I have always loved the 14th century masterpiece now known as the Catalan Atlas. I never saw it with my own eyes though, even when I worked at its home, the Bibliothèque nationale de France, but whether online or in print, it still is an enduring source of awe and inspiration to this day and I regularly find myself coming back to its immense breadth, to the simple clarity of its era-defining cartographical language and to its colourful, mysterious, illustrations.
Thanks to a recent Twitter thread by the excellent press cartographer Jules Grandin, I just discovered the Cresques project, a webpage by aerospace engineer and independent map scholar Juan Ceva. Based in California but originally from Spain’s Majorca island, Ceva has made available fascinating materials and secondary literature, notably by Gabriel Llompart and Jaume Riera.
The illustrious Catalan Atlas was produced in or around 1375, very probably by the Majorcan cartographer Abraham Cresques and possibly his son. Acquired early on by the French monarchy, the portulan chart in 6 sheets is still held in the collections of the Bibliothèque nationale de France‘s manuscripts department and has been the subject of many exhibitions and descriptions. While many mysteries still surround this piece of work and its author, Ceva’s contribution is very enlightening for the non-expert map enthusiast that I am, notably because it provides keys to decipher and understand descriptions and toponyms from the richly decorated maps, for instance in the top left of panel 3: “En Inbèrnia ha moltes illes merevellosas…“.
The full inscription is translated : “In Hibernia [Ireland] there are many wonderful islands whose existence can be credible; among them, there is a small one where men never die, because when they are about to die of old age, they are transported outside the island.”
Other fascinating and very helpful parts of this webpage include transcriptions and translations of the legends as well as of Balearic toponyms. I am by no means a specialist and pre-18th century maps do not relate to my own research work but those toponyms and this map bring back very fond memories of Menorca Island, where I spent time with my grandparents and parents as a child, near Ciutadella, the Catalan Atlas‘ “citaela”.
Congratulations to Juan Ceva for making the language of those maps easily understandable by us all and stimulating original research on this fascinating piece of cartographical history. May it inspire others to do the same for masterpieces such as the ethno-linguistic map accompanying the Dīwān Lughāt al-Turk [ديوان لغات الترك], Mahmud al-Kashgari’s landmark 11th century encylopedia of the Turkic languages and people.