Renaissance Revival of Ancient Geography

The following text appears on banner no. 4 in the exhibition space.

The revival of ancient geographic knowledge between the fourteenth and six- teenth centuries coincided with intense contemporary interest in explorations beyond Europe. This phenomenon contributed to the increased production of manuscripts and early printed books that focused on geography.

During the Middles Ages some Greek and Roman geographic treatises were copied in European monasteries, but they were accessible almost exclusively to the monastic literate population. However, beginning in the thirteenth century the creation of the first universities, as well as royal and private libraries, made these works more readily available to scholars and amateurs interested in the subject.

The revival of ancient geography commenced with Jacopo Angeli’s first Latin translation of Ptolemy’s Geographia in 1409. That treatise, together with the seventeen volumes of the Geographica by Strabo and De situ orbis (A Description of the World) by Pomponius Mela, both written at the beginning of the first century ce, constituted the primary sources for European humanists, who were interested in not only the contents but also the authors’ literary style. The vast amount of information on geographic places, cartographic techniques, and ethnographic accounts within these ancient texts influenced the Renaissance understanding of the world while promoting the survey of lesser-known regions and assisting in wayfinding.

Renaissance cosmographers and cartographers turned to classical geographic texts and to early extant maps as the main reference tools for their work. Greek and Roman maps were mostly secular in nature and could present measured and scaled representations, conventions that had been for the most part abandoned during the Middle Ages. Renaissance cartographers rediscovered these practices and openly alluded to them in contemporary maps. For example, four roundels with the symbols of fire, earth, water, and air are often visible at the maps’ corners, to represent the four elements taken from Aristotle’s conception of the world. Similarly, the presence of the eight classical headwinds at the cardinal points—visible in the manuscript of Ptolemy’s Geographia displayed here—and the inclusion of zodiac signs around the edges are direct quotations from ancient maps. Finally, measurements of the diameter and circumference of the globe on Renaissance maps were usually taken from Ptolemy’s calculations, and the division of the Earth into five climate zones was also derived from ancient sources.

The primacy of ancient geographic knowledge and mapping conventions came to an end in the seventeenth century when improved surveying and measuring techniques, together with new explorations and discoveries, made Greco-Roman geography obsolete.