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Gabriel De Vallesca – Catalan Portolan Chartmaking
Reviewed by Richard Pflederer
During the early period of portolan charts, production was dominated by the Genoans, Venetians and Catalans. Eventually production would spread to many other ports, but these three enjoyed a virtual monopoly for 150 years. Of these three, the Catalans—although not the originators of the genre-might be the most fascinating, partly because of the cartographic and decorative innovations they introduced. Beginning with Angelino de Dulceto, a list of distinguished Catalan names appears on the role of portolan chartmakers. One of the most interesting was Gabriel de Vallseca, who was probably born around 1400 in Barcelona and died on Majorca between 1471 and 1478.
In his latest book, Ramón Pujades has given us a very complete and erudite picture, not only of the man and his works, but also the context in which he worked. This is the second major book by Dr. Pujades. The first, Les cartes portolanes: La representació medieval d'una mar solcada (see review in The Portolan, #72, Fall 2008), was a comprehensive analysis of the entire genre of portolan charts from the earliest surviving example from the last years of the 13' century until the year 1470, but this present book covers a much more limited subject, albeit with the same level of scholarship.
The book is part of a set which includes besides the book, a magnificent full scale facsimile of the 1439 chart by Vallseca which is now preserved in the Museu Maritim de Barcelona but is currently the property of the Biblioteca de Catalunya. Both are produced to the highest standard of quality; the chart facsimile in particular is impressive because of the effort made to reproduce the original, even to the small defects in the vellum. The colors of the facsimile appear to be true to life and the resolution of the image is sufficient to read the placenames and legends. The book is written in Catalan, but translations of the text to Spanish and English are found in the back of the book. There is one aspect of this system which is somewhat inconvenient to those readers using the Spanish or English translations. Because the illustrations are found only in the Catalan section of the book, readers need to refer to back to the Catalan section of the book to study the illustrations embedded in the text. This obstacle is minimized somewhat by the inclusion of notes in the Spanish and English versions providing the page number for the pertinent illustration.
The book is organized as follows:
- General description of medieval maps preceding the introduction of portolan charts
- Overview of portolan charts
- Summary of the Catalan cartographers preceding Val Iseca
- Biography of Vallseca
- His works, their characteristics
- Transcriptions of the toponymy and legends of the 1439 chart
The author's discovery and analysis of obscure documents provides additional insights into Vallseca and his times. For many authors of portolan charts, we have virtually no biographical information beyond what can be gleaned from his inscription on the chart. But Dr. Pujades' persistence in searching contemporary documents allows us to know a bit about the man—how he came from a Jewish family who survived, by his conversion to Christianity, the cruel assaults on the Aragonese Jewish community while probably remaining loyal to his original faith. We also learn of his family and the relative prosperity of their life in Majorca.
From one of these documents, the author also deduces an interesting observation about the production capacity of Vallseca's atelier. In this legal document-an agreement to settle a debt with payment in kind i.e., with portolan charts-we learn that his atelier was capable of producing at least 24 charts in six months.
Extrapolating this to the 38 years Vallseca was engaged in producing charts, Pujades arrives at a remarkable number of 2,000 charts potentially produced during these years. Even if this number is overstated by, say tenfold, the number is huge compared to the five signed and attributed works which have survived. The consequence of applying this survival rate, if applicable to portolan charts in general, is that all studies of these charts have been looking only at the proverbial tip of the iceberg.
Historical artifacts come to have their own histories, and this chart drawn in 1439 is no exception. We learn of the provenance of the chart, but also an interesting episode in its life during the winter of 1839-40. Frédéric Chopin and his lover, George Sand (the pseudonym of Baroness Dudevant) were visiting the Count of Montenegro—the owner of the chart—in Majorca and a servant had set an inkwell on the chart to hold it flat. The chart which had been rolled tight for some years recoiled, upsetting the inkwell and staining the chart; the remnant of the stain can be seen in the southwest corner to this day.
Near the end of the text is a rather puzzling text box occupying four full pages (!) entitled 'The Flag of the City of Valencia'. The objective, apparently, is to refute another Spanish historian's interpretation of some details in the iconography of the flag of Valencia as depicted on the chart, but this rather long dissertation seems a bit out of place in an otherwise tightly edited analysis of Vallseca and his chart.
With the price of the book/facsimile set at € 958.00 the target market is obviously not the individual scholar, but libraries will certainly find this set to be an important and valuable addition to their map reference department.
On the other hand, at € 129.00 the book by itself is within the reach of anyone with an interest in portolan charts.
Based on his two recent books, Dr. Pujades has established himself as one of the important voices in this fascinating niche of the history of cartography. We await his next work with eager anticipation.
Richard Pflederer is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of The Portolan, and is the author of a series of five detailed catalogues of portolan charts in major libraries. His most recent work, Census of Portolan Charts and Atlases was published earlier this year.
(from page 55, The Portolan, Winter 2009)
of empire. Before about 1900, most of the maps focused on foreign lands as places of "adventure, danger and warfare," a romantic "masculine playground" where explorers and warriors could make their mark. After 1900, and particularly after World War I, imperial lands were predominantly seen as "arenas of economic opportunity and commercial potential." In all of this, Heffernan draws the important distinction between predictably one-sided mapping by the imperial states themselves and the more balanced mapping by the press, which used cartography both to "promote and challenge the ideas of empire" in Britain and France—no doubt reflecting, and perhaps even shaping, the changing views of the public.
This volume measures up in every way to the high standards one expects from the Nebenzahl Lectures, the Newberry and the University of Chicago Press. Jim Aker-man's Introduction makes it dear that this work was not intended to be the last word on the subject, but to "foster critical reflection" on the "complex and nuanced picture of imperial mapping," which is precisely what it does. Brian Harley would be pleased.
P. J. Mode is a lawyer living in New York City who has collected maps for almost 30 years. In recent years, he has been collecting maps primarily intended to communicate not geographical data but political, religious, moral or other non-geographical information (or misinformation). They include polemic and "propaganda" maps; satirical, allegorical and fantasy maps; pictorial maps; maps with intentional errors; and unusual thematic maps.
Pujades i Bataller, Ramón J. La carta de Gabriel de Vallseca de 1439. Barcelona, Spain: Lumenartis, 2009.
Hardbound, 23 x 33 cm, 358 pages. Chart: 75 x 112 cm, rolled and stored in a cardboard box.
Print run limited to 950 numbered copies. ISBN: 13: 978-84-612-3682-4 (book); ISBN: 13: 978-84-612-3680-0 (complete work). Book/facsimile set € 958,00; Book € 129,00. www.lumenartis.net
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