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Map Maker Biography: Giacomo Gastaldi (1500 – 1566)

Universale descrittione di tutta la terra conosciuta fin qui - Source: Library of Congress

Image Source: Library of Congress

Giacomo Gastaldi

Giacomo Gastaldi (1500 – 1566) was an important Italian cartographer, astronomer and engineer of the 16th century. He began his career as an engineer and served the Venetian Republic in that capacity until about 1539, at which time he established himself in Venice where he was granted perpetual printing privilege by the senate, and turned his attention primarily to the making of maps.  His work represents several important turning points in the evolution of modern cartography, and he is generally considered one of the most important of his contemporaries. Gastaldi was among the first of the early modern cartographers to use copperplate engraving rather than woodcut for his maps. This led to the abandonment of woodcut for cartographic purposes, as engraving allowed for richness and finesse of detail which was impossible with the woodcut process. 

Gastaldi quickly rose to the top of his profession and was so popular and respected that Pope Pius IV granted him the great privilege of copyright protection for his work, and in Venice he was asked to decorate the Doge’s personal Palace with frescoes of his maps of Africa and Asia. He was known to have always sought the most up to date information from the most recent explorers’ and emissaries’ reports for his maps.

A well-known example is his famous map of 16th century Russia, drawn according to information furnished by Baron Sigismund von Herberstein, an emissary from the Austrian Imperial Court to Russia. The  Baron traveled to Moscow twice between 1516 and 1526, gathering enormous amounts of information about the virtually unknown ‘Moscovia’, or Russian Empire. Gastaldi's map of Moscovia, published in 1550, is remarkably accurate. 

Gastaldi   also used Marco Polo’s Travels for his maps of those regions visited and/or described by the famous traveler. His map of Asia uses place names taken from Portolans for sites along both the coasts and coastal islands, and from reports of early voyages sponsored by Portugal and Spain. But in the interior of Asia, from Mesopotamia to the Pacific, place names and descriptions are taken from those used in Marco Polo's The Travels. According to Baron A. E. Nordenskjöld, author of The Influence of the 'Travels of Marco Polo' on Jacobo Gastaldi's Maps of Asia’, a comparison of Gastaldi’s place names compared with those attributed to Marco Polo shows the borrowings to be extensive.

It might be expected that The Travels would have exercised considerable influence on the development of European cartography but this was not the case, and only a few names mentioned in the opus are to be found in maps of the 14th – 16th centuries, until Gastaldi began to use them in the mid-sixteenth century in his La Discrittione dell prima parte dell'Asia. Gastaldi’s source for The Travels was the work Navigationi et Viaggi  published by Giovanni Battista Ramusio in the 1550’s.

Italian cartographers of Gastaldi’s time, mostly active in Rome and Venice, were responsible for the production of the first widely distributed modern maps of all parts of the World (although primarily focusing on Italy). Gastaldi’s maps of regions which previously had not been mapped are highly sought after today, as they present some of the first (known) western cartographic representations of them.

The maps were issued separately, but were often assembled by both booksellers and early owners into bound composite atlases. These maps have come to be known as Lafreri maps. In the 1570s, the bookseller and publisher Antonio Lafreri of Rome produced such composite atlases in which he included a title page with his name as the publisher. While there are a number of surviving examples of these Lafreri Atlases in institutions, these compilations are very rare and no two examples have identical contents. At the present time a limited few of these atlases are on the market, presenting a rare opportunity to collectors. Gastaldi’s myriad contributions to cartography cannot be overstated. Many of his maps were used as cartographic models for decades following his death. 


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