World of Confusion: The Vatican Library Holds a Previously Unstudied Map from the 16th Century That Raises Intriguing Questions about European Conceptions of Columbus's Voyages to the New World

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Exploration in the Middle Ages and Renaissance was a tricky business--something that's easy to forget and perhaps hard to grasp for a society used to the conveniences of satellite images and GPS. Christopher Columbus, for example, spent six weeks in 1493 sailing along the southern coast of Cuba, trying to determine whether it was an island or a peninsula.


And interpreting the results of geographic exploration could also be a fraught and confusing process. The problems involved in converting reports from navigators or sailors into maps is clearly illustrated by the various conceptions of the New World that existed for some years following Columbus's remarkable voyages. A previously unstudied world map from about 1530 in the Vatican Library sheds important light on these early ideas about the New World and, in particular, about Columbus's fourth voyage to the Caribbean and Central America in 1502-04.

The map, which appears in a manuscript of a Latin translation of Ptolemy's Geography, features a hypothetical southern continent that forms an extravagant ring of land around the South Pole and is replete with toponyms--place names--despite its designation as 'Terra Incognita'. Many of these toponyms are simply inventions, but some of them, in the large peninsula that juts northwards towards South Asia, are not; surprisingly, they are names given by Columbus to locations he visited during his fourth voyage. This raises the question: why did the cartographer place toponyms from Columbus's voyage to Central America in a peninsula south of Asia, particularly when the map gives a reasonably accurate depiction of the New World?


Columbus firmly believed that during his voyages west, he was exploring outlying regions of Asia, rather than a new continent, and there are other maps that reflect this belief by locating Columbian toponyms in Asia. For example, on two sketch maps from about 1506--which were once attributed to Columbus's brother Bartholomew but are now believed to be by Venetian scholar Alessandro Zorzi--several locations from the fourth voyage are situated in eastern Asia. Toponyms from Columbus's voyage also appear in eastern Asia on a world map drawn by the Florentine cartographer Francesco Rosselli in around 1508.

On the Vatican map, the peninsula features the bay 'Coribaro' with islands in it; this represents a bay in Panama that Columbus entered on 5 October 1502. This bay is represented with islands on Zorzi's sketch map, and it's so described by the Dominican priest Bartolome de Las Casas in his Historia de las Indias and by Columbus's son Fernando Colon in his biography of his father. The name 'Belem', which is beside a river on the peninsula, refers to the Rio Belen in what is now Panama, which was named by Columbus during his fourth voyage and where his ships remained from 6 January to 16 April, 1503. This peninsula also contains another name and legend connected with Columbus's fourth voyage: north of the Rio Belem and Coribaro is a mountain labelled 'Monte de S. Chrobam'--the Mountain of St Christobam (St Christopher).

Nearby, a legend reads 'jn hoc cholfo corabaru nascu[ntur] cierti [?] vermes que perforant navigie', which translates as 'in this gulf Corabaru worms are born which bore through ships'--a reference to the shipworm Teredo navalis. Columbus did, indeed, have problems with shipworms on his fourth voyage. It was probably while Columbus's ships were in the Rio Belen (rather than in Corabaru) that they did their greatest damage--so severe was it that the Gallega and the Vizcaina were abandoned at Rio Belen and Puerto Bello respectively. …