Newly Unveiled 16th-Century Map Shows a World Filled with Centaurs and Unicorns

A rare, 60-page map of the world illustrated during the Renaissance era is finally on display as its creator intended: with its vibrant pages arranged in a 2D circle, showing a bird's-eye view of the world from the vantage point of the North Pole.  

The stunning, ornately decorated map depicts a world populated by mythical creatures, including unicorns, centaurs and mermaids.

"I call it a cartographic manuscript masterpiece. It blows you away," said G. Salim Mohammed, the head and curator of the David Rumsey Map Center at Stanford University, which acquired the 1587 map in September. [See a gallery of the continents and fantastical animals on the 1587 map]

Enigmatic creator

Historians know some basic details about the cartographer who created the map, Urbano Monte (1544-1613), a nobleman who lived in Milan, in northern Italy. When he was 35, Monte married 18-year-old Margarita Niguarda, and they had four sons and one daughter. Because of his family's status and affluence, Monte didn't have to work. Rather, he spent his time collecting books for his renowned library and pursued scholarly interests, according to a report published by the David Rumsey Map Center.

At age 41, Monte developed an interest in cartography. In particular, a visit to the first Japanese embassy in Europe, which was established in Milan in 1585, piqued his interest in Japanese geography, according to the report. Moreover, "map murals" were gaining popularity at that time in Italian decoration, according to scholarly notes made on the atlas.

Monte relied on contemporary sources to draw the map. "He embarked on this project to consolidate geographic knowledge," Mohammed said.

Fantastic beasts and where to find them

The map employs a unique Arctic perspective.

"The projection is very unusual for its time and fairly accurately done for its time," Mohammed told Live Science. "One of the places it seems the most distorted is Antarctica, because if you look from the top, it's going to be really big at the bottom."

In addition to drawing what he knew of the world's continents and islands, Monte speckled the map with illustrations of fantastic beasts, including unicorns, mermaids, griffins and even a giant bird carrying an elephant. He also drew political leaders and their armed forces, including Philip II of Spain and several ships from his Spanish Armada dotting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

Curiously, even though Monte had met with the Japanese delegation, he drew the Japanese islands horizontally instead of vertically. However, he made Japan quite large and filled in its geography, displaying his knowledge about the Land of the Rising Sun, Mohammed said.

Digital reconstruction

When the David Rumsey Map Center acquired the map — the earliest of three surviving originals by Monte — the pages were assembled like a book in a manuscript. But the atlas contained instructions for how Monte wanted the map to be seen. By scanning each of the 60 pages, scholars were able to digitally assemble the 10-foot-by-10-foot (3 by 3 meters) map as Monte wanted.

"The idea was for it to be put together and hung on a wall with the hole in the center, so that you could actually move it around like a disc," Mohammed said. This assembly makes it the largest map of the world created during the Renaissance, he added.  

Members of the public can see the actual manuscript, a printed copy of it and a digital version of it on a touch screen at Stanford University, where scholars are studying the rare map. The images are also online, where they can be downloaded by the public.

Original article on Live Science.

Laura Geggel

Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.