Martin Behaim

views updated May 11 2018

Martin Behaim

Martin Behaim (1459?-1507) fashioned a globe depicting the known world in 1492. In the twenty-first century the restored globe remained on display at Nuremberg, and is the oldest surviving relic of its kind on earth.

Martin Behaim distinguished himself as a skilled mathematician and astronomer during the late fifteenth century. In 1490 he accepted a commission to manufacture a terrestrial globe for his hometown of Nuremberg, Germany. The globe, which survived into the twenty-first century, is believed to be the oldest such artifact of its kind. Prior to constructing the globe, Behaim spent time in Flanders and Portugal. In Portugal he was favored among the mathematicians of King John II's court. Behaim then spent two years as a cosmographer on a sailing expedition along the West African coast, before settling briefly in the Azores where he founded a Flemish colony.

A Well-Traveled Merchant

Martin Behaim was born in Nuremberg, Germany, sometime around 1459. In his youth, it is believed that he studied mathematics with the noted German astronomer and mathematician, Johann Mueller, commonly known as Regiomontanus. Behaim, the son of a wealthy merchant, then traveled through much of Western Europe as a merchant's apprentice in the textile business and became a merchant by trade. He traveled to Antwerp and elsewhere as a student and was an apprentice weaver in Flanders in 1477. During the course of his travels he arrived in Lisbon, Portugal some time in the early 1480s, where he quickly found favor at the court of King John II. Also in Lisbon, Behaim made the acquaintance of the explorer Christopher Columbus. According to John Noble Wilford in The Mapmakers, Behaim might have exaggerated or completely concocted many of the tales about him that were handed down, including his claim of tutelage under Regiomontanus. According to Wilford, evidence suggests that Behaim might have devised these and other misrepresentations about his background in an attempt to impress the king of Portugal. Regardless, Behaim displayed an extensive knowledge of mathematics and an intimate familiarity with Regiomontanus's Ephemerides. Likewise Behaim's accomplishments among the Portuguese proved acceptable to King John.

Because of his knowledge of mathematics and navigation Behaim received an appointment to the king's council of mathematicians in 1483 and under that auspices assumed responsibility for a variety of research projects as assigned by the king. Among them Behaim was requested to develop improvements to existing navigational instruments. The exact innovations suggested by Behaim remain unclear. It is believed that he demonstrated the use of Levi ben Gerson's cross-staff apparatus as a means of determining ship's altitude. The cross-staff (also called a Jacob's staff or ballestilla) resembles an Arabian kamal and works on the principle of coordinating the declination of the sun with the horizon. The cross-staff proved an appropriate enhancement to a navigator's astrolabe when used in conjunction with the sun declension tables of Regiomontanus, called Tabula directionum. It is possible that Behaim suggested to the Portuguese to construct astrolabes of brass, to replace the older wooden models in Portugal. According to some scholars the Portuguese already were well versed in the use of solar declension tables and brass instruments by the 1480s when Behaim arrived in Portugal. Regardless, his innovations proved highly satisfactory, and in 1484 King John II dubbed Behaim with the honor of knighthood in the Portuguese Order of Christ. In 1485-86, according to most reports, Behaim was then invited to travel as cosmographer with Diego Cam (var. Diogo Cao) on a southbound expedition to explore the West Coast of Africa. The Cam expedition continued past the mouth of the Congo River, reaching Walvis Bay (var. Walfisch Bay) in southern Africa.

In 1486, while on a return voyage from Africa, the Cam expedition stopped at Fayal in the Azores, where Behaim remained for several years. In Fayal he married the daughter of the governor, Jobst von Hurter, and established a Flemish colony before returning to his hometown of Nuremberg in 1490. It was upon his return to Nuremburg, that Behaim completed construction of the Nuremberg Terrestrial Globe as a commission from the city. Soon afterward he departed for Portugal where he spent his later years as an emissary.

Nuremberg Terrestrial Globe

Martin Behaim's globe was the first known terrestrial globe to be manufactured since the time of the ancient Greeks. If globes older than Behaim's existed, they failed to survive into the twenty-first century and the history of their existence remained obscure as a result. Behaim spent nearly one year in constructing the globe, beginning in 1491 at a cost of approximately $75. Glockenthon, an artist, created the actual map drawings according to Behaim's specifications. The completed globe, which came to be called Erdapfel (earth apple) by the townspeople, was restored in 1825 and preserved at the city hall in Nuremberg. The German National Museum, also in Nuremberg, later took possession of the globe, which is commonly known as the Nuremberg Terrestrial Globe.

The globe is slightly less than 21 inches (51 cm) in diameter; it is fashioned from a type of papier-mache and coated with gypsum. The ball is supported on top of a wooden tripod. Glockenthon's map drawings were detailed onto parchment strips and pasted into position around the sphere. The map appears as a nautical chart, depicting a total of 1,100 geographical locations, although no coordinates appear. Two full circumferences are described on the globe, one being latitudinal and representing the equator; the other representing the ecliptic (the path of the earth with respect to the sun). The tropics of Cancer and Capricorn appear also on the globe, which is decorated with a number of miniature ornamental paintings. Among the decorative illustrations the globe features representations of the zodiac symbols, which punctuate the path of the ecliptic on the globe. Other tiny drawings depict kings, saints, sailing ships, wild animals, and fish. Forty-eight banners and 15 coats of arms appear also among the many decorations. The paintings were created originally in six colors, including a dark-blue sea, brown and green forests, and silver areas of ice and snow. The vicinity of the Cape Verde islands is adorned with a mermaid and a merman, and a single meridian cuts across the globe, spanning 180 degrees from the North Pole to the South Pole at a longitude that is 80 degrees west of Lisbon.

The map of the world as depicted on the Behaim globe represents the known world as described in the second century by Ptolemy, who based his work on the knowledge of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Behaim globe however dispenses with the longitudinal and latitudinal markings described by Ptolemy. Decorative medieval influences also permeate Behaim's work, including the depiction of several mythical islands. Otherwise the geographic aspects of Behaim's map vary from Ptolemy's description with only some minor revisions in keeping with new knowledge accumulated between the third and fifteenth centuries.

With respect to the geographical representations of the globe, there are some indications that Behaim might have referenced the writings of Marco Polo. The map also bears some resemblance to the Florentine maps of the cartographer Henricus Martellus Germanus. As for the inaccuracies of the map, some cartographers have speculated that a large and indistinct island positioned to the west of the Azores on Behaim's map might have been intended to represent Brazil and the East Coast of South America. If that is true, then Behaim's globe was the first known map to depict the continent of South America, by way of correcting earlier maps, although the first depiction of South America is usually credited to Martin Waldseemueller in his map of 1507. Others have presumed the obscure island on Behaim's globe to represent the Antilles, while the few small islands near Greenland are interpreted as the only possible indication of the existence of North America that appeared on Behaim's globe. Also inaccurate is a distorted extension of the Asian continent that protrudes disproportionately eastward on the globe, in keeping with the surmise of the times as to the location of that continent. As a result, there appears only a slim slip of ocean to separate the western coast of Europe from the easternmost part of Asia on the globe, and the location of Japan on the globe more accurately describes some territory in northwestern Mexico.

It is known that Behaim was acquainted with Christopher Columbus and that the two shared similar beliefs regarding the geography of the world. History leaves no reasonable indication to suggest that any commonality beyond coincidence exists, however, between the construction of the globe by Martin Behaim in 1492 and the voyage of Columbus to the East Indies in that same year. Historians suggest rather that Ferdinand Magellan might have referenced the world map as depicted on Behaim's globe in soliciting sponsorship for his historic voyage that resulted in the circumnavigation of the world in 1519-22. The globe, as it was, described the world not only as Columbus very likely perceived it to be, but also as most reasonable Europeans of the fifteenth century believed Earth to be. Already the educated members of the European population were sufficiently enlightened and accepting of the fact that the surface of Earth is spherical as opposed to being flat. It has been suggested that Behaim may have consulted with the German humanist, Hartmann Schedel, also of Nuremberg in order to insure the scientific accuracy of the globe.

Some historians cite the globe and raise questions concerning the true extent of Behaim's travels; they challenge in particular whether or not in reality Behaim accompanied Cam along the coast of Africa. These suspicions arise because of inaccuracies in that aspect of Behaim's globe, along the western coast of Africa. There are those also who infer that serious inaccuracies on the Behaim globe indicate that he never traveled at all, and that the tales he related to others were the empty boasting of a charlatan. Still others maintain a completely opposing viewpoint, contending that Behaim's positioning of the large island west of the Azores indicates not only that Behaim was well traveled, but also that he might have traveled to South America even before Columbus crossed the Atlantic.

Later Life

After completing his terrestrial globe, Behaim continued his travels and returned to Portugal in 1498. There he served as an emissary to Belgium and the Netherlands. Reportedly Behaim journeyed in a political capacity between Portugal and the Low Countries on several occasions, but he was captured eventually by the English and taken to England. He escaped from Britain and returned to Portugal where he remained until his death in Lisbon on July 29, 1507. The craft of globemaking increased in popularity in the years following Behaim's death.

Modern-day attempts to reproduce the Nuremberg Globe as a two dimensional image have proven unacceptable, although 510 copies were distributed with Ernest George Ravenstein's book-length biography, Martin Behaim, his life and his globe, published in 1908 by G. Philip and Son Ltd. An Internet display at also depicts a two-dimensional reproduction of the map.


Dictionary of Scientific Biography, edited by Charles Coulston Gillespie, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970.

Waldman, Carl and Alan Wexler, Who Was Who in World Exploration, Facts on File, 1992.

Wilson, James Grant and John Fiske. Appletons' Cyclopaedia of American Biography, D. Appleton and Company, 1898.


"Martin Behaim," Catholic Encyclopedia, New Advent, 30, 2001). □

Martin Behaim

views updated May 23 2018

Martin Behaim


Navigator and geographer


Nuremberg Globe. Although the fourteenth-century French prelate Nicholas of Oresme outlined a technique for making a globe in De Sphaera, Martin Behaim is responsible for making the oldest surviving terrestrial globe. Behaim's 1492 globe is consistent with Christopher Columbus's perspective of the earth. The globe was being created at the exact time when Columbus was under sail, so it is unclear if one influenced the other or if the two men simply shared the same idea at the same time. The globe is based in part on a mappa mundi (world map), a decorative draft that Behaim constructed. Both projects were meant for public display in Behaim's hometown, the Free Imperial City of Nuremberg in southern Germany.

Background. A Nuremberg cloth merchant, Behaim traveled to Lisbon in hopes of benefiting from Portuguese trade along the African coast. Behaim claimed to have sailed on Portuguese ships as far south as the Tropic of Capricorn, but he was not a true businessman-turned-explorer like Amerigo Vespucci. He established a successful business in Portugal and maintained ties to Nuremberg citizens who were interested in Portuguese exploration and trade. Upon returning to Nuremberg in 1490, he was persuaded to utilize his knowledge of Portuguese exploration in the construction of a world map. City financiers who had profited nicely in the German silver boom were especially interested in the growing Portuguese gold trade along the west coast of Africa. Other city leaders were simply interested in the commercial potential of Portuguese trade with Asia.

Narrow Atlantic Theory. Behaim's spherical representation of the earth was not new to navigators who did not really believe Columbus would fall off the surface of a flat earth. The globe does represent a new use of maps to illustrate geographical theories. Behaim was clearly indebted to both the ancient scholar Ptolemy and to a group of geographers from Nuremberg that included Hieronymus Münzer. In 1493, Münzer wrote to the king of Portugal to encourage a westward pursuit of a route to Asia. Apparently unaware that such an attempt had been tried, Münzer made his case for a western route based on a theory about the Atlantic Ocean that was circulating among cosmographers. This theory was not entirely new. Early in the fifteenth century Pierre d'Ailly, the Frenchman responsible for the revival of Ptolemy's theories in Europe, combined Ptolemy's estimate of the earth's size with Roger Bacon's thirteenth-century belief that a narrow body of water sepa-rated western Spain from eastern India. The narrow Atlantic theory was communicated to the king of Portugal as early as 1474 by the Florentine cosmographer, Paolo Toscanelli dal Pozzo. This view came to be accepted by the Nuremberg circle of cosmographers that included Münzer and Behaim.

Earth Apple. Behaim called his globe an Erdapfel (earth apple). The actual mapping shares remarkable similarities to Henricus Martellus's 1490 world maps, which suggests that both Martellus and Behaim shared the same prototype. The globe was constructed by three workers, but Behaim was responsible for the geographical details. The artistic work, done by George Glockenthon the Elder, included color illustration, forty-eight flags (ten of which were Portuguese), fifteen coats of arms, forty-eight miniatures of kings and local rulers, and 1,100 place names. The Christian theme of the map is obvious from illustrations of missionaries meeting with natives and four full-length portraits of saints. The final globe was completed before July 1493 and was housed in the Nuremberg City Hall. The Christian message and the pro-Portuguese slant suggest that the globe was meant for public display to encourage Nuremberg's trade ties with Portugal.

Legacy. Behaim offered little new in terms of geographical ideas, but his globe is evidence that Columbus's ideas were not unique. Columbus's notion that San Salvador was an outlying Japanese island is consistent with Behaim's placement of islands across the Atlantic. Both could have reached these conclusions by combining the land distances of the late-thirteenth-century-traveler Marco Polo with Ptolemy's estimate of the earth's size. The only new information on the globe involves information about the western coast of Africa, such as place names and an awareness that Bartholomeu Dias had voyaged around the Cape of Good Hope. Yet, Behaim placed this known information on a scaled globe that included latitude and, to the extent it was known, longitude. This fact allowed landmasses to be drawn in their true shapes and placed Africa at the center of the map, whereas most political and commercial maps of the period placed Africa on the periphery. The globe's true legacy is evident in the extent to which later cartographers struggled to make new discoveries fit Behaim's framework rather than revise Behaim's world.


Jerry Brotton, Trading Territories: Mapping the Early Modern World (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998).

G. R. Crone, Maps and Their Makers: An Introduction to the History of Cartography (London: Hutchinson's University Library, 1962).

Behaim, Martin

views updated May 23 2018

Behaim, Martin

also known as Martin of Bohemia

(b. Nuremberg, Germany, 1459; d. Lisbon, Portugal, 29 July 1507), geography

The mercantile interests of Behaim’s family extended from Venice to Flanders. It is traditionally acknowledged that he was a disciple of Regiomontauns, from whom he may have learned how to use astronomical instruments. He quite certainly was influenced by the Ephemerides published by the latter between 1475 and 1506. As a youth he began in the textile business in landers. He was business in Lisbon in 1480.

There has been much speculation about Behaim’s role in Portugal. We know that he became a member of the Council of Mathematicians created by John II and that he became friendly with José Vicinho. Nevertheless, we can no longer defend the thesis that celestial navigation was possible only because of Behaim’s teaching the Portuguese how to use the cross staff (Jacob’s staff, of ballestilla) and the astronomical tables of Regiomontanus. The cross staff, invented by Levi ben Gerson, was already well known on the Iberian Peninsula; and the declination of the sun given in the Tabula directionum of Regiomontauns is different from that found in the Regimento do astrolabio... Tractado da spera do mundo prepared by the Council of Mathematicians for use by navigators. Joaquin Bensaúde has demonstrated that the numerical values in the Regimento are copies of those in the four-year-cycle sun table in the Almanach perpetuum (1473) of Abraham Zacuto, a Jew from Salamanca (d. ca. 1515), who had been a teacher of Vicinho. The latter was also involved in the scientific movement at the University of Salamanca (with Diego Ortiz and Juan de Salaya), and thus one must believe that the scientific elements that made celestial navigation possible were already present on the peninsula before the arrival of Behaim.

Behaim took part in the expedition of Diogo Cão (1485–1486) that followed the coast of Africa to Cape Cross. It is difficult to determine whether he carried out an observation of the latitude of the North Star while on this trip, or whether this should be attributed to Diogo Gomes (who dictated his memoirs to Behaim) and thus be dated a few years eariler. The text in question, which constitutes the birth certificate of celestial navigation in the Atlantic Ocean (although not in the East Indian), says: “When I went to these places, I took a quadrant. I marked the latitude of the North Pole on the table of the quadrant, and I noticed that the quardant is more useful than the chart. It is true that on the latter one can see the sea route, but if it is incorrect [i.e., if one has committed an error in determining the course] one never arrives at the point previously designated.”

During a landfull at Fayal, Azores, on the return voyage in 1486, Behaim married the daughter of Job Huerter de Moerbeke (in Portuguese, Joz Dutra or Jorge de Utra), the leader of a large Flemish colony there. From 1491 to 1493 he was in Nuremberg, where with the assistance of the painter Glockenthon he built his famous globe. Upon his return to Portugal, Behaim was entrusted with a number of official missions and was taken prisoner by the English while on a journey to Flanders. After he was released, he took up residence in Fayal. He died in the Hospice of Saint Bartholomew while on one of his trips to Lisbon.

A nautical chart, since lost, that showed the strait discovered years later by Magellan was attributed to Behaim. His most important work, which places him among the greatest geographers of the Renaissance, is the globe that has been preserved in Nuremberg. It is a sphere fifty-one centimeters in diameter, covered with parchment luxuriously adorned with many types of figures (111 miniatures, forty-eight banners, and fifteen coats of arms). Many inscriptions clarify and explain, from the most diverse points of view, the geography of 1,100 localities in many parts of the world. Actually, this globe constitutes an adaptation of a nautical chart onto a sphere. It lacks coordinates, but it does represent the equator and the tropics. The space between the western coast of Europe and the eastern coast of Asia is full of fanciful islands from medieval tradition, such as Antilia, which has no relation to the Antilles.


Behaim’s globe has been reproduced in almost every book on the history of geography.

For information on Behaim and his work, see G. Beaujouan, “Les aspects internationaux de la dècouverte ocèanique aux XVe et XVIe siècles,” in Actes du Cinquième Collaque International d’Histoire Maritime (Paris, 1960–1966), pp. 69–73; j. Bensaúde, Histoire de la science nautique portugaise à l’èpoque des grandes dècouvertes. Collection de documents...I, Regimento do astrolabio e do quadrante. Tractado da spera do mundo, facs. (Munich, 1914);S. Gunther, Martin Behaim, Bayerische Bibliothek, XII (Bamberg, 1890); R. Henning, Terrae incognitae, IV (Leiden, 1939), 342–376, and indexes; E. G. Ravenstein, Martin Behaim, His Life and His Globe (London, 1908); A. Reichenbach, Martin Behaim, ein deutscher Seefahrer aus den 15 Jahrhundert (Wurzen-Leipzig, 1889); and R. Uhden, “Die Behaimsche Erdkugel und die Nārnberger Globen technik am Ende des 15 Jahrhunerts,” in Minutes of the Amsterdam Geography Congress, Works of Section IV; Géographie historique et histoire de la géographie, IV (1938), 196–198.

Juan Vernet

Martin Behaim

views updated May 29 2018

Martin Behaim


German-Portuguese cartographer and navigator who created the first world globe. Behaim was born to a well-to-do merchant family in Nuremberg, Germany. After studying with the famed astronomer Regiomontanus, he traveled to Lisbon, Portugal, where he was appointed to the "junta dos mathmaticos" commission of King John II. The purpose of this commission was to find a better method for determining latitude, which Behaim accomplished by ascertaining the position of the Sun, Moon and stars. Behaim gained the respect of the Portuguese elite, and was offered the chance to set sail with Diogo Cão to the west coast of Africa (1485-1486). On this journey, Cão discovered the mouth of the Congo River. Upon his return to Nuremberg in 1490, Behaim constructed the very first globe, with the assistance of painter Georg Glockendon. On it is represented the equator, one meridian, the tropics and the constellations of the zodiac.

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