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Portolan Charts

  • By: Philip E. Steinberg
  • In: Encyclopedia of Geography
  • Edited by: Barney Warf
  • Subject:General Geography, Earth & Environmental Science

Portolan charts were produced in Mediterranean lands primarily during the 13th through 16th centuries. Originally single-sheet maps that were drawn on rolled scrolls of sheepskin and used by sailors in the Mediterranean region, they were soon joined by portolan atlases that typically covered the Atlantic coast of Europe and the Black Sea as well as the Mediterranean and that likely served a more decorative function. In both formats, however, portolan charts are striking for their relatively “modern” appearance and their apparently accurate representation of coastlines, leading the early 20th-century cartographic historian Charles Beazley (1904) to call portolan charts “the first true maps” and to assert that “in them, true cartography, the map-making of the civilised world, begins” (p. 161).

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the ...

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