This exquisitely engraved incunable map is one of the earliest printed maps to focus on what is now Poland, Ukraine and parts of Slovakia, Romania, Moldova and Russia. It depicts the Ancient Roman conception of the region as proscribed by Claudius Ptolemy (c. 150 AD), and while initially not all that familiar to the modern viewer, upon closer examination, the map takes one on a fascinating historical journey.
The map extends from what is now Poland down diagonally beyond the ‘Tanais Fluvius’ (Don River) to the edges of the Caucuses. The Baltic Sea, called here the ‘Oceanus Sarmaticus’, occupies the upper left, while the Black Sea, the ‘Pontus Euxinus’ and the outsized ‘Palus Meotis’ (Sea of Azov), occupies the lower right. The Carpathian Mountains and other ranges run across the map in virtuously engraved rills.
The location of Poland is can be discerned by the labelling of the ‘Vistula Fluvius’ (Vistula). ‘Sarmatia Europae’ and ‘Sarmatie Asiatice’ refer to the land of the Sarmatians. The Sarmatians were an Iranian people who occupied large parts of the Eurasian Steppe and parts of the Eastern Europe from the 5th Century BC to the 4th Century AD. They were very active during the time that Ptolemy conceived the antecedent of the present map. The Sarmatians lands were divided into two distinct groups, the European and Asian Sarmatians, as noted on the map.
In the lower left of the map runs the ‘Danubius Fluvius’ (Danube River), while
‘Dacie’ (modern Romania) and ‘Pannonie Inferioris Pars’ (a piece of Hungary) are labelled.
The depiction of Crimea, labelled as ‘Taurica Chersonesus’ (meaning Tauric Peninsula) is conspicuous for its relative accuracy and the level of detail with respect to the towns and depicted. Crimea was especially familiar to the Classical world, as since the 5th Century BC it hosted several Greek colonies. Much of the southern part of the peninsula remained immersed in Greco-Roman culture for centuries, as the area was under Roman rule (47 BC -330 AD), followed by Byzantine hegemony (330 - 1204) and, after that, control by the Empire of Trebizond (1204 - 1461). It was later conquered by the Ottomans, before the armies of Catherine the Great brought it under Russian rule in 1783.
The Story of the Creation of the ‘Rome Ptolemy’
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 copperplates 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), Shirley, Atlases, T.PTOL-2c. Cf. Shirley, The Mapping of the World, no. 4; Skelton, Claudius Ptolomaeus Cosmographia Rome 1478, p. XIII.