Columbus’ New Proposal

As soon as Granada fell, Christopher Columbus made another pitch to the Catholic Monarchs. We know from letters that he later wrote to them that he gave many reasons for why a ship could and should sail west to reach the East. He quoted Paolo Toscanelli’s letter of 1474 that promised the distance from Lisbon to Antilla was less than 4,000 miles. He relayed the news that two human corpses had turned up on Flores Island in the Azores with “wide round faces,” faces that were associated with people from India who could not have floated to Flores Island if India were far away.

Columbus pointed to the information about China and Cipangu circulated by Nicolo de’ Conti who had recently returned from his twenty-year merchant trip through Asia. [De’Conti’s journal was published on February 14, 1492, a month after the fall of Granada.] Columbus probably mentioned the claim of a Spanish mariner he knew named Pedro Vasquez de la Frontera who had been sent the previous year to an “unknown western land” by the Portuguese. [Pedro Vasquez was seen meeting with Columbus and one of his captains, Martín Alonso Pinzón, before their expedition.]

Columbus quoted The Travels of Marco Polo, a book we know he owned and cherished. He reminded Ferdinand and Isabella that Polo promised exotic luxuries in Cathay and that there was a gold-rich island called Cipangu on the way to the Indies, where a ship could stop for provisions and to trade. [Perhaps he skipped the part about how the residents of Cipangu ate foreigners whose friends did not pay their ransoms.]

Pierre d’Ailly’s Ymago Mundi

In one of those letters, Columbus quoted an essay that was very popular in Europe titled Ymago Mundi e Mappa Mundi [The Imagined World and its World Map] by a French scholar named Pierre d’Ailly. D’Ailly’s work had just been re-published a few years earlier.(1) Unfortunately for Columbus, d’Ailly quoted information that was not correct, information on which Columbus would base his most important calculations.

Pierre d’Ailly (1351-1420) was the Archbishop of Cambrai in northern France during the early 1400s. In 1410, after reading Ptolemy’s Almagest, Pierre d’Ailly wrote a series of twelve essays containing astronomical and geographical theories based on what Ptolemy wrote. Ymago Mundi e Mappa Mundi was one of those essays. In that essay, d’Ailly quoted Marinus of Tyre, who, as we mentioned in earlier articles, incorrectly measured the circumference of the earth to be much smaller than it is.

D’Ailly quoted other ancient scholars who promised a route west would successfully reach the east.

Where Pierre d’Ailly threw Columbus sharply off base was his conclusion that “the sea is not big enough to cover three-quarters of the globe. … Six parts are habitable and inhabited, and only a seventh part covered in waters.” Here is the diagram showing you what that would look like.

Pierre D’Ailly’s Earth with six parts land and one part sea.

Ymago Mundi was hugely popular during the Renaissance and helped revive interest in Ptolemy’s work. But apparently Columbus did not know that in 1414, after d’Ailly read Ptolemy’s Geographia, he wrote a new work titled Cosmographiae Tractatus Duo [Cosmography Treatise Two] in which he revised and corrected many of the calculations he had made in Ymago Mundi. Most importantly, d’Ailly revised the calculations he had made based on Marinus of Tyre. Had Columbus read Cosmographiae Tractatus Duo, he would have learned that Marinus of Tyre’s calculations were faulty.

Recent Maps Available to Columbus

Christopher wrote that the map he submitted to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand was partially copied from Fra Mauro’s map of 1450/1459 and the maps by Dominus Nicholas Germanus’ from 1477 and 1482. We have shown you those maps already.

However, a world map drawn by Henrich Martellus and a globe created by Martin Behaim after Columbus moved to Seville, more clearly tell us where Columbus thought he was going, and what he thought the earth looked like. Both cartographers were influenced by The Travels of Marco Polo and Paolo Toscanelli’s letter and map. And both cartographers hailed from Nuremberg, often referred to as Germany. Nuremberg was a scientific hotbed as well as a religous hub of the Holy Roman Empire.

Henrich Martellus’ Mappa Mundi

Henrich Martellus Germanus [Henry Martellus the German](5) drew a revised version of Ptolemy’s map in either 1489 or 1490 – two to three years before Columbus departed for America, and one year after Bartolomeu Dias returned from rounding the Cape of Good Hope. Historians think it is the best record we have of Dias’ voyage.

Henrich Martellus lived in Florence between 1480 and 1496. He drew a number of significant charts. Part of that time, he worked in the studio of Francesco Rosselli (c1445 – before 1527), a printer and cartographer. Rosselli reproduced Martellus’ World Map as an engraving, from which probably hundreds of copies were distributed. [The engraving was printed in sepia colored ink, and the color was hand-painted afterward.]

Henricus Martellus Germanus, Florence, World Map, c1489/1490.(6)

Another version of this map was discovered in 1959 hiding in a Swiss vault and donated to Yale University. Whereas Rosselli’s version was engraved on a metal plate and printed on parchment, the Yale version was painted with tempera on paper, one of a kind. It was probably drawn a few years after the engraved version.

The Yale version reveals more of the Eastern Sea, which Martellus filled with Marco Polo’s islands: today’s Japan, Sumatra, Java, Zanzibar, and particularly Madagascar. Some scholars wonder if the Yale version was drawn after Vasco da Gama’s voyage, dating it to after 1498. However, you will see many of the same features on the globe we are about to show you by Martin Behaim that was certainly produced before Vasco da Gama’s trip. And we know that men like Nicolo de’ Conti and Pedro of Corvilhã were traveling around the Far East gathering geographical information.

Henricus Martellus Germanus, Mappa Mundi - Yale Version, Florence, c1491.(7)

Evidence shows that Christopher Columbus owned and used Henrich Martellus’ map during his excursion to America:

  1. He stated in his logbook that he began searching for Cipangu in the region “where it appeared on Martellus’ chart.”
  2. Fernando Columbus(8) wrote that his father expected to find the island “running north to south” as it was drawn on Martellus’ map, but not on any other chart drawn before Columbus’ voyage.

We do not know which version Columbus referenced. Either map would have shown the Catholic Monarchs that it was a very long way for a ship to sail to India using the southeastern route. We have traced the Rosselli version [some of the labels were not readable] and compared it to Ptolemy’s map as well as a current-day map with Ptolemy’s nomenclature.

 A comparison of Ptolemy’s map with a map from today, using Ptolemy’s nomenclature.

Features to note:

  1. Serica meant Silk, Ptolemy’s name for China [or maybe it was the other way around.]
  2. Regio meant region, as in regis, regent, or kingdom.
  3. Monte Negro [Negro mountain] indicated where Diogo Cão placed one of his stone pillars during his second trip in 1485-87. An additional note states “Padrão do Cão” [Stone of Cão].
  4. The indication of Cabo de Bona Speranza [Cabo Esperança, Cape of Good Hope], and Rio de Infante [River of the Prince], the farthest point Dias reached, reveal that Martellus drew this map after Bartolomeu Dias’ returned from Africa. This information was not included on Martin Behaim’s globe.
  5. Like Muhammad Al-Idrisi, but unlike Ptolemy, Martellus drew an eastern seaboard on Eurasia and a passageway between the Indian Ocean and the Eastern Sea.
  6. Like Fra Mauro, Martellus named two places Tartary [Marco Polo’s name for the land of the Mongols]. He placed Tartary north of the Black Sea, and another Tartary at the eastern edge of Asia.
  7. Like most earlier cartographers, Martellus named several places India.
  8. Martellus extended the east-west length of the Eurasian landmass from Ptolemy’s [already overestimated] 180 degrees to 220 degrees. That left only 140 degrees of ocean between Lisbon and the east coast of China. [360 - 220 = 140.] In actuality, there are approximately 130 degrees between Lisbon and China. Combined with Columbus’ belief that the circumference of the world was smaller than it is, Martellus’ map supported Columbus incorrect theory that Cipangu [Japan] was only 3,500 miles west of the Canaries, and that Cathaio [China] lay only 1,500 miles beyond Cipangu.

The maps below show a comparison of Martellus’ measurements [hence Columbus’ measurements ] to today’s measurements.

  1. Like Ptolemy, Martellus extended Catiagara [the Malaysian peninsula: today’s Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia – plus Java] to 35 degrees south latitude – much farther south than it extends in reality. Java Island lies at only at 7.5 degrees south latitude. In a sense, Martellus created a new obstruction to ships passing through the Indian Ocean trying to reach the east coast of Cathay. Some historians suspect he was colluding with the Columbus brothers who wanted the Spanish Monarchs to think it would be more difficult to sail from the Indian Ocean to the Eastern Sea than it was.
  2. MartellusCatiagara obliterated the Strait of Malacca through which today’s ships can sail from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. We have included the strait on the map to the right. Remember that for later because Columbus will look for that strait during his fourth voyage to the New World [thinking he is on the east coast of Asia].
  3. In a very odd way, Martellus broke the outline border of his map with the southern end of the African continent. He extended the southern tip of the continent to 45 degrees south latitude even though Bartolomeu Dias reported to King João II that he rounded the tip at 34 degrees 22 minutes south latitude [the correct measurement].

The section of the Yale version of Martellus’ map with Africa breaking the border.

One explanation could be that Martellus drew the map before Dias returned and then altered the shape of Africa on the map to fit the newly acquired information Dias brought home with him.

Author and historian Douglas Hunter theorized that as part of the same conspiracy to make it seem difficult to sail south of the Malay peninsula, the Columbus brothers colluded with Martellus – perhaps by providing the wrong information – causing Martellus to make it appear that Africa extended farther south than it does. Once again, this would fool the King and Queen of Spain into encouraging Columbus to sail west across the Ocean Sea in preference to sending a ship through the very chilly seas found at 45 degrees south latitude under Africa. Hunter pointed out that had Martellus drawn Africa correctly, the continent would have fit within his border.(9)

Martin Behaim’s Globe

The Town of Nuremberg paid Lord Martin Behaim to create his globe in 1492. He would have been working on it for several years before that. The globe has some of the same mysterious features as Henrich Martellus’ world map. That may not be coincidental.

Martin Behaim’s Erdapfel [Apple], Nuremberg, Germany, 1492. The world’s oldest extant globe.(10) The corner of land visible on the right side of the globe is Manji. [See the chart below.]

Behaim did not present his globe to the public until after Christopher Columbus left on his expedition. However, it is possible that he showed his preparatory sketches to King João II of Portugal much earlier than that. We know Behaim was part of King João’s court in the 1480s when he interviewed Diogo Gomes about his travels. And we know that Bartolomé Columbus worked in King João’s cartography studio at that time. Bartolomé could easily have seen the sketches, and maybe even made copies of them for himself and his brother.

Martin Behaim named his masterpiece Erdapfel [Earth Apple]. He provided the two dimensional world map drawn “on two sheets of vellum” that was used as a guide. Five Nuremberg families helped with its construction. Many historians refer to it as the Nuremberg Globe.

Globes were extremely rare, and it took a skilled cartographer and mathematician to construct one. Back in 1474, Paolo Toscanelli noted the usefulness of a globe when he wrote that the best way to illustrate to King João how a ship could sail west to reach the east was “with a sphere in hand.” One of Ferdinand and Isabella’s ambassadors in England noted that Bartolomé Columbus referred to a “sphere” during his presentation to King Henry VII. And Christopher Columbus was quoted as saying he had seen globes that showed the location of Cipangu. We do not know if those references specifically meant Lord Behaim’s Erdapfel.

Later in 1493, while Columbus was busy discovering America, Martin Behaim presented his own proposal to King João II for sailing west to reach the east. We do not know if he got his ideas from Columbus or the other way around. We will get to that later.

A Recreation of Martin Behaim’s Erdapfel, originally created in Nuremberg, Germany, 1492.(11)

You can see from the sketch of Behaim’s globe how he believed Asia [shown to the west or left] and Europe [shown to the east or right] were separated by only one ocean with no Americas in between. Behaim placed Antilla and Saint Brandon Islands in the middle of the Ocean Sea not knowing they were mythical.

The red dotted line indicates the route that Columbus was already taking in 1492. [Behaim will propose a more northerly route in 1493.] From Spain, Columbus sailed to the Canaries. From the Canaries he took advantage of the Volta do Mar and sailed west looking for Antilla to restock provisions. Then Columbus planned to sail to Cipangu, before finishing the last stretch from Cipangu to Cathaia [Cathay or China]. It is easy to see how Columbus would assume from Martin Behaim’s map and Toscanelli’s sketch that the course would be a direct hit!

Several more things to note:

  1. This globe implied both a Northwest Passage and a Southwest Passage, which explorers like John Cabot, Humphrey Gilbert, and Henry Hudson would search for later.
  2. The islands of Pentam and Neucuram came from The Travels of Marco Polo. Marco Polo employed place-names that either represented his understanding of the local vernacular or Arabic names that his fellow travelers used. Other Medieval cartographers used Ptolemy’s Roman Latin names.
  3. Behaim’s drawing of the North Pole reflected its description in Inventio Fortunatae [which we mentioned in our article on Travelogues]. Since Roman times, it was believed that the source of the magnetic attraction at the north pole was a mountain. Johannes Ruysch(12), an important German cartographer [probably from Utrecht], wrote that in Inventio Fortunate it was said “that at the arctic pole there is a high magnetic rock, thirty-three German miles in circumference. A surging sea surrounds this rock, as if the water were discharged downward from a vase through an opening. Around it are islands, two of which are inhabited [probably Greenland and Iceland].”

Both Martin Behaim and Henrich Martellus based their maps on Paolo Toscanelli’s letter and map.

Map historian Jim Siebold, in his on-line monograph on Martellus(13), provided the following comparisons between Martellus’ map and Behaim’s globe:

  1. Martellus and Behaim were the first medieval cartographers to indicate an east coast on Eurasia [except Muhammad Al-Idrisi].
  2. Martellus used the most current information Bartolomeu Dias brought home to Portugal in 1488. He used Bartolomeu Dias’ nomenclature to label locations in the southern part of Africa. In contrast, Behaim used a different nomenclature that had no correlation to any nomenclature used by other cartographers of his time.
  3. Behaim’s most current information was that brought back by Diogo Cão from his 1482-1484 voyage to the Congo.
  4. Behaim, like Martellus grossly exaggerated the east-west length of Eurasia to be 240 degrees, leaving 120 degrees between the Canaries and Cathay.

Historian and author Douglas Hunter(14) wondered how Henrich Martellus in Venice learned the details of Bartolomeu Dias’ trip and return to Portugal so quickly. The Portuguese were famous for their secrecy. Hunter suggested that either Bartolomé Columbus or Martin Behaim were Martellus’ informants since we can place both of them in Portugal when Dias arrived. Both cartographers used the same incorrect measurements, and both of them had something to gain by deceiving their patrons into supporting a westward voyage rather than an eastern voyage.


  1. Pierre D’Ailly’s Ymago Mundi e Mappa Mundi was republished between 1480 and 1487.
  2. Seneca’s full name was Lucius Annaeus Seneca
  3. Pliny the Elder’s full name was Gaius Plinius Secundus.
  4. Averroës’ full name was ʾAbū l-Walīd Muḥammad Ibn ʾAḥmad Ibn Rušd
  5. Henrich Martellus Germanus was the Latinized version of his name which he used to sign his maps. His local German name was Heinrich Hammer the German.
  6. Martellus, Henricus. World Map, Florence, c1489/1490. {{PD-Older than 100 years}} Public domain in Italy and United States. Image source: File:Henricus_Martellus%27_World_Map.jpg. This map is one of two. Each is 201 cm by 122 cm [8.25 in x 48 in]. They were rediscovered in 1960 [from where?] and donated to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The British Library holds a similar manuscript of the world map. In 1484, Martellus produced Insularium Illustration, a book of islands that contains maps.
  7. The labels on the image are nearly impossible to read. Very recently, in March of 2015, Yale reported they were using digital imaging and color manipulation to isolate the text from the rest of the map so they can read it.
  8. Columbus, Fernando ­­– and four other authors. Le Historie di Cristofo Colombo, published in Venice 1571. Fernando was Christopher’s illegitimate son. He participated in his father’s fourth expedition, and in 1509, returned to Santo Domingo which his half-brother, Diogo, governed. That was after their father died.
  9. Mr. Hunter provides a detailed discussion about this discrepancy in his book, The Race to the New World [Hunter, Douglas. The Race to the New World: Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, and a Lost history of Discovery, Palgrave Macmillan, a division of St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY 1001]. Jim Siebold provides an equally informative discussion on his website
  10. Behaim, Martin. Erdophel [Apple of the Earth], photo by Alexander Franke (Ossiostborn) [CC BY-SA 2.0 de (] via Wikimedia Commons, Image source:
  11. Behaim, Martin, Erdapfel, Nuremberg, Germany, 1492. Illustration from Encyclopedia Larousse, 1898. {{PD-Old}} In the public domain. File:MartinBehaim1492.png
  12. According to Wikipedia, Johannes Ruysch (c1460-1533) aka Johann Ruijsch and Giovanni Ruisch, was an explorer, cartographer, astronomer, manuscript illustrator. and painter from the Netherlands who produced a famous map of the world. The Ruysch Map was the second oldest known printed representation of the New World, published and widely distributed in 1507. This quote came form Ruysch’s work Universalior cogniti orbis tabula published in 1508.
  13. Siebold, Jim. WebSite:,
  14. Hunter, Douglas. ibid

Next Article: Columbus’ First Voyage