The Portulans maps

The French National Library shows medieval illuminated nautical charts, called ‘portulans charts’ (from the Italian term ‘portolano’, book of nautical instructions). These maps show the succession of harbours along the coasts. Thanks to this graphic system, navigators could find their way by writing down on the chart the distance they thought they had covered. The oldest portulan chart date from the late 13th century: it is the famous ‘Carta pisana’, housed at the Department of maps and plans. Only a few portulans charts among the oldest ones have survived to this day. The collection is the biggest in the world as it gathers five hundred portulans charts. Both technical innovations, as scientific objects, ‘portulans charts’ also represent the quest for faraway lands. These often impressive polychrome works of art are spectacular; furthermore, they conjure up some sort of exotic universe. The exhibition presents a selection of 200 main pieces: charts, globes, astronomy tools, ethnographic objects, stuffed animals, drawings, prints, paintings and manuscripts. These items belong to the own collection or are loans. The exhibition focuses on various issues: sailing conditions and use of charts; discovery of Africa, Asia, Americas and the Pacific; rivalry of maritime powers; geographical knowledge transmission between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean sea; creation and dissemination of the iconography of the new worlds, its landscapes, peoples, customs, fauna and flora.