By: Johannes Ruysch
Date: 1507 (published) Rome
Dimensions: 16 x 21.5 inches (40.5 x 54.5 cm)
"Universalior Cogniti Orbis Tabula Ex Recentibus Confecta Observationibus," more commonly known as the “Ruysch Map," is the earliest obtainable map to present the new world. One year earlier Giovanni Contarini – Francesco Rosselli published a map of the world that included the discoveries of America in the same projection. Only one surviving copy of this map is known and it is held in the British Library.
Ruysch’s map of the world is shown in a fan shaped, conical projection. If one were to fold the map to connect the degrees of latitude on either side, the map would form a 360 degree cone. Throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, many map makers, mathematicians, and astronomers were experimenting with different methods of transposing geographical information from a globe onto a sheet of paper. The conical projection was one of those interesting projections created in that time.
Ruysch’s map is composed from the various discoveries of the Portuguese, Spanish, and English explorers in America. Columbus’s landing on the Paria peninsula of Venezuela in 1498 is represented by the enormous landmass in the southwest portion of the map. Ruysch adopts Amerigo Vespucci’s name “Mundus Novus,” meaning new world to label the South American continent. Included is an inscription explaining that the Portuguese had followed the coast as far as 50 degrees south. Over 25 local names are labeled along the coast.
To the north of Mundus Novus are two larger islands with numerous small islands around them. The larger of the two is thought to be Cuba with a scroll that cuts off the western coast, following Columbus’s idea that it was actually attached to the Asian continent. Just east, Ruysch shows the island Spagnola which will later become Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Ruysch named the island after Marco Polo’s Spangu (Japan) and at one point admits that he is puzzled as to its true position.
In accordance with Columbus’s theories, Ruysch presents the explored regions of North America as land being attached to the Asian continent. Ruysch is thought to have actually accompanied Sebastian Cabot during his 1497 voyage to Newfoundland where their discoveries are represented with the words Terra Nova. This was/is the first attested European exploration of Canada following the Viking voyages over 400 years earlier. Greenland is shown incorrectly connected to the Asian continent by a stretch of mountains. Just off the coast of Terra Nova is the island of Baccalavras whose name derives from the Portuguese word for codfish, the abundance of which just off the coast of Canada was a major motivation for early European voyages to the area.
Other geographic features of the map worth noting are the representation of the northern polar region and the more accurate rendering of Africa, India, and Eastern Asia compared to the earlier Ptolemaic maps. This map is the first legitimate attempt to present the polar sea. The area is shown as four large islands surrounded by a ring of smaller islands with water flowing throughout. This map and the Rosselli map of the previous year are among the first maps to show a distinct passage around the southern tip of Africa. Many place names have been added to the coast of India and the theory of the Indian Ocean is not shown as being landlocked as on numerous earlier maps.
Johannes Ruysch was an astronomer, manuscript illustrator, painter, explorer, and cartographer. Originally from Utrecht in the present day Netherlands, following his maritime experiences, Ruysch became a lay priest and moved to Rome where he became involved in the production of numerous groundbreaking maps. It is thought that at one time Johannes Ruysch lived with Raphael and assisted and advised him on his painting Astronomia as well as other frescoes in the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican. Ruysch eventually moved to Lisbon where he served as astronomer to the royal court of Manuel I. Johannes Ruysch died in his mid-seventies, a considerable age for that time, in 1533 at the monastery, where he had a room adjacent to the library.