutive version of Pietro, or if Perrino is a relative of Pietro.

It was very unusual for a map to show so much area covered by the Atlantic. The cartographer has not placed any islands in the Ocean. Again, as you can tell by the upside down figures of saints, we have rotated the image 180 degrees to match our contemporary north-south orientation. Apparently the major ports are labeled in red ink and minor coves with green.

Perrino Vesconte, Atlantic, drawn in Venice, 1321. Rotated. (2)

The Pizigani Portolan

Two Venetian cartographer brothers, Domenico and Francesco Pizigano(3) drew this portolan of the Mediterranean in 1367, more than forty years and almost two generations after the previous example. The Pizigani Portolan is 54 inches by 36 inches, probably the largest portolani of its time. The size of the parchment sheet was limited by the size of the sheep skin. Several skins were probably spliced together.

Within the Atlantic, the Piziganos placed the Azores, eight of the Canary Islands, and many of the mythical islands including: Isla de Brazil, the Fortunate Islands of St. Brendan, the Isle of Mam, and Antilla. They also marked the location of the Kingdom of Prester John in Ethiopia, Africa.

Domenico and Francesco Pizigano, Pizigani Portolan, Venice, 1367.(4)

The brothers also included some of the highlights from Muhammad al-Idrisi’s 1154 map, including:

This close-up of the Iberian peninsula reveals how the coastline has been labeled. The small flags with three red stripes indicate countries controlled by Aragon.

The Medici-Laurentian Atlas

Anonymous Genoese, Medici-Laurentian Atlas, 1351.(5)

This next map does not fit the description of either a portolan or a planisphere. It was drawn by a cartographer in Genoa – historians do not know his name –some time between 1321 and 1370, but usually dated 1351. Historians refer to it as the Medici-Laurentian Atlas. There are several remarkable features to note:

The Catalan Atlas

Catalan Atlas, from the Majorcan Cartographic School, probably Abraham Cresques, 1375.(6)

One of the most famous maps drawn at the end of the fourteenth century is the Catalan Atlas, which is a planisphere. We have mentioned it in earlier articles. Catalonia and nearby Majorca Island were important centers for cartography. The Jewish book illuminator who probably drew it, Abraham Cresques, described himself as being a “master of maps of the world and of compasses.”

The Catalan Atlas featured:

Cresques wrote that he obtained some of his information from two popular travelogues: The Travels of Marco Polo and John Mandeville’s Travelogue. [We will tell you about Mandeville soon.]

Names of the Winds

Winds are such a cosmic force to mariners that since ancient times that have been named. The Romans had twelve names for the winds:

The North Wind = Sepentrio
The North-northeast Wind = Aquilo
The Northeast Wind = Caecias
The East Wind = Subsolanus
The Southeast Wind = Vulturnus/Eurus
The South-southeast Wind = Euronotus
The South Wind = Auster/Notus
The South-southwest Wind = Libonotus
The Southwest Wind = Africus
The West Wind = Favonius/Zephyrus
The Northwest Wind = Corus/Argestes
The North-northwest Wind = Thrascias

You can see how Africa was named. Africus was the name of the south-southwest wind, and today’s Africa is the land southwest of Rome from where a warm southwest wind blows.

Cartographers used a variety of methods to indicate the winds on their maps. Ptolemy drew curly-haired heads blowing the winds in the different directions. Since mariners were thinking about the directions the winds came from, rather than the direction they were sailing to, this method makes a lot of sense.

Ptolemy, World Map, Geographia, Alexandria, 150 CE.(7)

The Wind Rose or Compass Rose

A close-up of the wind rose on Abraham Cresques’ Catalan Atlas, Majorca, 1375.(8)

By the 1300s, European, Jewish, and Muslim cartographers were employing a mariner’s wind rose to show the directions from which the winds blew. Abraham Cresques noted eight winds on his Catalan Atlas:

North wind = Tramontana
Northeast wind = Greco
East wind = Levante
Southeast wind = Scirocco
South wind = Ostro
Southwest wind = Libeccio/Garbino
West wind = Ponente
Northwest wind = Maestro

You can see how the Middle East got the name Levante.

Sometimes the East Wind was named Oriens, from which we get the word Orient and Oriental. The West Wind was named Occidens from which we get the word Occidental.

The Bible’s Flat Earth

In spite of scientific discoveries by ancient scholars such as Pythagoras, Eratosthenes, and Ptolemy, many Medieval theologians claimed the earth was flat. That was because they took the following phrases from the Bible literally:

Even after Columbus discovered America, there were Christians in Europe who thought it was a sinful act to travel to America because America was not mentioned in the Bible.

Africa Connected to the Bottom of the World

The myth of a flat Earth was not the only limitation to world explorers. Since as early as 150 CE, when Ptolemy drew his map, many navigators believed that Africa was connected to a landmass at the bottom of the earth. Many thought there had to be a landmass at the bottom of the earth to counter the weight of Eurasia, which was thought to be at the top of the globe.

Ptolemy, World Map, Geographia, Alexandria, 150 CE.(9)

Muhammad al-Idrisi followed Ptolemy’s example when he drew the southern hemisphere - with no southern passageway.

Mohammad Al-Idrisi, Tabula Rogeriana, Sicily, 1154.(10)

Portuguese kings had a lot of explaining to do before they could convince their sea captains to sail south under Africa to reach India.


  1. Visconte, Pietro. Mappa Mundi, Venice, c1320. {{PD-Old}} Public domain in the United States and elsewhere, over 100 years old. Held in the British Library. 35 cm. Image source:
  2. Map of the north Atlantic and Spain, from the first sheet of the five-sheet atlas dated 1321 and signed by Perrino Vesconte (commonly assumed to be the same person as Genoese cartographer Pietro Vesconte, or perhaps a relative). North is at bottom. Currently held by the Zentralbibliothek in Zurich, Switzerland. {{PD-Old}} Public domain in the United States and elsewhere, over 100 years old. Image source:
  3. The signature is difficult to read, hence there has a debate about what it says. It is possible there were three brothers. It is also possible that Domenico was the title of priest and there was only one author, Father Francesco. Or possibly Domenico was the son of Francesco.
  4. Pizigani [Pizzigano], Domenico and Francesco. World Map, held in the Biblioteca Palatina of Parma (Ms.Parm.1612), 1367,
    image source:
  5. Anonymous Genoese author, Medici-Laurentian Atlas “World Map,” Genoa, c1351. second of eight plates. Original held at Biblioteca Mediceo-Laurenziana, Florence. Facsimile published 1881 as Portolano Laurenziano-Gaddiano di anonimo dell'anno, Illustrated by T. Fischer, Venice, 1351. {{PD-old}} Public domain for USA and Italy. Image sources: and http://cartographic-
  6. Cresques, Abraham of the Majorcan Cartographic School, map from the Catalan Atlas, Majorca, 1365.
    {{PD-old}} Public domain. Image source:
    File:Mediterranean. Since the time of King Charles V of France, the Catalan Atlas has been housed in the royal library of France (now the Bibliothèque nationale de France). The Mediterranean is just one of the six maps painted on vellum leaves in various colors including gold and silver. The leaves have been halved and mounted on boards. Each leaf measures about 25 inches by 20 inches.
  7. Ptolemy World Map, redrawn in the 15th century, held in the British Library Harley MS 7182, ff 58v-59, Alexandria, Egypt, 150. {{PD-old}} Public Domain. Image source:
  8. Cresques, Abraham. Catalan Atlas. Close-up of the Compass rose. 1375. {{PD-Old}} Public Domain. Map housed in the Bibliotheque national de France. Image source:
  9. Ptolemy World Map, redrawn in the 15th century, held in the British Library Harley MS 7182, ff 58v-59, Alexandria, Egypt, 150. {{PD-old}} Public Domain. Image source:
  10. Al-Idrisi, Mohammad. Tabula Rogeriana, Sicily, 1154. {{PD-old}} Public Domain in the USA and Italy. Image source:

Next article: Rihlas and Travelogues