This exquisitely engraved incunable map is one of the earliest printed maps to focus on what is now Slovenia, Austria, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and much of Southern Germany. It depicts the Ancient Roman conception of the region as proscribed by Claudius Ptolemy (c. 150 AD), and while at first not entirely familiar to the modern viewer, upon closer examination, the map takes one on a fascinating historical journey.
The map embraces the entire upper Danube Basin, from the river’s source in the Black Forest down to a point beyond Belgrade, and gives a detailed rendering of the territory between the Danube and the Alps (in the west) and the river and the Adriatic Sea (in the east). Names of the various Roman provinces are labelled, as are the locations of numerous settlements, some of which occupy the sites of modern cities. Some notable locations include: ‘Augusta’ (Augsburg), ‘Emona’ (Ljubljana), ‘Tergestum’ (Trieste), ‘Julio Bona’ (Vindobona, modern Vienna), ‘Taururum’ (modern Belgrade) and ‘Salona Colonia’ (near modern Split). The Alps, which merge into the Balkans’ Dinaric Alps, move across the map in a brilliantly engraved chain. Much of Italy is shown in silhouette, labelling both Ancient Roman cities, such as ‘Roma’ (Rome) and ‘Mediolanum (Milan) and modern cities that were prominent during the time in which present map was published, including ‘Venetia’ (Venice) and ‘Pisa’ (Pisa).
The story of the creation of the ‘Rome Ptolemy’ maps is one of the most fascinating and consequential in the history of incunabula. It begins with Konrad Sweynheim, who is widely thought to have been present at the birth of printing while an apprentice to Johann Guttenberg. After Mainz was sacked in 1462, Sweynheim fled to Italy and arrived at the Benedictine monastery of Subiaco, likely at the suggestion of the great humanist and cartographer Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, and with the active support of Cardinal Giovanni of Turrecremata, the Abbot of Subiaco. In 1464-5, Sweynheim, in partnership with another German émigré, Arnold Pannartz, introduced the first printing press to Italy.
Over the next few years, Pope Paul II was to become so enthusiastic about the new medium of printing that he liquidated scriptoria and commissioned several newly established printers to publish religious and humanist texts. In 1467, Sweynheim and Pannartz moved to Rome under the Pope’s patronage where they issued over fifty books from their press at the Massimi Palace. They are credited for inventing Roman typeface during this period.
By 1472, while Sweynheim and Pannartz’s accomplishments were impressive, they were not able to sell enough books to sustain their enterprise. Fortunately, the new pope, Sixtus IV stepped in and gave both men ecclesiastical sinecures, which paid the bills.
Sweynheim and Pannartz decided to move away from mass printing and to rededicate their efforts to creating the first printed illustrated edition of Claudius Ptolemy’s “Geography”. Claudius Ptolemy (c. 90 – c. 168 AD) was a Greco-Egyptian scholar who wrote the “Geography” (circa 150 AD), a work that is regarded as the apogee of Greco-Roman geographical knowledge and cartography. The work featured a gazetteer with around 8,000 place names and their corresponding coordinates of latitude and longitude, as well as 27 maps of the known world, including Europe, North Africa and Asia. The present map is the “Quinta Tabula” or ‘Fifth Map’ of Ptolemy’s ten regional maps of Europe.
By 1474, the project was well under way, as Sweynheim is recorded as having trained “mathematicians” to engrave maps on copper. However, the Germans encountered competition from Taddeo Crivelli of Bologna, who was determined to be the first to the goal. Crivelli even allegedly poached one of Sweynheim’s employees who possessed sensitive information on the progress of the work going on in Rome. Crivelli raced to complete his project, while Sweynheim painstakingly guided the quality of his work, an endeavour slowed by the death of Pannartz in the plague of 1476. Crivelli’s work was finally published on June 29, 1477, making it the first printed edition of the Geography to feature maps. Sweynheim died in 1477, and the work was taken up by Arnold Buckinck, originally from Cologne, who saw the endeavour to its completion on October 10, 1478.
While the ‘Rome Ptolemy’ may not have contained the first printed Ptolemaic maps, the quality of its engraving was absolutely magnificent and dramatically superior to that of the Bologna edition. As Rodney Shirley notes:
“The copper plates engraved at Rome … [were] much superior in clarity and craftsmanship to those of the 1477 Bologna edition … Many consider the Rome plates to be the finest Ptolemaic plates produced until Gerard Mercator engraved his classical world atlas in 1578.” (Shirley, p. 3).
According to Skelton, Sweynheim’s close supervision of his engravers saw that:
“The superior craftsmanship of the engraved maps in the Rome edition, by comparison with those of the  Bologna edition, is conspicuous and arresting. The cleanliness and precision with which the geographical details are drawn; the skill with which the elements of the map are arranged according to their significance, and the sensitive use of the burin in working the plates – these qualities … seem to point to the hand of an experienced master, perhaps from North Italy.” (Skelton, p. VIII).
A number of authorities have suggested that the principal engraver of the Rome Ptolemy’s maps came from either Venice or Ferrara. Another aspect of these maps that stands out are the fine Roman letters used for the place names on the plates. In an apparently unique experiment, these letters were not engraved with a burin but punched into the printing plate using metal stamps or dies. The maps represent a milestone in the medium, being some of the earliest successful intaglio engravings, quite apart from their undeniable cartographic importance. While the artists who carried out Sweynheim’s vision will likely never be known, they produced the most artistically virtuous printed maps of the 15th Century.
The present example of the map of the Balkans, Austria and Southern Germany is from the second edition of the ‘Rome Ptolemy’, issued in 1490. Interest in global geography spiked following Bartolomeu Dias’ rounding of the Cape of Good Hope in 1488. The original copper-plates of the 1578 edition were acquired by the Rome printer Pietro della Torre, who reissued the work in its entirety on November 4, 1490. Fortunately, the plates remained in excellent condition, and the 1478 and 1490 editions are indistinguishable, save for the book’s colophon. Curiously, Christopher Columbus, who first sailed for America in 1492, possessed a heavily annotated copy of the ‘Rome Ptolemy’.
References: Campbell, The Earliest Printed Maps 1472-1500, pp. 131-3; Destombes, Catalogue des Cartes gravées au XVe siècle, 41(1); Markovic, Descriptio Croatiae, p. 3. Cf. Dörflinger, Descriptio Austriae, p. 48; Shirley, The Mapping of the World, no. 4; Skelton, Claudius Ptolomaeus Cosmographia Rome 1478, p. XIII.