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The Portolan Atlas
Elaborate golden maps
St. Petersburg, National Library of Russia, Venice, 1546

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The Portolan Atlas of Battista Agnese is one of the most fascinating navigational charts of the 16th century because of the precision, attention to detail and the high artistic value of its execution. It represents the latest state of geographical knowledge of the times. The Atlas includes a world chart in oval projection showing the sea route followed by Magellan during his circumnavigation of the world with which he so gloriously confirmed the geographic discoveries of the 15th century.
As all other creations from Agnese’s workshop, the Atlas of 1546 constitutes a sumptuous de luxe codex which was produced by several hands according to the traditional principle of work division. Agnese is considered one of the most important and prolific chart makers in the 16th century. Born in Genoa, he owned a drawing workshop in Venice. We know of 80 to 100 navigational charts (portolans) from his pen, of which the Atlas of 1546 is the finest example.

One of the most fascinating works of art in cartography

The numerous illustrations added to Agnese’s charts are ascribed to an unknown artist of the Venetian school and all betray a masterly hand. The luminosity of colours is enhanced by the exuberant use of gold. The whole work, including the carefully drawn charts, bears testimony to perfect craftsmanship.
Very special and atypical features are the three mythological paintings which decorate the Atlas in a highly inventive manner. They depict famous episodes from Greco-Roman mythology, illustrating them in the context of navigation and cartography: the departure of Jason with his Argonauts, the storm on the sea in which Aeneas’ fleet perished, and Atlas carrying the globe, as well as mathematician and astronomer.

A precious mine for historic geography

The Portolan Atlas, which is now kept in Saint Petersburg, contains mythological scenes, a table of the declinations of the Sun, an armillary sphere, a representation of the Ptolemaic-Aristotelian system of the world, a text with cosmographic and astronomic details, as well as 13 charts documenting the most recent knowledge in geography: the New World and the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean with Africa and parts of Europe, the Indian Ocean including the coasts of Africa and Southern Asia, Europe (without Spain and Southern Italy), Spain and Northern Africa with the Canaries, the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, a very detailed map of Italy which may be considered the best map of its time, the Aegean Sea, the Holy Land, and a world map in oval projection showing the sea route chosen by Magellan for his circumnavigation of the globe.
The luxurious Atlas was not really suitable for practical use in navigation. It is not known who commissioned the work; however, the patron must have been a person of high-rank and great wealth. The decoration with cosmographic and astronomic data, the table of the declinations of the sun and an armillary sphere as well as a compass in the form of a wind rose, suggest that it was destined for fundamental studies in cosmography and geography in theory rather than in practice.

A complete work of art made in Venice

The original binding, made in Venice, consists of two wooden plates which were covered with red brown patent leather and decorated with etched ornaments and gold tooling on both the upper and the lower plate. The faithful facsimile edition of the Portolan Atlas is protected by a faithful reproduction of this leather binding.

The commentary volume

The richly illustrated scholarly commentary was written by Tamara P. Voronova, curator at the Russian National Library of Saint Petersburg, and contains detailed information on the history of charts by Arthur Dürst.

   
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