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Map Maker Biography: Girolamo Ruscelli (1500 - 1566)

Profile of 16 Century Antique Map Maker Girolamo Ruscelli    

Girolamo Ruscelli 

Girolamo Ruscelli was an important Italian sixteenth century cartographer who was also a humanist, writer, editor and polymath.  As a cartographer he is perhaps best known for La Geografia di Claudio Tolomeo Alessandrino, his important revision of Ptolemy's Geographia, published posthumously in 1574. Great as this work is, it comprises only part of the wide range of his contributions to science, culture, and the gathering of knowledge in general. Ruscelli was among the first cartographers to publish maps from copper plates, making it possible to render far more detail than those produced by woodcut.  His use of copperplate changed the medium for cartographers and the majority of cartographic works were subsequently produced using copperplate. 

Here is Ruscelli’s regional map of the southern half of the United States and Mexico, including Florida and Texas. The 1548 map is based on Giacomo Gastaldi’s map of the same year, but is larger and depicts Yucatan as a peninsula rather than an island. This is one of the earliest obtainable maps of the area depicted.

Background, interests & literary activities

As would be expected of a cartographer, Ruscelli was highly educated and enjoyed a circle of intimates who were among the intellectual elite of his day in Western Europe. Of significant importance amongst his other contributions was his erudite editorship of the works of leading literati of his day, including Boccaccio, Petrarch and Ariosto, to name but a few of the thinkers and writers whose works he edited.

Born at the beginning of the 16th century, he lived in a number of Italian cities before settling in Venice, and had created a secret society for the study of ‘forbidden scientific knowledge’ in the 1540s while living in Naples. The society, the first known experimental science society, was comprised of highly educated noblemen and humanists. The knowledge shared and disseminated amongst the members of this society would have contributed to the publication of Secreti del reverendo donno Alessio Piemontese (Secrets of Alexis), a phenomenally popular book of secrets, a wildly popular genre at the time.

The book featured a wide range of empirically developed recipes, including formulae for medicinal compounds, cosmetics, pigments, dyes, metallurgy and jewelry. Such was its popularity that within ten years the work had been translated into French, English, Latin and German. Three additional parts to the original Italian edition were issued (1558, 1559 and 1569), and fifty-six editions of the work had appeared by the end of the 16th century.

Books of secrets such as this supplied much practical information to the new middle-class readership, and many modern day historians link such works with the emergence of secularist values of the early modern period. Organized religion was highly suspicious of such works, and they were often labeled as necromancy when in fact they were early attempts at providing practical knowledge in many fields to a broad readership.

Its authorship is commonly believed, based on literary evidence, to be attributable to Ruscelli himself, for it is generally accepted that ‘Alessio Piemontese’ was a pseudonym used by him for literary works of his own. The first edition was published during his lifetime, in 1555, lending credence to the claim of his authorship.


Ruscelli with his myriad talents and accomplishments is not atypical for a cartographer of his time. Charting the planet in the 16th century was an undertaking for the most highly educated, well-connected and erudite of academics and literati whose vivid imagination and courage were also necessary to draw maps of continents and oceans which were based on reports by a handful of contemporary explorers who claimed to have seen the places they described. Most if not all of the early cartographers were truly archetypal Renaissance men. Ruscelli’s most important cartographic work, the Geographia, contributed thirty seven additional maps to those done by Gastaldi, including Orbis Descriptio, one of the earliest known instances of a double hemisphere map being published in an atlas. 

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