They’re fantastical, fierce and sometimes even frightening, and talking about them will capture the attention of just about any crowd. So says Chet Van Duzer of something that used to regularly adorn maps during the Middle Ages and Renaissance: sea monsters.
Here, Van Duzer, a cartographic historian and the author of Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps, uses Paolo Forlani’s 1560 world map — the first known instance of the name “Canada” appearing on a printed map — as a lens through which to explain why these often lavishly illustrated beasts are so intriguing, what they represented and how they changed over time.
On the intrigue of sea monsters on maps
One thing that I find very engaging about sea monsters is that they can offer wonderful clues about what sources the cartographers were using. There’s a natural tendency to think that cartographers invented these fantastic-looking creatures, but it turns out that’s not usually the case — they were usually borrowed from something else. On medieval and Renaissance maps up until the time of Forlani’s 1560 world map, the monsters were usually taken from sources that the cartographer would have thought were reliable — something like an illustrated encyclopaedia, for example.
On what sea monsters were meant to represent and how that meaning changed
I think we can deduce that there was some intention to show reality. There was a scientific impulse behind some of the illustrations. I think they were trying to show some of the fullness of the creation, the variety of creatures that the Earth and oceans contain. On earlier maps, where the monsters represented were thought to be real creatures, their presence signified that the ocean was an unknown and dangerous place. In the mid-16th century, right around the time Forlani’s 1560 map was printed, there was a transition to some cartographers using sea monsters as a more purely decorative element on their maps. I suspect that this happened because some were simply more skeptical than others about sea monsters while still appreciating the visual interest they added. Some cartographers, however, continued to depict sea monsters in a more serious way.
On the sea monsters in Forlani’s 1560 world map
The monsters on Forlani’s map seem more purely decorative rather than acting as a warning or signal. For example, look just to the west of South America and you’ll see a sea monster below a ship, but there’s no sign whatsoever that the two are interacting or going to interact. The implication seems to be that the monster doesn’t present any threat and that the ocean isn’t a dangerous place.
On the concept of horror vacui
The literal reference of the phrase is the idea that nature abhors a vacuum. But in terms of art history, it refers to the idea that the artist, and in this case the cartographer, does not like blank spaces. To some extent, it’s a question of sales. Why leave a blank space when you can fill it with some information or illustration that could attract customers? That idea was certainly a motive in adding monsters to some maps. I would say that Forlani’s 1560 world map does show a case of horror vacui; he didn’t seem content to leave blank space in the oceans, filling them with either ships or monsters or a compass rose. Those images are visually engaging, so it seems likely that they would make someone more interested in buying the map.
On what Forlani’s 1560 world map says about Canada
Canada really wasn’t well known. There are a couple of peaks and a few place names. Seeing the mountain ranges represented in Canada on the map, you’d tend to think that they were based on some actual information, but they’re not. If you look at other maps of Forlani’s published just a few years later, the configuration of the mountain chains in North America changes completely. For the most part, he was just placing them wherever his fancy struck him.
The 1560 map also shows some completely mythical islands between Canada and Europe, labelled “brasil” and “maida,” which are awfully close to actual Canadian islands. That’s an interesting sign of how unsettled geographical knowledge was at that time, and how difficult it was to distinguish between the recently discovered and the mythical. Today, when we can pull out a phone and see very good maps of anywhere on Earth we want, it’s difficult to imagine the guesswork, speculation and extrapolation that went into making a map like this.