Cristoforo Buondelmonti
Description of the Aegean and Other Islands

Edited and Translated by
Evelyn Edson

The Portolan

The Portolan (Fall 2018): 61–62

Neither the term nor the genre of map books known as isolario (pl. isolarii) will be familiar to many WMS readers. The first hundred editions of The Portolan contain only two such references,[1] and use of the term without explanation is likely to produce a blank stare. Yet from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries, this genre was a popular format in cartography, attracting readers among the European general public who might not otherwise have ventured into more formidable academic tomes.

The term isolario denotes an original or printed atlas consisting of maps of islands (and sometimes nearby coastal mainland areas). Originally called by the Latin term insularium, the Italian isolario seems to have been in common use by 1534. Although the roots of this genre were exclusively Mediterranean, later versions began to push out into other parts of the world during the early age of exploration. Significant authors of the genre start with Cristoforo Buondelmonti (Florence) and include Henricus Martellus Germanus (Florence), Bartolommeo dalli Sonetti (Venice), Piri Reis (Ottoman), Benedetto Bordone (Venice), Tommaso Porcacchi (Venice), Giovanni Francesco Camocio (Venice), Antonio Millo (Venetian Greek from Milos), Andre Thevet (French), Francesco Piacenza (Naples), Olfert Dapper (Dutch), and Vicenzo Coronelli (Venice), among many others.

Many respectable cartographers — not all — avoided association with isolarii, believing that they did not constitute serious cartographic endeavor; by the end of their popularity, the isolarii had deteriorated into short, unsophisticated popular geographical texts.[2] This notwithstanding, they are among the most frequently used sources of illustrations and maps contemporary to that period.

Dr. Edson’s thorough and well-constructed volume examines the work which laid the foundation for this genre. Cristoforo Buondelmonti can be said to have inaugurated the isolario tradition in the early 15th century. His first work, Descriptio insulae Cretae (Description of the Island of Crete) (1417), studied only Crete; it was followed a few years later (1420) by this work, Archipelagi et Cicladum aliarumque Insularum (Description of the Archipelago, the Cyclades, and Other Islands), generally regarded as the first isolario. Both books were popular in Europe, with manuscript editions in vernacular Italian, French, and English. Since they predated the advent of printing, there were inevitably minor variations among the hand-copied tomes, but no significant variations.

For this work, Edson used the copy made by Henricus Martellus Germanus, which is located at the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota – Minneapolis. This copy dates from approximately 1475.

The first portion of Edson’s work is a precise reproduction of the manuscript itself (43 pages recto and verso, for a total of 86 pages). The beauty of the hand colored manuscripts and the maps they contain is striking. The maps are large and handsomely colored, accompanied by commentary on the history and current status of the island. The islands are called by their Latin names, not Greek (Santorini vs Thera, Corfu vs Kerkyra, etc.); in some cases, both are given (e.g., “Ithaca formerly, now Valdicompare”). Most are Greek islands, but some others (e.g., Sardinia, Sicily, and the British Isles) are included. Immediately after the reproduction, in a separate section, there follows an easier-to-read transcription of the text. This is followed by an English translation of the text — 146 pages — where most readers will spend the bulk of their time. The work closes with an extensive bibliography and index.

The commentaries on each island vary greatly. Some provide basic information, while others give detailed descriptions. Buondelmonti was part of the Humanist movement that characterized the Renaissance, and he pays particular attention to remnants of earlier Greek and Roman civilization. He also recounts personal anecdotes: while he was visiting Chios, a nobleman was stung by a scorpion. So many well-wishers came to the house where he was being cared for that it collapsed, killing him and many others. A cow bitten by a fly near a lake of liquid pitch collapsed into the pitch and was suffocated. This mix makes fascinating reading.

His work is valuable for another reason he could not have foreseen. It provides the only description and map of Constantinople just prior to its conquest by the Ottoman forces under Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453. Buondelmonti’s description and map are studied with those of the Ottoman polymath Matrakci Nasuh (1480–c.1564), to determine the changes made to the city in the first years of Ottoman rule.

Buondelmonti’s isolario set a high standard for those that came afterward. Some may have failed to meet academic standards of their day, but they left us with a rich and invaluable encyclopedia of their time. Evelyn Edson has done a magnificent job of ensuring that the reader will have full access to all that Buondelmonti has to offer, in both text and illustration. For his part, Buondelmonti has been fortunate in having his work examined by such a skilled exponent.

Note: As charming and informative as this and other isolarii are, they should be read with an important caveat: for most of history, maps of Greece, and therefore powerful visual definitions of Greece, have been the product of non-Greeks. The isolarii, like other maps of their day, were products of a Renaissance which did not occur in Greece, much less transform Greece. To look at these isolarii, one could easily not know that the land was occupied by a contemporary Greek people and culture. The islands from Euboea to Crete were either directly controlled by Venice or by the Duchy of Naxos, a Venetian client. The Dodecanese were controlled by the Knights of St. John. Buondelmonti visited a few towns on the Peloponese, still largely held by the Byzantine Empire, but the towns themselves were Venetian enclaves. Local inhabitants were not entirely excluded from Buondelmonti’s texts, but they appear largely in context of folk myths or practices.

—Bert Johnson, Vice President,
Washington Map Society


[1] Issue 37, Winter 1997, The Isolario of Benedetto
by Robert A. Highbarger; The Portolan, Issue
37, Winter 1997; and The Island Book of Henricus Martellus, by Rushika February Hage, The Portolan, Issue 56, Spring 2003; runner up, 2002 Ristow Prize.

[2] Tolias, George, Isolarii, Fifteenth to Seventeenth Century, pp. 263-284; Woodward, David, ed. History of Cartography: Volume Three – Cartography in the European Renaissance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Note: This is an excellent concise history of the isolarii and their place in European cartography.


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