Laurent Fries’s “Diefert Situs Orbis Hydrographorum” (1522) is a version of Waldseemüller’s “Admiral’s Map”(1513). In it, Europe and Africa are relatively well shaped. The mapmaker added the then-kings of Russia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Taprobana, and Mursuli, as well as an elephant off Greenland. Seven years later, Fries also adapted Waldseemüller’s 1507 world map, the first to use the name “America.” (All photographs by Paul Mutino, All images courtesy of the Bruce Museum)

During the late Renaissance, many gold-thirsty European explorers set sail on a quest to locate the fastest route to the Orient. What they found, instead, was how little they really knew about the world. And despite the lack of information, cartographers scrambled to document it.

Thirty hand-colored maps published between 1511 and 1757 are currently on view in (Re)Discovering the “New World”: Maps & Sea Charts from the Age of Exploration at the Bruce Museum in Connecticut. Made long before the invention of color printing, they’re achingly gorgeous — though wondrously misinformed.

“They all show the world as it never was, isn’t now, and never is expected to be,” Jack Somer, who owns the collection, told Hyperallergic. Brimming with blob-shaped land forms, non-existent islands, and completely made-up fantastical beasts, the maps feature many decorative details like cartouches and ribbons that downplay their general inaccuracy. Five hundred years later, they are an incredible homage to human error.


Sebastian Münster’s “Marine and Land Monsters” (1552) catalogues many invented monsters. Such decorative details enhanced the value of Renaissance mapmakers’ works.

Abraham Ortelius Azores (Amsterdam, 1584) Ortelius's Azores map has three cartouches and a ribbon title, turning a document of relatively little information into an artwork. Columbus, returning from his first voyage, visited Insula S. Maria (lower right). Photograph by Paul Mutino.

Abraham Ortelius’s “Azores (1584) provides relatively little information but dazzles as art with three cartouches and a magenta ribbon. In the lower right-hand corner, you an spot Colombus visiting Insula S. Maria on the way back from his first voyage.

John Speed Americas (London, 1626) Speed's steel-engraved, hand-colored view of "America" shows the post-Columbian "New World." It includes attractive cultural border decorations, but perpetuates the Spanish myth of "California as an Island." Photograph by Paul Mutino.

John Speed’s “Americas” (1626) shows the “New World” after Columbus. The steel-engraved and hand-colored map reflects the Spanish misconception that California is an island. It’s also embellished with border decorations that purport to illuminate the cultures located within it.


Johannes Van Keulen’s “West Indies” map (1684) depicts the Caribbean Sea. The great Dutch sea-chart maker anchored North to the right and also included rhumb lines, used by seamen to plot the ship’s course.

Gerard Mercator America sive India Nova (Amsterdam (Duisburg), 1595) Known for the ingenious "Isogonic Cylindrical [Mercator's] Projection," Mercator revolutionized navigation and is deemed the greatest 16th-century cartographer. His son Michael published this map, a year after Mercator's death, with its circular detail insets, decorative surrounding strapwork, and an early revelation of the long- sought but illusory "Northwest Passage." Photograph by Paul Mutino.

Gerard Mercator, the creator of “America sive India Nova” (1595), was the 16th century’s greatest cartographer, known for his revolutionary “Isogonic Cylindrical [Mercator’s] Projection.” The cartographer’s son Michael published this eleborate map a year after his father died. It’s one of the earliest suggestions of the “Northwest Passage.”

(Re)Discovering the “New World”: Maps & Sea Charts from the Age of Explorationcontinues at the Bruce Museum (1 Museum Drive, Greenwich, Connecticut) until June 3.

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Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...