Octava Asie Tabula [Title on verso]


Mapping the Silk Road during the 15th century.

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Claudius Ptolemy was a Greek scholar who was active in Alexandria, Egypt between the first and second centuries C.E. He wrote broadly on a number of topics including astrology, math, music, and astronomy, but today his impact is likely felt nowhere more strongly than in the field of geography. Ptolemy was the first (that we know of) to develop a process by which a three-dimensional object (in this case, a sphere) can be projected on two dimensions, like a flat sheet of paper. Using geographic data from predecessors like Erasthones and Marinus of Tyre, Ptolemy drafted the mathematical calculations necessary to create the first map projection – the foundation on which maps are still produced to this day.

This set of instructions came to be known as the Geographia, though the original text was lost after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Fortunately, manuscript copies survived through Muslim scribes, and the Geographia was ‘re-discovered’ in Italy during the Renaissance in the early 15th century. It was tremendously influential as European society began to look for scientific, rather than supernatural, explanations to the world in which they lived. Furthermore, Ptolemy’s maps under-represented the size and omitted significant portions of the globe, encouraging the Age of Discovery and the expeditions of De Gama, Columbus, and others.

Though earlier manuscript editions exist, the first version of Ptolemy’s Geographia was printed in Venice in 1475, though this edition did not contain any maps. A second edition, the first with maps, was printed in Bologna in 1477 and was the first to use plates engraved on copper. Second and third editions appeared in Rome and Florence, respectively, in 1478 and 1482, with the latter including the first ‘new’ maps added to Ptolemy’s original group of 27. The next in line of production is the 1482 edition printed in Ulm, Germany by Leinhart Holle using a manuscript edited by Nicolaus Germanus – the first example issued outside of Italy.

It is from that 1482 edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia that this sheet originates – the eighth of twelve original Ptolemaic maps covering the continent of Asia. The image covers a large area across Central Asia and the Hindu Kush around the modern-day countries of India, China, Afghanistan, and Kyrgyzstan. At the time of publication, the region was a valuable link in the Silk Road chain that connected European markets with Asian luxury goods. Numerous mountain ranges are illustrated, though it is difficult to associate Ptolemy’s ancient toponyms with today’s place names.

The region was well beyond the firsthand knowledge acquired by Alexander’s conquest, and the Greek scholar would have relied on secondhand sources to determine each location and geographic feature. Two regions, Scythia and Serica, are labeled and originate in Classical texts that predate Ptolemy by several centuries. The right margin presents information and measurements of the climes. These were the seven climatic zones thought by ancient scholars to dictate the habitable parts of the world. The title and descriptive text on the verso are surrounded by a decorative border – one of the elements confirming the date to be 1482.

Sources: Pagani, Cosmography Maps from Ptolemy’s Geography; Campbell, Earliest Printed Maps; Shirley, The Mapping of the World; Nordenskiold, Facsimile Atlas; Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography.

Map Details

Publication Date: 1482

Author: Claudius Ptolemy

Sheet Width (in): 22.6

Sheet Height (in): 16.25

Condition: B-

Condition Description: Between 1-3" of the left, upper, and right margins have been professionally restored with paper and ink fill. Moderate staining (possibly old mold) persists in the upper corners and into the image in the upper left. Additional discoloration visible down the vertical centerfold. Near-contemporary old color, with modern added as necessary for the restoration.


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