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The Martellus map as it appears through multispectral imaging.

Getting to Know the Martellus Map that Guided Columbus’ Voyage

It is highly likely that Christopher Columbus used what is known as the “Martellus Map” as he planned his first voyage across the Atlantic in 1492. The map represents much of what Europeans knew about geography on the verge of Columbus’ monumental discovery of the New World. It contained text that historians for decades were anxious to read; however, the faded colors and five centuries of wear and tear have rendered most of the writing illegible.

Now researchers have managed to pry out the secrets from the ancient map with a technique called multispectral imaging. The map was scanned at Yale University and through the analysis, it showed that a greater extent of Africa was mapped near the end of the 15th century than was previously expected. It also revealed details of Japan that suggest that Columbus likely consulted this map, or one like it, while preparing for his famous transatlantic voyage. About 80 percent of the text obscured by fading has been recovered.

The map was made in 1491 by Henricus Martellus, a cartographer working in Florence. It is not known how many copies were produced. Yale University owns the only surviving copy. It is an exceptionally large map, especially for its time, measuring about 4 feet high and 6 ½ feet across.

The Martellus Map is interesting for several historic reasons, the main one being its relevance to Columbus. There are several pieces of evidence that point to Columbus’ use of the map. Columbus sailed west from the Canary Islands hoping to find a new trade route to Asia. Writings by Columbus and his son suggest that he began searching for Japan in the region where it appears on the Martellus Map and that he expected to find the island running north to south, as it does on the map, but not on any other surviving map made before his voyage. Of course, what Columbus found instead was something Martellus hadn’t known about, the New World.

Martellus’s map also had a significant influence on Martin Waldseemüller, a cartographer whose 1507 map is the first to apply the name “America” to the New World. There are many places where the same information was in the same place on the two maps. What was not known, because of the condition of the Martellus Map, was how similar the text on the two maps are. Now the breakthrough using multispectral imaging proves that Columbus had highly compelling reasons to believe that he had in fact found a new trade route to the East; a contention he maintained throughout the rest of his life.