The Earliest Acquirable, Printed Map of Arabia
Arabian Peninsula. PTOLEMY, C./ SWEYNHEYM, C./ BUCKINCK, A. [Rome, 1478 ]
Sexta Asiae Tabula. 10 ¾ x 20 ½ inches.
Printed from two plates and joined at centerfold as usual
Rare. First edition of the first, acquirable, printed map of Arabia. The map first appeared in the 1477 Bologna edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia, which is all but unacquirable. However, it is believed that work on the Rome Ptolemy began in 1474 or earlier, so that the plates were probably prepared prior to those of the 1577 Bologna edition.
Tibbetts suggests that Claudius Ptolemy gathered information concerning Arabia from Greek traders who came in contact with Arab tribesmen. “Their journeys from place to place, measured by camel marches, must have been the basis for his calculations of the positions of inland towns… The errors of such a method are very great, [as can be seen in the map] for a town is placed at an uncertain distance and in a vague direction.” (Tibbetts) The distortion that these methods resulted in is evident on the map. Nevertheless, the map would remain influential, as European geographers would not have the means to correct it until the beginning of the 18th century. Similarly, Ptolemy’s division of Arabia into Petraea, Deserta and Felix would persist well into the 18th century.
The Rome edition of Ptolemy was also an important landmark in the history of printing. One of its printer/publishers, Conrad Sweynheym, set up the first press in Italy in 1464. Moreover, the Rome edition is considered vastly superior to the Bologna edition. Skelton argues that the superiority of the Rome edition was in all respects: fidelity to Ptolemy’s text and quality of both engraving and printing. “The cleanness and precision with which geographical details are drawn; the skill with which the elements of the maps are arranged according to their significance, the sensitive use of the burin in working the plates—these qualities, in strong contrast to the careless design and crude cutting of the Bologna maps, seem to point to the hand of an experienced master,…”—Skelton. Most scholars feel that in terms of both geographic sophistication and quality of design and printing, the Rome edition was not exceeded until Mercator’s definitive edition, published a full century later in 1578.