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Cartography as Art and Science: Advent of the Printing Press

Cartography as Art and Science: Advent of the Printing Press

The printing press was invented in the 15th century, supplanting the scribal medium and helping propel society from the medieval to the early modern era. The Bible was translated into the vernacular, and Europe began to voyage into then-unknown corridors and take pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Bibles and historical and religious texts were printed with maps and illustrations beginning in the late 15th century. Printing transformed cartography and the map trade, allowing for much wider dissemination of maps.

Maps started to be printed in the last two decades of the 15th century. At first, mapmakers used woodcuts: a map was copied in reverse onto a wooden block, then woodcarvers carved away the non-printed areas. The block was then inked and a letterpress, which could also print typeset text on the map, transferred the ink to paper using direct pressure. Later mapmakers used incised copper plates, which were inked and put through rollers along with a sheet of paper. By the mid-16th century, copperplate engraving gained dominance over the woodcut method, because it allowed for finer detail work and easier revision. Some maps were hand-colored after they were printed.

The Nuremberg Chronicle is a history of the world from creation up to 1493 when the book was published. Written in the Latin vernacular, it relates a number of biblical stories, including the one of the golden calf that is illustrated here. It is a well-documented, early-printed book that successfully mixed text and illustration, with more than 1,800 woodcuts. More than 1,200 copies of the Nuremberg Chronicle in Latin and German still survive.

Hartmann Schedel, the author of the Nuremberg Chronicle, was a humanist scholar, physician, and collector of historical books and documents. Anton Koberger, Germany’s biggest publisher, printed and published the Chronicle, and it was illustrated by Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Peydenwurff. This illustration portrays the tale of the golden calf from Exodus 32.


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Ptolemy’s Geographia, one of the texts published soon after the invention of the printing press, was rediscovered in the 15th century. Klaudios Ptolemaios, or Ptolemy, was a second-century geographer, astronomer, and mathematician from Alexandria. He wrote the Geographia, which was the first known atlas, around 150 AD. Geographia provided directions for accurately representing the earth in maps, including a method for portraying the globe on a flat sheet of paper known as a map projection. Ptolemaeus also compiled a geographical gazetteer: a list of 8,100 places with their carefully measured latitudes and longitudes. With this latitudinal and longitudinal information, mapmakers could reconstruct Ptolemy’s maps even after the originals were lost. Renowned mapmaker Sebastian Münster (about whom more information is given with the next map) redesigned Ptolemy’s maps and printed them by woodcut in his midcentury Latin edition of the Geographia. The map is oriented north and shows ancient Asia Minor, Armenia, and parts of Cyprus and Syria. It portrays rivers, mountain chains, and miniature engraved woodcut silhouettes of cities. The boxes at the top list important place names in Asia Minor.


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Sebastian Münster, who created the Ptolemy maps, was trained as a Franciscan monk. He adapted Protestantism after meeting Martin Luther in 1524, then became a professor of Hebrew in Basel in 1529. He was knowledgeable about Jewish texts and practice and was in contact with Jewish scholars of his time, but his sentiments towards Jews were not always favorable. He wrote, "Jews and after them the pagans wanted to excise Christ and His holy teaching against the advice of God....In times of old, the Holy Land flowed with milk and honey, but now it is a fuming, bitter, and uncouth ground."

In addition to publishing Ptolemy’s Geographia (see previous map), Münster produced the 1544 Cosmographia, which purported to be a description of the world. It included more than 400 woodcuts of city views like the one shown, as well as maps, portraits, and costumes. It was quite popular and was reprinted 36 times within only 100 years. This map was published in Münster’s 1550 German version of the Cosmographia. It shows Jerusalem during the mid-16th century, as a walled city amongst hills. The eastern wall with the Gate of Mercy, also known as the Golden Gate (Aurea Porta in Latin, Gulden Port in German), is at the bottom. The Lion’s Gate, called here Rot Port (Red Gate), is to the right. The Mosque of Omar, marked Salomos Te[m]pel, is within the walls with Das hyligen grabs tempel (Church of the Holy Sepulcher) above it. Tower of David, indicated by its Crusader name, Pisaner Schloss, is next to the church. Berg Zion (Mount Zion) and Gethsemane Garden are outside the walls.



Advent of the Printing Press
17th Century
Towards a More Scientific Cartography
Map Listing

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The Golden Calf by Hartmann Schedel
Nuremberg Chronicle
Nuremberg, 1493
Muriel Yale Collection, 2000-168






Tabula Asiae I by Claudius Ptolemy
from Geographia
Basel: Henricus Petri, 1542
Muriel Yale Collection, 1997-033


















Die heilige Statt Jerusalem contrafehtet nach Form und Gestalt ie sie iest...erbauwen ist
by Sebastian Münster
from Cosmographia universalis
Basel: Henricus Petri, 1550
Muriel Yale Collection, 1998-036

Many thanks to Spertus Collections Curator Ilana Segal for the research done on this map.