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Desceliers’ world map

Image of Pierre Desceliers' planisphere

Pierre Desceliers' planisphere
British Library Add. MS 24065
Copyright © The British Library Board
A high-quality version of this image can be purchased from British Library Images Online. For more information email imagesonline@bl.uk

Sumptuous manuscript maps such as this one by Pierre Desceliers continued to be produced for royal or noble patrons for centuries after the advent of printed maps, for in splendour and in value as unique objects, they overshadowed what was possible with printed maps.

This one bears the arms of both King Henri II of France, which can be seen at the lower left corner of the map, and the Duc de Montmorency, in the lower right, indicating that it was drawn for one of these men.

Pierre Desceliers was one of the Dieppe group of chart-makers, who from the 1530s depicted French and Portuguese discoveries in a style that was strongly influenced by contemporary Portuguese charts. This map is in the style of a sea-chart with compass-roses, wind-faces and navigation (or 'rhumb') lines, but it was clearly a work of art not intended for use at sea. It is highly unusual in its dual orientation; north of the equator texts and figures are inverted, suggesting that it was specifically designed to be spread out and viewed around a large table.

Around 90 degrees of longitude is missing, covering the Pacific Ocean. Despite Magellan's historic voyage of 1519-1522, the geography of the Pacific region was still entirely unknown. The Desceliers map is a Renaissance version of the medieval mappa mundi, a visual encyclopedia, composed of text and images. There are more than 50 vividly-painted tableaux and 25 extensive texts on the map, and they form a blend of classical and medieval myth and contemporary history.

Early French attempts to colonise Canada are described, as are the conquests of Peru by the Spaniards and the Portuguese sea-trade among the spice islands. But alongside these are descriptions of the marvels of Cathay, still based on Marco Polo, the legendary king Prester John in Ethiopia, and the race of Amazons in Russia.

Many of the map's texts dwell on the potential wealth in jewels and spices of the world beyond Europe, and on the barbarity of the native peoples, illustrated by dog-headed cannibals and sun worshippers. These had first been described as dwelling in India by the ancient Greeks. Following the arrival of Europeans in India after 1500 they were pushed further eastwards and Desceliers shows them as natives of the legendary great southern continent 'Terre Australle' that was eventually to give its name to Australia.

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