Although traces of the first documents to be collected can only be found in archival registers, the Estense map collection must have been established at the court of Ferrara from the time of Marquis Niccolò III. 

Although traces of the first documents to be collected can only be found in archival registers, the Estense map collection must have been established at the court of Ferrara from the time of Marquis Niccolò III. However, it is from the signorie of his sons Borso and, above all, Ercole I that ample evidence of the Estense court’s deep interest in the study of geography is available.Indeed, in 1466 the famous cartographer Nicolò Germano dedicated his Codex of Ptolemy’s Cosmography to Borso, maintaining that the Duke was one of the worthiest noblemen to receive and appreciate his newly-drawn maps. This interest in geography and cartography intensified during the years that followed when Ercole I became Duke of Ferrara. It was under his rule that the House of Este acquired its two most prised world maps that still belong to the Estense collection to this day. The first was the Catalan World Map, currently ascribed by scholars to the years 1450-60. The map, 113cm in diameter, has a fascinating, rich and colourful decoration, compelling above all for the variety of sources and cultural references that it uses. The Catalan World Map is constructed on a structure of compass lines in the style of nautical charts, however it is clearly not a map intended for daily use. Unlike nautical charts, created to assist mariners at sea and traditionally only showing known coastlines as well as those elements of the geography that were presumably important for skippers, the Estense world map was (like most Catalan maps) a luxury edition destined for a princely library that combines aspects of nautical charts with medieval wold maps, along with their captions and illustrations.

The second world map belonging to the Estense collection—the so-called Cantino Planisphere—is even more famous than the Catalan World Map as it is the first Portuguese map to show the coasts of America. It was drawn on 6 pieces of parchment that were joined together to form a long panel of 220 x 105cm.Its great political significance is underlined by the emphasis given to the raya (a line demarcating the respective spheres of Spanish and Portuguese influence agreed upon in the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas) drawn in brilliant blue ink with the caption: “Este he o marco dantre castella e portuguall”.To the left of the raya are the “Antilhas del Rey de Castella” that appear here for the first time by this name along with the assertion that they were “descobertas por colonbo almjrante”.As for the other parts of the map, although America is the area that attracts the most attention, Africa is without a doubt the most complete and richly detailed continent, shown here for the first time in a way that faithfully reflects its true shape. The padròes and Portuguese flags along the coast of Africa mark the places where Vasco da Gama, Cabral and other explorers set foot. Madagascar is also shown for the first time, found by Europeans in 1500. 

 Unlike the preceding examples, the third and last large world map held at the Biblioteca Estense wasn’t part of the original Estense collections. According to tradition, it was gifted to Baldassarre Castiglioni by Charles V when Castiglioni was at the Spanish court as papal legate. It then remained family property until the year 2000 when it was purchased by the Ministry of Heritage, Cultural Activity and Tourism for the Biblioteca in Modena. Left unfinished for unknown reasons, the Castiglioni Planisphere totally lacks decoration (save the drawings of technical instruments typical of Diego Ribero’s work) therefore differing from other maps produced by the cartographer. Proof that a more elaborate decoration was in store for the map lies in the fact that space for the usual coat of arms was left blank. The Castiglioni Planisphere is one of the oldest copies of the Padrón Real—the official map kept at the Casa de Contratacion that was updated with new information brought home by returning pilots—and, most importantly, it is dated. Indeed, the date 1525 appears in two separate places: on the nautical astrolabe (the first representation of this object) and more clearly in the caption found off the southern coast of Newfoundland: “Tierra que descubrio esteuam Gomez este ano de 1525 por mandado de su magestad”. An interesting characteristic that reveals the newfound geographical understanding reached in the wake of Magellan’s circumnavigation is the representation of the coast of China and the Maluku Islands at both edges of the world map.They are depicted in a very similar fashion and are marked with flags of the Spanish world.  

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