Changing View of the World

The Development of Map-Making

Maps are often defined as regional representations of the earth or heavens. They are much more than that though. Maps measure distances, provide direction, and depict natural and political boundaries. They show how the world is laid out at a particular time. They also show how much individuals associated with mapmaking knew about the world at that time. For these reasons, maps are excellent tools to learn how the world has been perceived throughout history.

European maps from the Age of Exploration reflect what was known, what was unknown, and even what was sought after. Some maps feature well known areas such as European colonies or regions frequently visited by Europeans. These are rendered with both precision and accuracy, even by today’s standards. Some maps feature unknown or largely unexplored areas. These may feature glaring inaccuracies such as missing pieces of coastline or empty expanses. Some maps feature mythical areas that Europeans had heard of or simply supposed existed. These feature fantastic locations or geographic features.

The overall quality of maps advanced dramatically during the Age of Exploration. Cartography, among other sciences, had developed rapidly since the Renaissance. Additionally, Europeans were sailing further and further from their own shores and returning from their voyages with accounts of the distant lands they had reached. As the number of voyages increased, so did the knowledge of these lands. By the 1500s, European mapmakers were producing material that, although not accurate by today’s standards, represented the world well enough that a modern viewer could recognize it. In a sense, these maps from the Age of Exploration provide a link between that world and the modern world.

The maps featured in this section are from the rare map collection at The Mariners' Museum. They are just a few items that were selected to illustrate how Europeans perceived the world during the Age of Exploration.

The rare map collection at The Mariners' Museum includes 1,287 maps ranging in dates from 1540 to 1899. Maps in this collection feature hundreds of geographic locations and vary in specificity from a particular city to the entire world. There are also celestial maps depicting the planets and constellations. This collection includes maps by prominent names in the history of cartography such as Joan Blaeu, Abraham Ortelius, Nicolas Sanson and Gerard Valck.