Explore The Largest Early Map Of The World

This 430-year-old world map, digitized for the first time, is “more than just a map!,” according to historian David Rumsey.

You’re looking at one of the most extraordinary maps ever created. It’s a 10-by-10-foot digital image of a 60-sheet world map drawn by hand in 1587 by Italian cartographer Urbano Monte–the largest known early map of the world.


[Photo: courtesy David Rumsey Map Collection]
There are only two originals in existence; one is in Milan, Italy, the other you’re looking at here. The digitized map was just added to the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection at Stanford University. According to Rumsey, this is the first time in history that anyone can see it as one single unit, as Monte intended when he drew the sheets that compose it 430 years ago. You can also see experience it using AR Globe, an iOS augmented reality app, or download it here and play with it in Google Earth.

Talking over email, Rumsey told me that it “was amazing how well [the map] fit together without too much digital correction.” He says that the 60-plus sheets “were digitally assembled by Brandon Rumsey using Photoshop” totally by hand, without having to use distortion or custom programming, just “alignment of layers and edges” tools. Monte’s craftsmanship was simply outstanding, and he wanted for all the sheets of his mapamundi to fit together as a whole.

[Image: courtesy David Rumsey Map Collection]
Its massive size isn’t the only amazing thing about Monte’s work. There is much more, according to Rumsey. First is the kind of projection it uses, a very unusual circular projection of Earth from the North Pole technically called azimuthal equidistant projection. “The projection had never been used before at such large scale,” Rumsey says, as “Monte believed that it shows the world more accurately than, for example, the Mercator Projection map which Mercator had published in 1569.” In his booklet about the map, A Mind at Work (which you can download here), he describes the relevance of this projection:

When we georeference Monte’s map and then re-project it into the Mercator projection, we immediately understand why he used the north polar projection instead of Mercator’s: Monte wanted to show the entire Earth as close as possible to a three-dimensional sphere using a two-dimensional surface. His projection does just that, notwithstanding the distortions around the south pole. Those same distortions exist in Mercator’s world map, and by their outsized prominence on Monte’s map they gave him a vast area to indulge in all the speculations about Antarctica that proliferated in geographical descriptions in the sixteenth century.

Rumsey argues that this polar projection gives a better idea of the relationships of land and water masses than Mercator’s, even while the latter became the standard “due to its ability to accurately measure distance and bearing.” Nowadays, he says that the north pole projection is a favored view for showing the Earth. “Monte would have been pleased to see a modern version of his map used in the official emblem of the United Nations,” he adds.

[Photo: courtesy David Rumsey Map Collection]
The second reason why this map is so amazing is the detail Monte added to it. Since it was so massive, Rumsey explains, it allowed him to add a lot more information beyond mere names and physical attributes. Monte’s map includes “scientific information on winds, eclipses, length of days at different latitudes, and political information on world leaders and written descriptions of important countries and world places,” he says. “His map is more than just a map!”

According to the historian, Monte’s planisphere is part of a geographical treatise that encompasses several volumes on the world and cosmology, compiled from other sources of that era just like the map itself. This copying and referencing process was common at the time–all cartographers copied each other to complete their works. Mr. Rumsey hopes that “further research will better join the text in the treatise to the text and geographical descriptions on the map itself,” uncovering the sources of Monte’s work and the criteria that guided him in the creation of this stunning piece of geographical art.

About the author

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.