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Portolan Charts Part III: Evolution of Portolans


The Dulcert Chart 1339

The theme of portolani is enormous and complex. In each of our blogs dedicated to this theme we attempt to provide current scholarly opinions regarding these important and fascinating charts. Part III will follow the development of the charts in the fourteenth century, as they slowly and increasingly began to depict more  cartographic information. As stated in Portolan Charts Part I, the earliest known extant chart, the Carte Pisane, dates to the end of the 13th century. The charts continued to be produced until the 18th century. Today we will look at another of the earlier extant  charts, the Dulcert Chart by Angelino Dulcert, dated to 1339, one of at least three drawn by him. It is housed in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Virtually all known extant portolan charts are housed in major museums or libraries, with an unknown but presumably small number in private collections.  

To reiterate from our Portolan blogs Parts I and II, portolan charts appear to have been specifically developed by mariners and cartographers working together to create charts for use by navigators at sea. They are hand drawn with ink on vellum manuscripts. Designed to assist mariners in voyaging from place to place in safety, they designated both safe routes and specific dangerous areas to be avoided. Created to be functional, they were practical and initially virtually devoid of inland toponyms.

Coastal toponyms were written on the coastlines of these charts, perpendicular to the coasts. This created striking outlines of the continents and seas themselves. As they evolved, their makers wrote the names of important ports in red, and those of less important ones in black. From the beginning charts had rhumb lines for navigational purposes. Although the earliest known portolans did not feature compass roses, within a few decades portolans came to be characterized by the inclusion of not only rhumb lines but also compass roses, all developed and designed to assist navigators in plotting their courses at sea.

 Some details of the Dulcert Chart

The Dulcert Chart is one of the larger 14th century charts. Drawn on two sheets of parchment from which the necks had been removed and the sheets affixed to one another, the rectangular chart measures 30 x 40.2 inches (75 x 102 cm). All keys and legends of the chart are written in Latin and despite its early age it features elements not typically included in contemporaneous charts, extending much farther north, to the Baltic and North Seas. The Red Sea, as was typical for portolans, is drawn in red ink. Other bodies of water include eastern portions of the Atlantic, the Mediterranean Basin and all its seas, and the Black Sea in its entirety. 

The chart features heraldic devices, an element that would be seen in portolans with increasing frequency, one which often facilitates dating of a chart according to the devices depicted on it. As empires and potentates changed, so would devices. A device depicted on the map which is in use to this day is that of Macedonia, a double eagle, placed above the city of Skopi (modern day Skopje), above which is written the word ‘Serbia’. 

Other salient features distinguish the charts of Dulcert, in particular the inclusion of details more common to geographic maps. In his 1339 chart, as in an earlier chart, Dulcert includes toponyms, and depicts topographic information. Modern day Hungary was of particular interest to him as was the Danube river system, including both the Danube and the Sava. He names the country and eight towns within its borders, the only region in Europe to exhibit such detail in the chart.  The chart also contains Lanzarote, an early depiction of one of the Canary Islands, with the heraldic shield of Genoa included.

Miniature vignettes depicting various real and legendary people are featured, including such historic figures as Öz Beg Han, direct descendant of Genghis Khan, and longest ruling Khan of the Golden Horde, the Khan who ruled the western regions dominated by the Horde from 1313 – 1341, alive at the time the map was drawn and known of by the author. 

Öz Beg Han

 Another historical figure represented on the chart is Mansa Musa, the ruler of Mali in the early 14th century, who was known for both his wealth and his generosity. The figure is similar to one drawn decades later in the Catalan Atlas, which we discussed in an earlier blog.

Mansa Musa




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