Cristoforo Buondelmonti
Description of the Aegean and Other Islands

Edited and Translated by
Evelyn Edson

The Portolan

Seventeenth-Century News/Neo-Latin News

Imago Mundi

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.

Seventeenth-Century News 77.1–2/Neo-Latin News 67.1–2 (Spring-Summer, 2019): 77–78

This book has its origins in a description of the Aegean islands that was written in 1420 by Cristoforo Buondelmonti (c.1385-c. 1430), as copied by Henricus Martellus Germanus (d.1496). The environment in which the project was born and nurtured was the humanism of Renaissance Florence, which shaped it in several complementary ways.

Buondelmonti began traveling in the Aegean in search of Greek manuscripts for humanists like Niccolò Niccoli, and as the report of his travels to Niccoli indicates, he marveled at, and mourned, the ruins of antiquity that he encountered there. Buondelmonti was a real traveler, but like most of the early humanists, he processed what he saw through classical texts, in this case Ptolemy’s Geographia, Livy’s histories, and the myths of Ovid found in Pierre Bersuire’s Ovidius Moralizatus, which he retold in their geographical settings. Martellus added to what he found from Buondelmonti and enriched it with quotations from Isidore, Pliny, Pomponius Mela, and Strabo along with humanist writers like Giovanni Tortelli and Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini. Unlike Buondelmonti, Martellus was not a traveler, but a map collector who worked from humanist libraries to satisfy humanist readers.

The book being reviewed here is a lavish production. It contains an appropriate introduction, one that explains the significance of the work for readers in different fields without belaboring the relevant points. A two-page map on which Buondelmonti’s journey can be traced comes next, followed by a full-color facsimile of the Minnesota manuscript. Next comes a critical edition of the Latin text, which is more than what its label, ‘Transcription,’ suggests, followed by a readable English translation, a bibliography, and the index that is necessary to use such a volume. The textual descriptions do not follow a model rigidly, but they tend to present distance and direction from the previous island; then a measurement, usually the circumference of the island but occasionally length and width; next an explanation, sometimes fanciful, of how the island got its name(s); then a description of any prominent features, classical ruins, and resources that a business person might find valuable; and finally, an account of the island’s history, including myths connected to it, along with occasional personal details.

It is tempting to consider this as primarily a coffee table book, but that would be a mistake: it does indeed meet the highest aesthetic standards, but it is also a work of scholarship, carefully prepared over a period of several years. In addition, it is a valuable reminder that Neo-Latin includes not only poetry and plays, but also less obvious genres like travel literature. Italica Press, which recently moved its editorial office to Bristol [UK], has been a good friend to Neo-Latin studies over the years, and I am looking forward to more books like this one to come.

— Craig Kallendorf, Texas A&M University

Imago Mundi 71.2 (2019): 207–8

Cristoforo Buondelmonti (c.1385–c.1430)) was born in Florence and educated in the humanistic environment of the early Renaissance. His encounter with Ptolemy’s Geography led to a love for ancient Greece and its language and encouraged him to embark on a voyage to explore and record the Greek Archipelago. His aim was not only to visit all the places he had read about in the ancient texts, but also to collect manuscripts to send back to Florence. He settled on the island of Rhodes, which was at that time ruled by the Knights of the Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, whose members came from eight different language areas and whose powerful fleet ensured him safe travel at dangerous times. The island was one of the largest ports of call for pilgrims and merchants, from whom Buondelmonti acquired manuscripts as well as a wealth of material for his book.

The original text, sent by the author to Cardinal Giordano Orsini sometime before 1420, has not come down to us. Instead, we have a larger compilation made in Rhodes in 1420, whence it was sent by Buondelmonti to the cardinal. The extant manuscript represents the first isolario, a particular type of geographical atlas devoted exclusively to islands together with a few important coastal areas (it contains the first and only map of Constantinople before the city’s capture by the Ottomans), and was thereafter the model for the new genre until the end of the seventeenth century. Today some 65 manuscript copies of Buondelmonti’s much-copied text are known, perhaps the most important of which is that made by Henricus Martellus Germanus (fl. 1480–1496).

Martellus not only copied Buondelmonti’s text, but also added substantially to it. One of Martellus’s manuscripts is now in the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota, and this is the exemplar studied so successfully by Evelyn Edson for the book under review. It is a well-preserved copy that allows Martellus’s additions and changes to be distinguished from Buondelmonti’s original text and the reader to understand the maps more easily. It was Martellus who, for instance, enclosed each illustration in a frame and tried to show the islands with north at the top of the page wherever the shape of the island permitted, a practice that has prevailed over the centuries, and who informed the reader about the four cardinal directions (Septemtrio, Oriens, Meridies, Occidens).

Martellus’s maps are more meticulous than Buondelmonti’s. The sea is not painted green as indicated in the latter’s introduction to the book, but a rich blue. Castles, buildings and fortifications are portrayed in fine detail, so that we can understand their function and relative size. Mountains, plains, forests and rivers stand out and give us a better understanding of space. Descriptions and place-names are legible throughout the manuscript, whose condition is astonishing. At the end of the book come the islands added by Martellus. These vary in number from manuscript to manuscript, but in the version examined by Edson they are five: Cyprus, Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily and Britain.

Buondelmonti always started his textual description of each island with its name (often translating the Greek into Latin). Then he went on to describe its dimensions, flora, fauna and natural products, including minerals. He related events from mythology and ancient Greek and Roman history, trying everywhere to say as much as possible about the island’s history and ancient monuments. For Delos, for example, the holy island of the Cyclades, he described how he attempted with the help of a thousand men, ropes and ships to raise the huge statue of the god Apollo. He also quoted from ancient philosophers, using phrases that had passed into everyday life.

The first and most important part of Evelyn Edson’s work is her introduction. Here she tells us about the lives of Cristoforo Buondelmonti and Henricus Martellus Germanus and then describes their work in some detail, with a note on the different editions (it was first printed in 1824). After this is an account of the manuscript, as catalogued by the James Bell Library, with an explanation of the facsimile presented in her book. This is followed by comments on the transcription of the Latin and her translation into English.

Then comes a double-page reference map with her reconstruction of Buondelmonti’s route within the Aegean, Ionian and adjacent part of the Mediterranean seas (the islands of Corsica and Sardinia are included in the isolario but the map does not extend so far west). Finally, we arrive at the facsimile, island by island, clearly and legibly displayed on 86 full-colour pages (not counting the manuscript’s end folios and covers) with 84 maps accompanying the text. The Latin transcription follows, with notes on variant spellings, the physical state of the folios, and an indication where missing or illegible words have had to be taken from another manuscript. Both transcriptions and translations are as reliable as is reasonable to expect. After the usefully annotated English translation, the book closes with the indispensable bibliography and index.

All can enjoy this well-produced book and get ensnared by Buondelmonti’s maps and descriptions of the major islands of the Western world. Map historians in particular will be grateful to Evelyn Edson for her wonderful exposition of Cristoforo Buondelmonti’s pioneering creation. Isolarii still play an important role in the growing research of cartography and having such an accessible example on one’s own desk is a privilege.

© Emmanouil Michailou, Athens

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