Oldest map of Ireland puts us on the edge of the world
Map is part of a 600-year-old atlas going on auction at Christie’s for up to €1.8m
The map of Ireland in the 1468 Venetian Portolan atlas identifies 57 settlements, including Porto Rosso (Portrush), Limerich, Chorca, Drogda (Drogheda) and Bre (Bray)
The oldest-known map of Ireland will come under the hammer at Christie’s sale of Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts in New York on Thursday. The first depiction of Ireland as an island in its own right, rather than as part of the British Isles, it is included in a 600-year-old atlas made in Venice by the Italian navigator and cartographer Grazioso Benincasa.
Hand-drawn on vellum in 1468, the map was made at a time when Ireland was at the edge of the known western world – and travel to this country would have been the 15th-century equivalent of a voyage to the moon. It predates not only Christopher Columbus’s 1492 discovery of the Americas, but also Henricus Martellus’s 1490 map of Ireland, which is essentially based on Benincasa’s cartography.
The sixth chart in the Venetian Portolan atlas is inscribed Irlanda que Ibernia dicitur (“Ireland which is called Hibernia”). The island of Ireland is outlined in bright green and 57 settlements are identified, including Porto Rosso (Portrush), Limerich, Chorca, Drogda (Drogheda) and Bre (Bray). Some offshore islands, including the Aran Islands and those in Clew Bay, are depicted in red, blue, green and gold.
New trade route
The Benincasa atlas is a rare witness to the race to the Indies, when Spain and Portugal competed to establish a new trade route to the lucrative spice and silk lands of the Far East. While Spain sought a westward, transatlantic route – which would culminate in Columbus’s triumph – Portugal, the superior maritime power, prioritised the eastward route round the coast of Africa. Such journeys were conducted in the utmost secrecy, and the cartographic knowledge which accrued from them was tightly controlled; as a result, non-Portuguese sources for these discoveries are exceptionally rare.
With most of the Portuguese sources destroyed in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the maps and atlases of Benincasa are the sole surviving source for contemporary mapping of the Portuguese voyages of exploration during the second half of the 15th century.
The atlas was formerly in the art, antiques and rare books collection of the British Rail pension fund. It was sold to a private collector in 1989, when the state-owned transport company was privatised, and came up for auction in London four years ago but failed to find a buyer.
Intended for perusal at home by a wealthy merchant, the book has a contemporary Venetian “backless” binding of panelled brown goatskin over bevelled wooden boards, elaborately tooled with knot, ropework and tiny star stamps and punches.
The Venetian Portolan atlas carries a pre-sale estimate of $1.2 million to $1.8 million.