Europe’s Place in the World: Geographical Speculation in the Renaissance Era

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Europes Place in the World: Geographical Speculation in the Renaissance Era


Florence. To Europeans who dreamed of finding a sea route to Asian markets, questions regarding what lay beyond the familiar waters of the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts of Europe were matters of utmost importance. The size and relative positions of the earths major landmasses and bodies of water became issues of particularly vigorous discussion and debate among the Renaissance scholars of early-fifteenth-century Italy. In the absence of reliable maps and concrete data, however, such debates drew almost entirely from hearsay, speculation, and the supposedly well-informed writings of ancient Roman geographers. As in many fields of Renaissance cultural achievement, the city of Florence functioned as the center of the fifteenth centurys revolution in geographical thought. Interest in such issues among Florentine scholars derived in part from commercial interests and in part from the recovery of two critical geographical texts from Roman antiquity. First, in 1400 an Italian scholar brought to Florence from Constantinople a Greek manuscript summarizing Roman geographical knowledge written in the second century a.d. by the renowned geographer and astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus, better known as Ptolemy. A Latin translation of Ptolemys Geographiawzs completed in 1410, and copies soon circulated throughout Italy and the rest of western and central Europe. Second, in 1439 the Byzantine scholar Gemistus Plethon arrived in Florence, bringing with him a Greek copy of another key ancient geographical text previously unknown among the Italians: the Geography of Strabo, written about the time of Christ. The geographical knowledge contained in Strabos and Ptolemys books inspired a generation of Florentine thinkers, including scholars such as Poggio Bracciolini and the future pope Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, to reconsider long-held notions concerning Europes place in the world.

The Question of Africa. Strabos and Ptolemys ideas added fresh considerations and often contradictory perspectives to a variety of long-standing debates concerning the possibility of using the ocean as a transcontinental waterway to the Far East. For example, Europeans in the early fifteenth century were completely unaware of the southern extent of the African continent. Was it possible to sail from Europe around the southern tip of Africa in order to reach the ports of India, China, and the Spice Islands? Ptolemys book, in fact, suggested that such a voyage was impossible.

Africa and Asia were, according to Ptolemy, joined at their southern tips, leaving the Indian Ocean completely landlocked and inaccessible to European ships. Strabos picture of the world, however, rejected this idea, correctly claiming that there was no southern point of connection between Asia and Africa. Piccolomini and other Renaissance scholars adopted Strabos perspective on this issue, and many Europeans gradually came to believe in the possibility of sailing to Asia by rounding the southern tip of Africa.

The Torrid Zone. In a second principal area of debate, however, Strabos ideas were ultimately rejected by the sailors and scholars of the Renaissance. Many Europeans had believed for centuries that the regions around and south of the equator constituted what they called a sweltering Torrid Zone, a region too hot for human habitation and a zone in which men and ships might even begin to melt from the intense heat. Strabos book provided support for this idea. Ptolemys description of the world, however, suggested to Renaissance scholars that the equatorial zone and southern hemisphere were in fact inhabited and that it was thus possible for Europeans to sail through or even settle in these regions. In short the ideas of Florentine geographers in the Renaissance era (although based upon little more than speculation) played an important role in overcoming a variety of long-standing myths that stood in the way of transoceanic voyages. Moreover, from this tradition of Florentine geographical thought came one scholar, Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, whose ideas would exert direct and profound influence on the thought and plans of Christopher Columbus.


Christopher Columbus had several motivations for pursuing his enterprise of the Indies. To him it was not simply a matter of proving a point for purposes of scholarly debate. Obviously the commercial advantage and personal riches to be found by pioneering a short westerly route to the wealthy Asian markets were important considerations. In addition Columbus always concerned himself greatly with matters of personal glory and fame, the individual acclaim that would befall him as the discoverer of this new route to Asia. Finally, and most important, Columbuss writings reveal that he had an extremely powerful religious notion of the personal role that God had chosen him to play in what he believed was the rapidly approaching end of the world. Pierre dAillys 1410 Imago Mundi (Image of the World) had argued, based upon astrological evidence, that the coming century would see the arrival on earth of the anti-Christ followed by the Christian recon-quest of the Holy Land from Muslim control and the coming of Gods eternal kingdom. The extremely pious and somewhat mystical Columbus strongly believed in dAillys apocalyptic vision and furthermore believed that God had personally entrusted him with a critical role in initiating this process. Columbus believed that his voyage to Asia would be the first step toward a Christian conquest of the Holy Land from the east and the beginning of a process by which Gods word would be brought to the unenlightened people of southern and eastern Asia in preparation for Christs return.

Source: Pauline Moffit Watts, Prophecy and Discovery: On the Spiritual Origins of Christopher Columbuss Enterprise of the Indies American Historical Review, 90 (1985): 73102.


Thomas Goldstein, Geography in Renaissance Florence, in The European Opportunity, edited by Felipe Fernández Armesto (Brookfield, Vt.: Variorum, 1995), pp. 122.

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Europe’s Place in the World: Geographical Speculation in the Renaissance Era

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