fol.86v: Introduction to a map

fol 86v north-west roundel detail blog

 folio 86v. detail from north-west roundel  ( and  see post )

AFTERWORD August 17th [2012]: given the maritime (‘portolan’) style of the inset ‘minimap’ which occupies the north roundel in fol.86v, and the necessarily maritime implications of the botanical folios ( where it assumes  passage across and within the Indian Ocean), so some of the anomalies in the manuscript’s imagery in general, and particularly some in fol.86v, might reflect tabus observed among the mariners themselves.  I’ll discuss this matter  (as best I’m able – information is scarce) in relation to the north-west quadrant of the map, and three variant forms for the ‘angel of the rose’ – one in fol.86v (c.1408-1438), another in the map by Abraham Cresques (completed by 1375) and a third  – included in a Genoese map of 1457.  Since this is a recent addition to my earlier research, I’m afraid it won’t result in brief posts … but you can always skip them!


FOLIO 86v includes, at each of its four diagonal points, an emblem for one of the four chief points of direction, and these provide our first and clearest clue that we are looking at a map.

In the northern quadrant is inset a smaller, summary map (a ‘minimap’) which represents by notable landforms and structures, the stages of a round trip which altogether includes a range from at least Asia minor to the Atlantic.

When the whole folio is compared with the inset  ‘minimap’, it can be seen that while that smaller part is chiefly a guide to the western regions, the whole of the folio refers to the wider world, probably as far as China.

Curiously, though, the summary map (‘mini map’) seems less interested in major centres of western rule – Rome and Constantinople – as in Asia Minor, Egypt and western North Africa.

The form of a map, as a square whose chief centres are set diagonally is unprecedented for western Europe, but I’ll introduce the reasons for that fairly slowly; I am not to shock readers,  but simply to interpret the imagery in terms of cultural habits as well as habits in drawing.

Our chief comparison for the classical period is inevitably the itineraries represented in the Tabula Peutingeriana,  twelfth-century copies on parchment of a Roman route-map that had originally stood carved in stone within Rome. It showed the world as far as southern China to the east, but its western extent is unknown, since the original and that section of the copy is now lost – just as memory of the wider world had been all but lost to earlier medieval Europe.

From about the twelfth century, as  ambassadors were appointed by the western emperor and/or Pope, in response to invitations from Asian rulers, we find that their routes initially correspond with those of the old Roman roads, and again those described as being travelled by the Irish monks and Radhanites before the tenth century. One important route ran behind northern Italy – through Bobbio – and then towards the Black Sea, crossing above or over it to pick up the road east from Georgia and Armenia.

The Genoese possessions in Caffa were central to the east-west overland routes during the time they held it, and it was from Caffa, by sea, that the plague first arrived in Europe, too.

In the same region, Trebizond was an important centre for the Byzantines and Genoese before the arrival of Plague. Efforts were being made to update the work of Ptolemy.

From Armenia/Georgia, some western travellers and merchants passed eastwards: some taking the higher roads, others passing down into Mesopotamia, and thereafter taking ship in the Persian Gulf (preferably on a Chinese ship, as many note).

others travelled longer overland, which entailed a crossing of the Gobi desert. But those who did eventually reach China as formally-appointed diplomats were invariably returned westwards by sea.

The overland routes and maritime routes were considered complementary rather than mutually exclusive, emissaries from the west who reached China overland invariably being returned by the sea-route. Our best descriptions in European medieval works are those by de Marignolli, Clavijo, Pegolotti and others which I’ll link in the following posts.  But the perception of the land and the sea-routes as part of a single circuit helps explain why both can be included in fol.86v.

Despite the helpfulness of the Tabula Peutingeriana in identifying some features of the minimap, I see no obvious similarities there, or elsewhere in fol. 86v, to the works of Claudius Ptolemy.

Indeed, in the north-western quadrant of the folio is a small, faint figure not without earlier antecedents, and it suggests that some part of the  map at least derives from the Hellenistic period.  [see featured illustration].

A further similarity to the western world’s radically ‘new’ maps may help clarify some historical questions about them, and it should be remembered that  ‘portolan’ charts were not invented by the Portuguese, as they are commonly supposed to be.

We don’t know where the  ‘portolan-chart’ style was first developed, only that it was introduced first in the early fourteenth century by a family of Genoese map-makers named Vesconte (not Visconti), and that the style was perfectly familiar to chart makers living, at the end of the same century, in Mallorca and Majorca.

In classical times, some people who spoke Greek knew the routes into inner Asia. Not only were there cities founded by Greeks in northern India and what is now Afghanistan, but traditions of people in the Himalayas hold that some members of Alexander’s army founded cities there too.

From one of those early Hellenistic centres in the east came the marvellous artefacts recovered from Begram.

Begram is presently an American military air-base, but before that occupation archaeologists had  recovered many Greco-Egyptian and Greco-Roman artefacts, in glass and other materials.  ‘Roman’ in this context however means only the period of Roman rule in the Mediterranean; Rome itself appears to have exerted little cultural influence in the east.

Among the examples one might mention is the glass which shows a fire-tower or lighthouse topped by a club-bearing figure.  In these cases, it is usually assumed that the  structure represents Alexandria’s maritime lighthouse, the Pharos, with the figure therefore identified as a Hercules. However, given the location of this find, one must also consider whether the structure may not be a fire-tower (of the type for which Dunhuang was named) and that in this case its apparently androgynous figure may be the more appropriate Alexandrian deity, Serapis, worshipped chiefly along the Hellenistic centres of the east. You can see the glass at this linked site.

Overall, then, the same pattern emerges in fol.86v which was found to characterise  the botanical section:

(i) a basis in Hellenistic works and attitudes,

(ii) subsequently affected by eastern habits in thought and imagery

(iii) overlaid – to a much lesser degree – with ‘Latin’ character and

(iv) perhaps related to (iii) is evidence of a revision or updating which I believe dates to about the twelfth century, although the included ‘minimap’ may be later.

To eyes chiefly accustomed to European imagery, there will be as just as little immediately readable in this folio as in the botanical section,  and for the same reason:  the matter is expressed in the forms natural to an entirely different milieu.

As a brief illustration:

Asian style is reflected throughout fol. 86v, as for example the way this sacred or imperial ‘seat’ is represented (below). One might compare it with any number of eastern parallels, but the example below the same technique used to depict the seat on which a figure of Mani sits. The statue shown is a replica of one in a Manichaean temple  built between the 10th-12th century AD, in the foreigner’s port of southern China.

image of Mani from a shrine in southern China

fol 86v detail

The origin of that patternation appears to be representation of terraced hills, as a sign of prosperity and nourishing land.

The next posts treat fol.86v in detail:

* Emblems of Direction

~ includes for ‘north’ a Persian-influenced idea of the walled city, or enclosure, the Pairi.daêza. The term is first recorded in Greek by Xenophon (4thC BC).

~ the ‘west’ emblem shows a version of the lotus, as the medium for the sun’s rebirth. The style of drawing may be compared with the way the lotus was pictured in dynastic Egypt, but also with the style used in Asian ceramics of the tenth-twelfth centuries AD. Trade ceramics made in Chinese kilns, and in those of southeast Asia were a major trade during the west’s medieval era, and from the ninth century were being imported directly to entrepots of the Persian gulf, and old Cairo [Fustat]. One one occasion a ceramic of this kind arrived with a Chinese embassy, and is now known as the Fonthill Vase.

* fol.86v: Orienting the map.

~  Even when the four chief emblems are recognised and explained, the map is still difficult to orient. One may explain this in several ways, and correct it simply by flipping the page – but the likelihood is that the original makers did not orient to a fixed point on the horizon, as western maps do, but rather as wayfinders do, by reference to a conceptual centre point.

* The inset ‘minimap’  in detail-

~ discusses the detail of ‘swallowtail’ crenellations

*The larger part ~ in sections.

LINKS to each post – see  Index Page in the top bar.

These are interspersed (or interrupted, according to your point of view) by commentary posts giving more detail or setting the matter in a broader context.

Hope you enjoy the journey.


  1. Folio 86V is a Map of the world

    1. North America.

    Top, from left to right. At the top you can see the sea outline the boundaries of the continent: the right – Greenland, in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, on the left – Alaska, Bering Sea. The sun set.

    The connector on the east side: extremely wide, many speaking about where settlers inhabiting the New Earth.
    – Top of the connector: With higher zoom is clear small airplane rising into the air. This fragment encodes information about the north-eastern region of the United States: New England – the cradle of culture of the United States, as well as important at this point, the story of the pioneers of American aviation – from the days of the Wright Brothers continue their experiments flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
    – Measure the connector: Launching into the air space rocket encodes scientific achievements inhabitants of this continent, where it was the Wright brothers could be described as the first page of the book and the virtual flight to the moon – the last, however, this could be seen as a symbol of “the evolution of science” in the all.
    – Bottom switch: Rough waves of the Atlantic Ocean.

    Between the eastern and southern link: Reaching the heavens, a huge skyscraper (skyscraper) – the first modern skyscraper: Home Insurance Building (1884-1885) – as a symbol of “America” in general.

    Southern Connector: Compared to the east rather modest – connects North America with Central America

    The outer circle: presented in a comic book-symbolic way thicket of human silhouettes: the body, head. The bars above their heads, inform definitely aggressive intentions in relation to human figures gathered in the center of the “continent”. It is a symbolic way presented the story of the extermination of the indigenous peoples of North America, from the first explorers to the times of “Wild West”. It is noticeable that the Indians (distinctly different colors), so squeezed in the middle, they fight for their existence – mark over their heads facing outward. The result of this fight was definitely unfavorable for the indigenous population, as evidenced by the huge void in the center of the graphic.

    The whole of my interpretation of folio 86v on:


    • Thanks for the comment. I hope that the various researchers who’ve come to the same conclusion (in general) will be spared the sort of responses which resulted when I first explained that the folio was a world map – this being three or four years ago now.

      For me, any opinion about the folio’s imagery has to explain its inclusion of (a) crescentic sand-dunes with north-south striations – rather rare. (b) inclusion of what most agree is a minaret and a ‘castle’ showing swallow-tail, or ‘Ghibbeline’ detail.
      (c) explanation of why the setting sun is shown in association with a flower, this given a form like that used to depict lotus in certain strands of art.
      (d) explanation of the bat-winged figure in the centre of the north-west roundel.

      To compare form alone is less likely to persuade than finding parallel form and function. I look forward to reading more.


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