Beginning around 1500, in the decades following Columbus’s voyages, the Atlantic Ocean moved from the periphery to the center on European world maps. This brief but highly significant moment in early modern European history marks not only a paradigm shift in how the world was mapped but also the opening of what historians call the Atlantic World. But how did sixteenth-century chartmakers and mapmakers begin to conceptualize—and present to the public—an interconnected Atlantic World that was open and navigable, in comparison to the mysterious ocean that had blocked off the Western hemisphere before Columbus’s exploration?
In Mapping an Atlantic World, circa 1500, Alida C. Metcalf argues that the earliest surviving maps from this era, which depict trade, colonization, evangelism, and the movement of peoples, reveal powerful and persuasive arguments about the possibility of an interconnected Atlantic World. Blending scholarship from two fields, historical cartography and Atlantic history, Metcalf explains why Renaissance cosmographers first incorporated sailing charts into their maps and began to reject classical models for mapping the world. Combined with the new placement of the Atlantic, the visual imagery on Atlantic maps—which featured decorative compass roses, animals, landscapes, and native peoples—communicated the accessibility of distant places with valuable commodities. Even though individual maps became outdated quickly, Metcalf reveals, new mapmakers copied their imagery, which then repeated on map after map. Individual maps might fall out of date, be lost, discarded, or forgotten, but their geographic and visual design promoted a new way of seeing the world, with an interconnected Atlantic World at its center.
Describing the negotiation that took place between a small cadre of explorers and a wider class of cartographers, chartmakers, cosmographers, and artists, Metcalf shows how exploration informed mapmaking and vice versa. Recognizing early modern cartographers as significant agents in the intellectual history of the Atlantic, Mapping an Atlantic World, circa 1500 includes around 50 beautiful and illuminating historical maps.