Maps and views blog

02 August 2013

Whimsical sea monsters

I'm delighted to introduce this guest blog post by the historian Chet Van Duzer, who has just written a book on a very particular (and peculiar) aspect of early maps. Chet has clearly had a great time seeking out images of sea creatures in the British Library's early maps and atlases,  and has picked some of the best for us here.  Many of the monsters are not so much scary as whimsical (he says, with feet firmly on dry land ...)

While researching and writing Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps, just published by the British Library, one of the things I discovered is that cartographers generally used the most recent authoritative sources available to them for the sea monsters on their maps. This tendency may be seen for example in the world map in a 13th-century manuscript of Beatus of Liébana’s Commentary on the Apocalypse, where the location of the starfish in the western ocean probably derives from Thomas of Cantimpré’s encyclopedia finished a few years earlier; it is also clear in Gerard Mercator’s famous world map of 1569, where most of the sea monsters come from Pierre Belon’s De aquatilibus libri duo, published in 1553.

This result is surprising, as we tend to think of the sea monsters on medieval maps as being whimsical creations, things dreamed up by the cartographer in moments of fancy. Despite cartographers’ general tendency to use scientific sources for their sea monsters, there are cases in which the mapmakers did simply invent creatures, and those monsters can be delightfully whimsical. There seems to have been a fashion for fanciful sea monsters around the middle of the 16th century, and in these cases we are to recognise a change in the function of the monsters on maps, at least in the eyes of their painters: sea monsters have gone from having both scientific and decorative functions (showing what was thought to live in the sea, and making the maps more lively and appealing), to having a purely decorative function.

Some examples of whimsical sea monsters from the second half of the 16th century:

1p.58 fig 3
A winged sea dragon with huge rabbit ears on Gastaldi’s Cosmographia Universalis et Exactissima iuxta postremam neotericorum traditio[n]em of c. 1561 (British Library Maps C.18.n.1)

P.59 fig 8
An ichthyocentaur playing a viol on the map of Scandinavia in Ortelius’s Theatrum orbis terrarum (Antwerp, 1571) (British Library Maps C.2.c.5, map 45)


P.92 fig 4

A one-eyed sea monster on the map of Cornwall in the Burghley-Saxton atlas, which comprises proofs of Christopher Saxton’s maps of the counties of England and Wales (c. 1579) (in British Library Royal MS 18.D.III)


P.106 Fig.99
A whimsical sea monster with a cactus-like rump in Tommaso Porcacchi, L’Isole piu famose del mondo (Venice, 1572), p. 16 (British Library Maps 48.d.63, now Maps C.7.b.19)


P.107 Fig.104
A sea elephant with an impressive array of spikes jutting from its back in Tommaso Porcacchi, L’Isole piu famose del mondo (Venice, 1572), p. 101 (British Library Maps 48.d.63, now Maps C.7.b.19)


P.93 fig.5
A bird-headed sea monster and a human-headed sea serpent on a nautical chart made by Antonio Millo in 1582 (British Library Add. MS 27470)

P.93 fig.7
The aquatic unicorn in Cornelis de Jode’s Speculum Orbis Terrae (Antwerp, 1593) (British Library Maps C.7.c.13, on the map titled Quivirae Regnum cum alijs versus Boream)

Chet Van Duzer

Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps is available from all good bookshops -  such as this one.