A Rare Portolan Atlas by Giovanni Battista Cavallini and the Cartographic Workshop in Livorno

Corradino Astengo - Professor (ret.), Dipartimento di Scienze dell’Antichità, del Medioevo e geografico-ambientali (DISAM), Università degli Studi di Genova



During the Age of Discovery, the conquest of the oceans made navigation by the stars a necessity, yet within the Mediterranean ships continued to ply the same routes, and the local shipping trade suffered no ill effects from the opening of ocean routes. The 16th and 17th centuries were marked by almost uninterrupted war within the Mediterranean, with raids, skirmishes, piracy and patrols to protect merchant shipping. The need for expert navigators and adequate equipment was obvious, and so the large cities and smaller ports of the Mediterranean continued the medieval tradition of making manuscript portolan charts and atlases. These were generally produced in small family workshops, where the traditional art was handed down from generation to generation.

The development of a mercantile fleet and the establishment of the Order of Santo Stefano brought to Livorno such cartographers as Robert Dudley, Vincenzo Volcio, Joan Oliva, Giovanni Battista Cavallini and his son, Pietro Cavallini. Though we know that Giovanni Battista Cavallini worked uninterrupted in Livorno from 1635 to 1656, the man remains a mysterious figure. In the 1652 atlas Teatro del mondo marittimo he declared that he was Genoese and signed his name ‘Giouan Batta Cauallini Genovese Geografico’; one might surmise that it was the Maggiolo family’s monopoly in Genoa over the production of charts, compasses and hourglasses that drove him to abandon his native city and seek his fortune in Livorno. A score of Cavallini’s signed works is extant, all apparently produced in Livorno. The atlas in the Sylvia Ioannou Foundation collection, bearing the arms of the Knights of Santo Stefano and of the House of Medici, was made for the Grand Duke Ferdinando II, Grand Master of the Order. It is a significant example of the many-sided uses of late portolan charts: instruments for Mediterranean naval warfare, symbols of power and maritime control and highly decorative objects to enrich the libraries of members of the ruling class.



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