Plate 4 from Americae Retectio
by Johannes Stradanus

Mapping a New World


Juan de la Cosa's map is one of the most important cartographic records of early European exploration. Housed in the Museo Naval in Madrid, it is the oldest map in existence to show the discoveries of the new world. Its creator was the owner and mate of the Santa Maria, Columbus's flagship on the first voyage in 1492 and the cartographer and captain of the Niña on the second voyage.

Much like Abraham Cresques's Catalan Atlas of 1375, de la Cosa's map displays characteristics of two distinct traditions: the mappaemundi (from late antiquity and medieval periods) and the portolan sea charts. The detailed outlines of the coast—and the magnetic rhumb lines that cover the entire map—are characteristic of the portolan sea charts used by sailors since the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Furthermore, the fact that the figures and inscriptions on the map do not share a common orientation indicates that it was meant to be placed on a table and read from all sides—another characteristic feature of the portolan charts. But unlike more narrowly focused portolan charts, this map also exhibits elements of the mappaemundi, such as information about inland geopolitics that was of no immediate use to the sailor.

This map incorporates both the geographic knowledge of the Spanish explorers and the information gained from Portuguese voyages around the southern tip of Africa. Some scholars also argue that the representation of the land north of the Caribbean must have been added based on information from John Cabot's voyages of 1497 and 1498. Such maps reflect an attempt to assimilate geographic information that would contribute to the on-going development of European political and economic interests in the far reaches of the world. For Spain in this period, that primarily meant the westward route to the Indies, and the location and coastal features of the Indies are of particular importance on this map. The New World is out of proportion to Europe and Asia, but it is unclear whether this reflects the contemporary significance of the Indies to Spain or ignorance of their true proportions. The merging of the concern for detailed accuracy derived from the portolan charts and the more iconic nature of the mappaemundi exemplify the dynamic relationship between changing views of the world and the mutable conventions of representation.

Galen Brokaw
University at Buffalo, State University of New York

Suggested Reading

Martínez, Ricardo Cerezo. La Cartografíía Española en los Siglos XIV, XV, y XVI. Madrid: Museo Naval, 1994.

Sandman, Allison. "Mirroring the World: Sea Charts, Navigation, and Territorial Claims in Sixteenth-Century Spain." In Merchants and Marvels: Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe, edited by Pamela H. Smith and Paula Findlen, 83-108. New York: Routledge, 2002.