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Some areas for possible Future Research into early portolan charts

relating to the essay

'A detailed reassessment of the Carte Pisane: a late and inferior copy
or the lone survivor from the portolan charts' formative period?'

Contents Page   |  The Essay   |  Toponymy Menu   |  Portolan Charts Main Menu

Toponymic listing on an Excel spreadsheet

This investigation has shone some fresh light on the Carte Pisane, but the mysteries it retains offer plenty of opportunities for future research
The various instances highlighted in the main text in green are repeated or summarised in the second section below,
while the first part offers some broader suggestions




General Issues

Data collection
Errors and omissions are inevitable in a study of this scope, particularly in relation to toponymy. The nearly 3,000 names in the current iteration of the Excel spreadsheet (which will continue to be modified) have been gathered from several hundred charts and atlases. The data collection has also been done in various ways at different times over the past 30 years. The initial work in the 1980s was the first of its kind and there was no model available. Returning to the subject - post-retirement and prompted by the ground-breaking toponymic work in the 2007 Ramon Pujades volume, which uniquely presented an almost complete set of images for use on a desk-top computer - I extended the date range up to at least 1600 and went back to look for some of the less usual names. Even restricted to the period covered by Pujades (up to 1469) there were nearly 100 available charts and atlases. With an average of perhaps 1,200 mainland names on each, that brings into play somewhere in the region of 120,000 toponyms.

Clearly nobody could grapple with such a herculean challenge as that. The necessary shortcuts I adopted make it inevitable that there would be omissions, especially among the rarer names encountered in recent years and therefore not checked generally, as had been done initially for all the 'significant' names. There will certainly be errors, too, whether from faulty transcription (by myself or others) or the kind of mistakes it is all too easy to make when manipulating a large Excel spreadsheet. I hope these will be pointed out to me so that I can amend what will always be a 'work in progress'.

Textual and cartographic sources for toponymy
One important area that has not yet been examined in sufficient detail is the relation between text, portolan chart and map. How distinct was the world of written text from that of cartography, the scriptorium from the chartmaker's atelier or the mapmaker's desk? Or were those frontiers, if they existed at all, permeable ones? What is needed is a comprehensive listing, extracted, on the one hand, from the toponymically-rich environment of medieval geographical, travel and pilgrimage literature, and, on the other, from the full spectrum of medieval maps. Such a resource could supplement the data from the two 13th-century maritime guides, the 'Liber de existencia riveriarum' and 'Lo compasso de navegare', as well as this Excel census of portolan chart names. Patrick Gautier Dalché's careful examination of the accounts from the various crusades might serve as the model for the textual component of such an enterprise. The relevant literature from the 12th to 15th centuries would be large but a certain proportion will already have been published. The most appropriate vehicle for such toponymic accumulation and comparison could well be Pelagios Commons. Founded in 2011, this project is working to provide freely accessible online links to the place-names of the ancient and medieval worlds by means of the scanning and indexing of textual and cartographic documents. On this see further, Rainer Simon, Elton Barker, Leif Isaksen & Pau de Soto Cañamares, 'Linking Early Geospatial Documents, One Place at a Time: Annotation of Geographic Documents with Recogito', e-Perimetron, 10, no.2 (2015): 49-59.

Oral transmission
In their most dynamic element, namely their toponymy, the portolan charts need to be understood as the product of orality rather than textual transmission.. This is counter-intuitive when that is often the only part of the chart that can be 'read'. Yet this contention follows logically from the fact that no early chartmaker, as far as we know, was a sailor. The first one to double up in that way was Albertin de Virga (active from the late 14th century) and almost all those who imitated him in that way were fellow Venetians. From the outset, then, fresh information about place-names must have been brought to the chartmaker rather than being personally sought out by him from the local inhabitants, unless he was simply copying from an existing chart. Versions of the early navigation guides, the portolani, might have been available to Vesconte, but there is scant evidence that he would have tried to extract names from one of those and then research where to place each on his chart. Nor could those manuals, or any other textual source of which we are aware, have provided Vesconte with the bulk of the almost 500 toponyms for which his productions provide the earliest sighting on a portolan chart.

So, if the names did not initially come to the charts via a literary route they must have reached the chartmaker orally, in the way described by Fancesco Beccari in 1403, who tells us it was 'masters, ship-owners, skippers and pilots' who were his informants. The immense implications of this for portolan chart history - as discussed in G.3. The staged introduction and repetition of new names - have not, as far as I know, been considered before (though I might have missed that). The documented pattern of introduced toponyms shows numerous piece-meal additions, presumably provided by dozens of individual sailors after many voyages (for name totals, see the blue column in Table A of Black and red names considered together).

If each new name involved oral transmission from a local source, via a sailor informant to a specific chartmaker, how likely is it that the combined results would provide consistency of language or dialect? How would 'quality' be assured, in the sense of accuracy of pronunciation (whose?) and correct positioning on the chart? How many insignificant places or features were chosen, how many of greater importance never reported? And what might constitute 'significance' anyway, to a non-travelling chartmaker who had to take on trust what he was told? In the light of all that, what could, or should, we expect from portolan chart toponymy? It is not clear how any of this could be tested but if a comparative evaluation could be carried out into the place-names on the charts, whose incidence is now far better documented than it was, those historians (whom we should encourage to use this toponymic information) would have a clearer idea of the appropriate ways in which this unique resource could be used.

The pelagi and the charts' initial construction
Future research could with advantage also be directed at the light the Carte Pisane can throw on the portolan charts' formative period, which still remains shrouded in a speculative mist. One factor that could be considered is the likelihood that different techniques might have been used for surveying the various areas. A crucial consideration in the case of the charts' core, the Mediterranean, must be the pelagi, the open-sea crossings of up to 1000 km or even more whose distances are already stated in the early 13th-century 'Liber', with another contrasting series provided at the end of that century in 'Lo compasso' (for comparison between them see Gautier Dalché, 1995, pp.205-19). A GIS exercise to test out the accuracy of those measurements is surely called for. In any event, the fact that some headlands recur frequently in the descriptions of the pelagi point to a potential series of overlapping triangles. Even if those did not form part of the initial construction they could surely have helped to correct its errors.

Such adjustments, which might have been possible in the enclosed Mediterranean, with its large, well-spaced islands, would not have been feasible in the open Atlantic Ocean, particularly in the Bay of Biscay. It would be inappropriate, therefore, to assume analogies between the compilation of the already sophisticated Mediterranean outlines on the Carte Pisane and the tentative attempts to plot the long European Atlantic coastline between the time of the Carte Pisane (c.1290) and that of the 1313 Vesconte atlas.

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Specific Points

(each is referenced to the relevant section in the main essay)

Did a lost early Dulceti chart provide the model used by Carignano?
Comparison between the Carignano map (produced no later than 1330) and the surviving work of Dalorto/Dulceti (1330?-39+) suggests that Carignano was imitating an earlier work by Dulceti. Catalan charts had a larger geographical coverage than Vescontian ones, taking in the Baltic to the north, extending a little further east than the Black Sea, and south beyond the Atlas Mountains. That the Carignano map's limits broadly match those of the 1339 Dulceti chart rather than the slightly narrower scope of the 1330 chart seems to indicate that the full 1339 Dulcetian extent could have been seen at least ten years earlier. If that proves to be the case, close examination of the obvious differences between the Carignano map and the Dulcetian charts, for example with respect to the Baltic, the British Isles and north-west Africa, might reveal the outlines of the earliest Catalan charts, now lost. [A composite version of the pre-War photographs of the Carignano map, engineered by Alberto Quartapelle in August 2022, is available in the Medea database.] [See Brief notes on the main documents discussed in this essay.]

Abandoned names
Perhaps future detailed studies will suggest reasons for the abandonment of toponyms, particularly those that had been emphasised in red. [See C. 2. The Carte Pisane compared to the Italian toponymy available in the 1430s.]

Names found on portolani but not on portolan charts
The portolano published by Bernardino Rizo in Venice in 1490 'resurrected' a number of earlier names, sometimes after a century or more. [Column 40 of the Excel spreadsheet lists the Rizo instances ('port.(R)'); the Comments column (X) provides an explanation for the more than 100 entries involved.] Around 20 of those names have not been noted between the time of either the 'Liber de existencia riveriarum' or 'Lo compasso' (both 13th century) and the Rizo text, while a further five are not seen between their appearance on the Carte Pisane or Cortona chart and 1490. Perhaps a fuller toponymic analysis might be able to identify intermediate steps. [See, for example, D. 3. Oriola.]

Placement of the headlands on the large islands
How accurate was the initial placement of the island's terminal capes, both in relation to neighbouring islands and to the surrounding continental coastlines, but also to one another? And, second, if any alterations were made to those relative positions subsequently, did those represent conscious corrections or careless copying? This is a potential application for a future cartometric research project. [See E. 5e. Larger islands.]

Was a headland's position located from a map or direct observation?
Whether the island's location - or more relevantly the position of its prominent capes - was derived from a cartographic drawing, or was a direct result of written observations of distance and duration over a series of voyages, is a 'chicken and egg' question that has yet to be resolved. [See E. 5e. Larger islands.]

Bosphorus names on the Carte Pisane?
It is hoped that an expert in Turkish toponymy will consider the names tentatively retrieved from the 1852 copy of the Carte Pisane to see if they can be matched with today's reality. [See E. 6e. The Carte Pisane's Bosphorus (?) names.]

The Carignano map includes a large number of town standards, which have not apparently been carefully studied. A detailed vexillological analysis could with advantage be directed at identifying the designs of the banners or flags and comparing those with the work of Vesconte and the Lucca chart (neither of which has as many examples), as well as with the 14th-century Il Libro della Conoscenza di tutti i regni paesi e signorie che isistone nel mondo (see Astengo, 2000). [See F. 2e. Flags.]

Relation of the toponymy on the Carte Pisane and Cortona chart
The Cortona chart has 110 toponyms not present on the Carte Pisane nor on the 12th and 13th-century texts examined. Their relationship can be expressed thus: Pisane and Cortona shared (413 names), Carte Pisane alone (268), Cortona chart alone (188). Can their loose connection be disentangled? [See G.2. Does the toponymy of the Carte Pisane, Cortona and Lucca charts indicate where they might have been made?]

Dialect as a pointer to the place of production
No convincing evidence has yet emerged to support the various birth-places suggested for the Carte Pisane (Naples) or for the closely related Lucca chart (Pisa, Gaeta). Can analysis of their mix of dialects help resolve this? [See G.2. Does the toponymy of the Carte Pisane, Cortona and Lucca charts indicate where they might have been made?]

Orthography and pronunciation
There was a wide spectrum of orthographic variation in portolan chart toponymy and any patterns in its development over the centuries would be a worthy subject for future analysis. The charts might indeed prove valuable witnesses to changing local pronunciation (in an era before conventional spelling) though such data might not in itself be reliable evidence. [See G. 3. The staged introduction and repetition of new names.]

Names on the Riccardiana chart compared with the Carignano map and Vesconte
If there was a careful study of the names on what appear to be the earliest surviving Genoese productions - the Riccardiana chart (probably no later than 1320 and perhaps somewhat earlier) and the Carignano map (c.1325-30) - the relationship of those toponyms to the documented introductions on successive Vescontian charts might have bearing on their own respective datings. It could also highlight any differences between Genoese and Venetian toponymy in the early years of the 14th century.[See G. 4. Toponymic lineage in the early 14th century.]

Which was of more importance in the early stages, Genoa or Venice? The reassignment of a very early date to the Carte Pisane reduces the primary importance of both Genoa and Venice in the earliest stages of portolan chart history. However, the significance of Venice from at least 1318, but very likely before, is undeniable. Future research could seek to clarify what knowledge might have come first to chartmakers in Genoa and what seems to have originated in Venice. [See G. 4. Toponymic lineage in the early 14th century.]

Non-standard names
Since many of the names shared between the Carte Pisane and the productions of Vesconte were of places prominent at the time and hence unlikely to have been omitted, the mis-match between their respective name lists in relation to lesser places is of greater interest. One way of testing that is to discount the 'Standard' red name toponyms seen invariably from the first dated works of 1311/13 up to at least 1600 [by nominating Column 36 in the Excel spreadsheet as the first option in any search those can be excluded]. Analysing the significance of what remains might be a suitable topic for future research. [See G.5. What toponymic sources might have been used by the early chartmakers?]

A possible ancient origin for the charts?
The thesis proposed by Roel Nicolai of a possible pre-medieval origin needs testing against the evidence in this essay, particularly the notable developments in the period between approximately 1290 and 1340. [See H.1. The Carte Pisane and portolan chart origins.]

Mercantile expansion
This study has skirted round the history of expansion, to east and west, by the mercantile powers of the central Mediterranean. Might the Carte Pisane throw any light on that process or would its significance be refined if future research offered a clearer picture of those developments? [See Concluding Remarks.]

'Pisanian Names'
About 220 names found on the Carte Pisane have not yet been traced earlier (Excel spreadsheet Column 14). Are those unique to the Carte Pisane, archaic forms that might be found in unexamined texts of the 13th century or earlier, or are some of them corruptions? Whatever the answers, they must represent a source of knowledge unconnected from and parallel to that available to Vesconte and other early chartmakers. This warrants careful examination. [Castro] Urdiales is just one example of a toponym of known significance in the late 13th century that is not found elsewhere. How many others, if they were made the focus of detailed local research, might help our understanding of maritime knowledge before Vesconte? [See Concluding Remarks.]

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