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A Venetian sailor of the fifteenth century, Bartolomeo Da Li Sonetti, composed an Isolario, that is, a Book of Islands, containing sonnets and charts of the Aegean Islands. Here we propose a discussion of it and of its historical context. Comparison between some maps of Isolario and Google Earth images is also given. Title: A Venetian Book of Islands: the Isolario of Bartolomeo Da Li Sonetti, Author: A.C. Sparavigna, DISAT, Politecnico di Torino, Italy; Keywords: History, Geography, Portolan Charts, Satellite Images, Google Earth.
The Books of Islands, the Isolarii, were produced from 15th to 17th century [1,2]. The first Book of Islands was authored by a Florentine ecclesiastic named Cristoforo Buondelmonti . The Isolarii contain maps of the Mediterranean islands usually displaying their coastlines, towns and mountain ranges and helping the sailors knowing where shallow waters and reefs might be found . In some cases, the maps are accompanied by geographical and historical information. In exceptional cases, the Isolarii have a poem-like structure, such as that dating from 1485, written by a Venetian, known as Bartolomeo Da Li Sonetti. He describes several Aegean islands, Crete, Cyprus and the Negroponte. Here we discuss shortly the historical context of the book, that is, the political and economic environment which produced it, and compare some of the charts we find in it to the satellite maps of Google Earth.
Isolarii and Maritime Republics
Isolarii were a typical invention of Italian Renaissance . These books, which were containing maps in some cases accompanied by geographical and historical information, gained a large popularity in Europe. The subject of them were the islands of Mediterranean Sea, in particular of Aegean Sea.
During that period, Mediterranean Sea was crucial for activities and market interests of European naval powers of the time . These powers were the maritime republics, city-states that flourished in Italy and in the Dalmatia region during the Middle Ages. The republics were independent, and most of them originated from territories once under the control of Byzantine Empire. During the time of their independence, these cities preferred a government in which the merchant class had considerable power. The best known of the maritime republics were Venice, Genoa, Ragusa, Pisa and Amalfi. They were in competition with each other and this competition was both commercial and military .
From 10th to 13th centuries, maritime republics built huge fleets of ships, for their own protection and to support an extensive trade networks across the sea. For this reason, the republics had a relevant role in Crusades, because they were able providing transport and support to these military expeditions, taking also advantage of political and trading opportunities. For instance, the Fourth Crusade, originally intended to "liberate" Jerusalem, favoured Venetian Republic in conquering Zara and Constantinople.
As a result of their strategies, each of the maritime republics had dominion over different overseas lands, including many Mediterranean islands, Sardinia and Corsica, lands on Adriatic Sea, islands of Aegean Sea, and the Crimea peninsula located on the northern coast of Black Sea. There were also commercial colonies in the Near East and North Africa. Among these states, the Republic of Venice was the only one that was able to maintain a large part of Greece, Cyprus, Istria and Dalmatia until the mid-17th century .
The Most Serene Republic of Venice, a state in the north-eastern Italy, was one of the maritime republics. It existed for over a millennium, from late 7th century until 1797. Venice has a modern reputation of economic and trading power; however it had also a long history of war and conquest.
Venice originated from the local lagoon communities, that linked themselves in mutual defence from invading peoples, as the power of the Western Roman Empire declined. It seems that during the first decades of 8th century, people of the Byzantine province of Venice elected their first leader Ursus. Constantinople confirmed him as “hypatus”, that is consul, and “dux” . He was the first historical Doge of Venice. By the Pax Nicephori (803), the two emperors, Charlemagne and Nikephoros I, recognised Venice as de-facto independent, however nominally subordinate to Byzantine Empire. During the reign of Participazio family, Venice grew into its modern form: Agnello, the first Participazio doge from 811 to 827, who was born in Eraclea, moved to Rialto and during his dogeship Venice began expanding towards the sea. Bridges, canals, fortifications and bulwarks, such as stone buildings, shipyards and docs were created. Agnello's son, Giustiniano, took the remains of Saint Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria to Venice, and made him Venice's patron saint .
In the High Middle Ages, Venice became very rich through the control of trade between Europe and the Levant, and it began its expansion into Adriatic Sea and beyond. As told in , during 12th century, the Venetians gained several trading privileges in the Byzantine Empire, and their ships often provided the Empire with a navy. However, in 1182, there was a riot in Constantinople that targeted Latin people and, particularly, the Venetians. Venetian property was seized, their owners imprisoned or banished. One year later, in 1183, the city of Zara successfully rebelled against the Venetian rule, putting itself under the protection of the Papacy and the king of Hungary. But, the Venetian fleet was crucial to the transportation of the Fourth Crusade; since crusaders were not able to pay for ships, Doge Enrico Dandolo offered transport to them if they had captured Zara. After the capture of Zara, the crusade was diverted to Constantinople, that was captured and sacked [6,7]. The plunder included the famous four bronze horses that were used to adorn St. Mark's basilica in Venice. Furthermore, as a result of the subsequent partition of Byzantine Empire, Venice gained a great deal of territory in Aegean Sea, amounting to three-eighths of the Byzantine Empire , including the island of Crete and Euboea (Negroponte). The city of Chania on Crete is largely of Venetian construction, built on the ruins of ancient Cydonia . Some of the Aegean islands formed the Venetian Duchy of the Archipelago. In February 1489, the island of Cyprus, previously a crusader state (Kingdom of Cyprus), was annexed to Venice.
Figure 1 - Venice and some places illustrated in the Isolario of Bartolomeo Da Li Sonetti.
Bartolomeo Da Li Sonetti
Bartolomeo, the author of the Isolario on Aegean Sea, was a Venetian sailor of the fifteenth century. We know of him just what he wrote about himself in the preface to his work . "Bon venitian", he was fifteen times captain on triremes, then ship-owner and sailed on behalf of some noble families of his city. He approached and visited several times the islands of Aegean Sea, and their perfect knowledge allowed him preparing a description in seventy sonnets, accompanied by forty-nine cartographic drawings. A few of the places illustrated by Bartolomeo are shown in the map in Figure 1.
Bartolomeo is declaring that, besides his direct experience of the islands, he is also reporting what ancient geographers, Pomponius Mela and Strabo, wrote on them. His descriptions aim clarifying the geographical, physical, human, social, economical and historical situation of Cyclades and Sporades. The sonnets, having in fact a little poetic value, are sometimes containing unique annotations .
The cartographic drawings of the islands adhere to the usual model of contemporary charts, originally without names. But, in some copies of Isolario, names were added by hand, often with variations to the descriptive text, or without connection to it. The representation of the island is always bounded by a circle, with a rose of eight winds; Candia is an exception, because it is not wholly contained by the circumference. The succession of the islands is approximately described as follows: first the islands which are the southern edge of Aegean Sea, that is, Cythera (Cerigo), Crete, Karpathos and Rhodes, and then, the Cyclades, and the Southern Sporades, those whose arc runs from east to west, such as Simi, Tilos, Nisari, Astypalaia, and so on, then a new arc, from west to east, with Sifnos, Mikonos and others. Then we have the Northern Sporades, with an eastern group, which includes among other Mytilini and Tenedos and a western group with Skyros, the Negroponte and others. The Isolario ends with the description of Cyprus .
The printed charts of the Isolario were engraved in wood: the book is available at Ref.10. It is believed that the volume was published in Venice, around 1485. The work is rare, even exceptionally rare, in Italy there are fifteen copies, others are located in Austria, Germany, France, United Kingdom, America and in the Vatican Library.
The Isolario is a work which is between a nautical chart and a portolan chart, that is, a chart related to ports or harbours. Portolan chats flourished in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Probably, the Liber Insularum Archipelagi of Cristoforo Buondelmonti, composed between 1420 and 1422, served as a model to the book created by Bartolomeo [9,11]. Of the end of the same century, we have the Insularium Illustratum by Henry Hammer, that is Henricus Martellus, of German descent, active as a cartographer between about 1480 and 1496 in Florence . Then we can remember the Isolario by Benedetto Bordone, printed in Venice in 1528 , and that by Tommaso Porcacchi, printed in Venice in 1590 . The Isolario of Bartolomeo Da Li Sonetti had a second edition in 1532, enriched by a globe of F. Roselli .
Let us see in the following discussion some of the charts in Isolario, accompanied by a related historical framework. The charts are compared to Google Earth images; this program allows orienting the image as that we can see in the Isolario and then it is quite useful to understand how Bartolomeo was able to render the islands.
Figure 2 shows Crete as depicted in the Isolario. In Figure 3 we can see the corresponding Google Earth image, rotated to have the same orientation of that in the previous figure.
Crete was conquered for Rome in 69 BC, becoming, after the division, part of Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. It lived quietly until it fell into the hands of Iberian Muslims under Abu Hafs in the 820s, who established an emirate on the island (Emirate of Crete). Candia, the modern Heraklion, a city built by Iberian Muslims, was made capital. In 961, Nikephoros Phokas reconquered Crete for the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines held the island until the Fourth Crusade (1204): after disputing the possession with the Republic of Genoa, the Venetians eventually consolidating their control after a few years .
Figure 2 – Crete in the Isolario by Bartolomeo Da Li Sonetti.
Figure 3- Crete in the Google Earth image, oriented as in the Figure 2 showing the chart of the Isolario.
Despite frequent revolts by the native population, the Venetians retained the island until 1669, when the Ottoman Turks took possession of it, after the Cretan War (1645–1669). Then Venice held Crete, as the Kingdom of Candia, for more than four centuries. The most important of the many rebellions that broke out during that period was the one known as the revolt of St. Titus. It occurred in 1363, because Cretans and Venetian settlers were exasperated by the hard tax policy of Venice. People overthrew official Venetian authorities and declared an independent Cretan Republic. After five years, Venice was able to restore its control on the island. In any case, during Venetian rule, the population of Crete was exposed to Renaissance culture, producing the development of a literature in the Cretan dialect .
Cerigo and Cecerigo
Cythera, or Kythera, and the nearby island of Antikythera are, from 2011, a municipal unit. Antikythera literally means "opposite Kythera" or “next to Kythera”. In antiquity, the island of Antikythera was known as Aigila or Ogylos . These islands had the Venetian names of Cerigo and Cecerigo, or Cerigotto. Cecerigo is diminutive version of the larger island Cerigo (Kythera) . Antikythera is most famous for being the location of the 1900 discovery of the Antikythera wreck, from which the Antikythera Ephebe and Antikythera Mechanism were recovered. The Antikythera mechanism is an ancient mechanical instrument to have astronomical positions .
Figure 4 – Cerigo and Cecerigo in Isolario and in Google Earth.
The Kingdom of Negroponte
Another chart in the Isolario is showing Euboea, in Italian Negroponte, here reproduced in Figure 5. We can compare it with a Google Earth image again (see Figure 6). The name “Negroponte” comes from Euripus, the name of the strait that separates Euboea from the mainland; this name during the Middle Ages was corrupt in Evripo, Egripo, Egribos and was extended to the whole island. The Venetians called it Egriponte and finally Negroponte. Another etymological interpretation could be as follows: from the Latin “niger”, black, and “pontus”, sea, referring to the deep, dark sea that surrounds the island of Euboea .
During the Middle Ages, island of Euboea hosted the Triarchy of Negroponte, a crusader state established on the partition of Byzantine Empire after the Fourth Crusade. Partitioned into three baronies (terzieri) run by a few Lombard families, the island soon fell under the influence of Venice. From ca. 1390, the island became a regular Venetian colony as the Kingdom of Negroponte .
According to the division of Byzantine territory, Euboea was awarded to Boniface of Montferrat, King of Thessalonica, leader of the Fourth Crusade. Boniface in turn assigned the island as a fief to Jacques d'Avesnes, who fortified Chalkis, the main town of the island. After his death, the island was ruled by three Lombard barons who divided the island into three triarchies (terzieri). The city of Chalkis or Negroponte served as overall capital of the island. By 1209 however, one of the barons (Ravano dalle Carceri) established himself as sole master of Euboea. This baron, in March 1209, signed an alliance with Venice, giving the Venetians significant commercial privileges. However, in the May of the same year, acting for political balancing, Ravano also acknowledged his vassalage to the Latin Empire, the feudal Crusader state founded by the leaders of the Fourth Crusade on lands captured from Byzantine Empire .
After the death of Ravano in 1216, his heirs disagreed over the succession, allowing the Venetian administrative representative acting as a mediator. He partitioned each barony in two parts, creating thus six hexarchies (sestieri). According to the established rules, most sestieri were succeeded by their brothers, sons or nephews, keeping the baronies within the original Lombard families . In 1255 however, the death of one of hexarchs, Carintana dalle Carceri, led to the so-called "War of the Euboeote Succession", which involved Achaea and Venice. Finally, in August 1259, Doge Reniero Zeno negotiated a peace, followed by a treaty in 1262 .
By that time, however, the Empire of Nicaea had established itself as the foremost power in the area of the former Byzantine Empire, retrieving several territories. The Empire of Nicaea was the largest of the three Byzantine Greek successor states founded by the aristocracy of the Byzantine Empire that fled after Constantinople was sacked during the Fourth Crusade. The other successor states were the Despotate of Epirus and the Empire of Trebizond. The Nicaean Empire lasted from 1204 to 1261, when the Nicaean recovery of Constantinople re-established the Byzantine Empire, under the control of a strong ruler, Michael VIII Palaeologus.
Figure 5 – Negroponte in the Isolario by Bartolomeo Da Li Sonetti.
Figure 6- Euboea in the Google Earth image, oriented as in the Figure 5.
The Palaeologus sought to control again the remaining Latin territories in southern Greece. To this end, he accepted the services of Licario, a knight of Negroponte. Under Licario's command, the Byzantine troops soon conquered most of Euboea, except Chalkis. But, after the departure of Licario, sometime after 1280, with Venetian aid, the island gradually returned to Latin control. In 1296, Bonifazio da Verona, a triarch, had completely expelled the Byzantines from Euboea .
In 1317, a city of Euboea, Karystos, fell under the control of Catalan Don Alfonso Fadrique, vicar-general of the duchy of Athens. In 1319, a peace treaty was signed between Venice and Don Alfonso, whereby he retained Karystos, which the Venetians acquired in 1365. When the last triarchs, Niccolo III dalle Carceri and Giorgio III Ghisi, died in 1383 and 1390 respectively, they left their territories to Venice, which thus established complete predominance over the island. The triarchic system was maintained, with Venetian families appointed to the positions of terzieri, with the Venetian podestà resided at Chalkis. Venice's rule lasted until 1470, when, during the Ottoman–Venetian War of 1463–1479, Sultan Mehmed II campaigned against Chalkis. With the fall of the city on 12 July, the whole island came under Ottoman control .
One of the islands that we find in the Isolario is Rhodes (Figure 7). Rhodes was an island of Byzantine Empire; after 600 AD, the influence of this island in maritime issues is evidenced by the collection of maritime laws, known as "Rhodian Sea Law”, that were accepted throughout Mediterranean Sea and used during Byzantine times . Rhodes was occupied by Islamic Umayyad forces of Muawiyah I in 654, who removed the remains of the Colossus of Rhodes. When their fleet was destroyed by storms and Greek fire, the island was evacuated. From early 8th to 12th century, Rhodes belonged to the Cibyrrhaeot Theme, an administrative division of Byzantine Empire. It became a centre for shipbuilding and commerce. About 1090, Rhodes was occupied by Muslim forces again and, after, it was recaptured by Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, during the First Crusade .
As Byzantine central power weakened under the Angeloi emperors, in the first half of 13th century, Rhodes became the centre of an independent domain under Leo Gabalas and his brother John, until it was occupied by the Republic of Genoa in 1248–1250. Then, the island became a province of the Nicaean state, and later of the restored Byzantine Empire. In 1305, the island was given as a fief to Andrea Morisco, a Genoese adventurer who had entered Byzantine service .
In 1309, Rhodes was occupied by the forces of Knights Hospitaller. The Hospitallers, as reported in , probably arose as a group of individuals associated with an Amalfitan hospital in a district of Jerusalem, which was dedicated to St John the Baptist and founded around 1023 to take care for poor, sick or injured pilgrims to the Holy Land. After the Western Christian conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 during the First Crusade, the organisation became a religious and military order, charged with the care and defence of the Holy Land. After the Islamic rule was established again on the Holy Land, the Order started operating from Rhodes, and later from Malta .
Under the rule of Knights Hospitaller, newly named "Knights of Rhodes", the city was rebuilt as an European medieval city. Many of its famous monuments, including the Palace of the Grand Master, were built during this period. The strong walls created by the knights were able to withstand the attacks of the Sultan of Egypt in 1444, and of Ottomans under Mehmed II in 1480. Eventually, however, Rhodes fell to the large army of Suleiman the Magnificent in December 1522. The few surviving knights retired to the Kingdom of Sicily, from where they moved to Malta. Rhodes was thereafter a possession of Ottoman Empire for nearly four centuries .
The Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes in the city of Rhodes, and its walls are depicted in the chart reproduced in the Figure 7.
Figure 7 – Rhodes in the Isolario. On the right, the island in a Google Earth image, oriented as in the chart.
Another island that was controlled by the Republic of Genoa for a long period was Chios . Known in Antiquity as "Ophioussa", "snake island", and "Pityoussa", "pine-tree island", during the Middle Ages the island was ruled by a number of non-Greek powers and was known as Scio (Genoese), Chio (Italian) and Sak?z (Ottoman Turkish) .
Figure 8 – Chios in the Isolario. On the right, the island in a Google Earth image.
Milos or Melos is a volcanic island, the south-western most island in the Cyclades group. The island is famous for the statue of Aphrodite, today at Louvres. The Municipality of Milos also includes the uninhabited offshore islands of Antimilos and Akradies. The position of Milos, between mainland Greece and Crete, and its possession of obsidian, made it an important centre of early Aegean civilization. Milos lost its arms-making importance when bronze became the preferred material for the manufacture of weapons . During the period of the Latin Empire of Constantinople, the island formed part of the Duchy of the Archipelago, except for the few years (1341–1383) when it was a separate lordship under Marco Sanudo and his daughter. The Duchy of the Archipelago was the maritime state created by Venetians in the Cyclades archipelago, centered on the islands of Naxos and Paros. It included all the Cyclades (except Mykonos and Tinos). In 1566, the Venetians handed over the island to Ottoman Empire, who ruled it until 1830 .
Figure 9 – Milos, and on the right, the island in a Google Earth image.
In the Isolario, the last chart is devoted to Cyprus (see Figures 10 and 11). When the Roman Empire was divided into Eastern and Western parts in 395, Cyprus became part of Byzantine Empire, and remained part of it until the Crusades. Under the Byzantine rule, it developed strong Hellenistic-Christian features that continue to be a hallmark of the Greek Cypriot community . From 649, Cyprus suffered because of the devastating attacks of armies from the Levant, which continued for the next 300 years . And in fact, there are no Byzantine churches which survive from this period; many cities, such as Salamis, were destroyed and never rebuilt. Byzantine rule was restored in 965 by Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas.
Figure 10 – Cyprus in the Isolario by Bartolomeo Da Li Sonetti.
In 1191, during the Third Crusade, Richard I of England captured the island from Isaac Komnenos of Cyprus, and used it as a major supply base, relatively safe from Saracens. A year later, Richard sold the island to Knights Templar, who in turn sold it to Guy of Lusignan. His brother and successor Amalric was recognized as King of Cyprus by Henry VI, of the Holy Roman Emperor. After the death in 1473 of James II of Lusignan, the Republic of Venice assumed the control of this island, while the late king's Venetian widow, Queen Catherine Cornaro, was reigning. Venice formally annexed Cyprus in 1489, after Catherine abdicated .
The Venetians fortified Nicosia by building the Venetian Walls, and used it as an important commercial hub. Throughout Venetian rule, the Ottoman Empire frequently raided Cyprus. In 1539, Ottomans destroyed Limassol, and then the Venetians also fortified Famagusta and Kyrenia. In 1570, a strong Ottoman assault brought the island under Ottoman control, despite the resistance of Nicosia and Famagusta .
Figure 11 - Cyprus in the Google Earth image, oriented as in the Figure 10 that is showing the chart of the Isolario.
Compass and rose of winds
In Reference 26, it is told that Bartolomeo Da Li Sonetti had drawn the charts from his personal observation with the aid of a compass: “Et ho più volte ogninsula chalcatta / e porti e vale e scogli i sporchi e i netti / col bosolo per venti ho i capi retti / col stilo in charte ciaschuna segnatta”. The “bosolo per venti” is the compass with the directions of winds, as we can see in the following Figure 12 [27-29]. In Italian, “bosolo”, “bossolo”, “bussolo della calamita” or “bussola” is the magnetic compass .
Figure 12 - A “bossolo per venti” from Ref.28.
In 1269, Europe knew the magnetic compass for sure, as shown by the “Epistola de magnete”, of Petrus Peregrinus of Maricourt. This letter describes a floating compass for astronomical purposes as well as a dry compass for seafaring . In the Mediterranean area, the introduction of compass, the improvements in dead reckoning methods and the development of charts, leaded to an increase of navigation during winter months in the second half of 13th century . In ancient times, there were no voyages between October and April, because clear skies are rare during the winter. The use of magnetic compass prolonged the sailing season, and therefore increased the shipping movement so that, at the end of thirteenth century, the sailing season could start in late January or February, and end in December. As remarked in Ref.30, the additional months for sailing, gained by means of improved instruments for navigation, were of considerable economic importance, enabling for instance, the Venetian convoys to make two round trips a year to the Levant, instead of one.
After this discussion, it is clear the use of a rose of winds in the charts of Bartolomeo’s Isolario. Let us note that in the maps of sixteenth century, where initials for the winds are used, they are invariably those of the Italian names of the winds. However, Tramontana is sometimes marked with a star or a dart, or later with a fleur-de-lis, and Levante almost invariably with a cross. In the Isolario, the eight initials, or symbols, were placed around a circle having its centre coincident with the centre of the loxodromic system of lines. After, the rose of wind evolved creating a set of eight, sixteen, or thirty-two points, drawn as a star with eight rhomboidal rays for the eight principal winds, and with smaller rhombuses or triangles between them for half-winds and quarter-winds .
In this paper we have discussed a Venetian book of islands, from 1485, created by Bartolomeo Da Li Sonetti, in the framework of a historical context. We have also linked it to the new instruments and methods for seafaring. Let us conclude mentioning some remarks that we can find in Ref.3. There, it is told that, according to Tony Campbell , the map dealer of British Library Map Library, the Isolario is an extraordinary item because it was the first printed book of islands and one of the earliest printed collection of charts. But, Campbell is stressing another important feature of this book: it contains the first printed maps supposedly based on actual observation, and “it is the first printed collection of maps to owe no debt to Ptolemy”.
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Sparavigna, A. (2015). A Venetian Book of Islands: the Isolario of Bartolomeo Da Li Sonetti. PHILICA.COM Article number 459.