Charta Cosmographica, from knowledge to power

Detail from the Charta Cosmographica, Zeus and Mars

The Sciences, are small Power; because not eminent; and therefore, not acknowledged in any man; nor are at all, but in a few; and in them, but of a few things. For Science is of that nature, as none can understand it to be, but such as in a good measure have attayned it.

(Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Chapter X)

The European Age of Discoveries has given us astonishing maps. Power relations of our present world were shaped out during that age. Today we have a short passage on the interesting power relations as shown in the Gemma Frisius’ and Peter Apian’s Charta Cosmographica from 1544. This map is a developed version of a famous precursor, Martin Waldseemüller’s Universalis Cosmographica, but with some different interesting features that can attest some shift in the centre of the map: we will show how the centre of the map shifted from knowledge (Waldseemüller’s) to power (Frisius’) and how cartography, being knowledge, served to build Imperial power over the New World.

FIGURE 1. Charta Cosmographica, by Gemma Frisius, c.1544

FIGURE 1. Charta Cosmographica, by Gemma Frisius, c.1544

Waldseemüller, the scientist and his Universalis Cosmographia

Martin Waldseemüller, or Waldzemüller (c.1470-between 1518 and 1522), was born in Württemberg, and was the famous clergyman and cartographer who put “America” on the map. Waldseemüller was a member of the Gymnasium Vosagense in Saint-Dié in the Duchy of Lorraine (today Saint-Dié-des-Vosges in France). And in 1507 the savants of the Gymnasium decided to call the newly discovered lands “America” as they depended on the descriptions given by Amerigo Vespucci. In the Cosmographiæ Introductio Waldseemüller mapped the world under the name of Universalis Cosmographia (FIGURE 2) with the new name for the new lands to the west of the Atlantic: America.

FIGURE 2. The Universalis Cosmographia of Waldseemüller, 1507

FIGURE 2. Universalis Cosmographia, of Waldseemüller, 1507

On the top, just “above” the world we can see two men, representing the two parts of the world and continuity of geography and science: Ptolemy to the left, representing the Old World and classical geography; and Amerigo Vespucci to the right, representing the New World and “new geographies” of European knowledge. The descirption under the map reads VNIVERSALIS COSMOGRAPHIA SECVNDVM PTHOLOMAEI TRADITIONEM ET AMERICI VESPVCII ALIORVQVE ILLUSTRATIONES, Universal Map after the tradition of Ptolemey and other observations of Amerigo Vespucci. Thus both men, Ptolemy and Vespucci, represent knowledge and its continuity, the old is necessary for the new and the new is what gives sense to the old. Knowledge is the power centre in this map: old knowledge is a natural predecessor to the new one and the new one is a natural continuity of the old.

FIGURE 3. Ptolemy and Amerigo Vespucci, detail from Universalis Cosmographie by Waldseemüller.

FIGURE 3. Ptolemy and Amerigo Vespucci, detail from Universalis Cosmographia by Waldseemüller.

Frisius, a “conventional” scientist (1508-1555)

Rainer Gemma Frisius was born in Dokkum, Frisia (thus his surname) and was a cartographer and mathematician of his time. A professor at the University of Leuven, the famous Gerardus Mercator was one of his students. He was among the first who described topographic triangulation and created globes and many maps in an age when mapping had just become the leitmotiv of geographical explorations and of conquests of new lands by European powers. Frisius was a loyal subject of Charles V of Habsburg, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain. In FIGURE 4 we can see his portrait, by Maarten van Heemskerck[1].

The Charta Cosmographica map appears the Cosmographia book of Peter Apian[2]: a book printed in Antwerp around 1544.

FIGURE 2. Gemma Frisius by Maarten van Heemskerck, c.1540

FIGURE 4. Gemma Frisius by Maarten van Heemskerck, c.1540


Features of Charta Cosmographica

The full title of the map is Charta Cosmographica, cum Ventorum propria Natura et Operatione, Map of the World with wind directions and movement indicated. It follows Waldseemüller’s in its outlines; thus America is the newest geographical feature and it is being conquered, then constructed under the authority of Charles V, Firius’ great patron of art. Europe and Africa are present in their relatively correct shape. Asia is absent to the north of China. But we can already find the traces of the “Four parts of the world” theory. And the map presents a bit more geographical information on the Pacific than Waldseemüller’s: a result of continuous accumulation of European geographical knowledge. At the same time is is less detailed than the first one. This absence of small details make us think that its first objective was not knowledge, but another thing.

The winds are another interesting new feature of the map.  Cold wind are represented as old men, blowing from the north, the “frigid zone” according to the map. Moderate winds are just like angels. And from the south winds are blown by skull-like heads, symbol of “sickening wind” and bearer of diseases, thought to be come from the south.

The Zodiac signs and climata are shown on the map, to the right and to the left, respectively.

But the new map has an absolutely new and different feature: instead of Ptolemy and Vespucci we can see two men who, eminently, look at each other and reign over the cordiform Planet. Here we can discover an interesting centre and a shift in the perception between knowledge and power.

Zeus and Mars, God and Caesar

Detail from the Charta Cosmographica, Zeus and Mars

FIGURE 5. Detail from the Charta Cosmographica, Zeus and Mars

The two men are said to be Zeus and Mars, god of gods and god of war according to Graeco-Roman mythology. the so-called Zeus is riding an eagle, shirtless. Mars is wearing his arms and war clothes, with a sword in his hand and the emblem of the Empire and Emperor, the Bicephal (double-headed) Eagle, on his chest.

Representation is far more profound than a banal tableau of Graeco-Roman gods. The said-to-be Zeus and Mars can represent different dualities of our world: Nature and Culture, Peace and War, et caetera.

But for us Zeus and Mars represent a different feature: they represent God and Caesar.

God is more likely to be Zeus, god of gods. And Caesar is Mars, god of war and the one who has the effective imperium, thus he wears the arms of the Holy Roman Empire.

God and Caesar, together, are present in many other representations throughout the Empire’s history and geography. We have alrdeay seen the case of Bruegel’s Census at Bethlehem where Mary is coming to Bethlehem to give birth to Jesus under the Empire’s emblem. Thus God, when He “becomes flesh”, becomes a Subject of Caesar.

But the question which interests us is about the “role play” made here: why does Mars bear the arms of the Empire? Is not more “natural” that Zeus, head of gods and master of everything, be the one with the Imperial insignia? Why does the Emperor-like man replace Vespucci, and not Ptolemy? The answer has to be one of the three following:

1- The painter/cartographer(s), certainly representing an Imperial weltanschauung, has chosen Mars for the Emperor; Zeus, god of gods, is God. Thus the Emperor is not violating the rule according to which he presides over the temporal dimension of the Res Publica Christiana, a mission given to him, of course in the official Imperial discourse, by God. In this formula: a “natural” older-figure God and a young worrior-like Emperor the “God and Caesar” words of Christ are fulfilled (Matthew 22:15-22)[3].

According to this view the Empire has a universal authority over the Planet given to it by God himself and “certified” by the words of Christ.

2- The painter/cartographer(s) has chosen to replace the two geographers by two different powers of the Empire under two different “godly” figures. Zeus is  for auctoritas, authority, widsom and moral reaching: thus the Augustus of his time, Charles V, has a moral authority over the Planet. And Mars is for imperium, supreme military command and supreme coercive power: thus Charles V, Imperator, has a supreme power to command over his Empire. The “oldish” nature of Zeus is more suitable to be with auctoritas as the Romans understood it; and the warring nature of Mars is convenient for imperium. The latter bears the arms of the Emperor as it is more of less representative of his supreme effective power over his Empire; while the first, Zeus, has more universal dimension in his moral power and is depicted as is, riding an eagle, a “natural” one.

According to this view the Emperor is the temporal head of the Res Publica Christiana and has both authority and command over the known world.

3- The painter/cartographer(s) has chosen to replace Ptolemy and Vespucci (knowledge) with Zeus and Mars (power). The first map, Waldseemüller’s, is certainly knowledge: what is new shown in order to “be useful”. But the second, our Charta Cosmographica of Frisius, is power: the centre shifted towards the Empire and the Emperor; and what was mere knowledge of new territories became Conquista and new Imperial territories in the New World. The map makes political – thus military – power necessary for power of knowledge: the one follows the other.

Another interesting feature of God and Caesar: God, supposed to look peaceful, has a serious face; while Caesar is smiling. Does it mean that Caesar is more friendly than God ir that the Emperor presents himself as a friendlier figure than the pope? The subject is open to research.

The Empire in the centre: from knowledge to power via authority

The Empire is the centre-head of the Imperial Body Politic: the Empire’s power is given to it by God himself, and thus its authority is incontestable. Its arms are borne by the god of war, thus the ones who violate the authority of Zeus can be taken by the sword of Mars: if God is contested, Caesar will venge Him; and the Emperor is the ultimate Defensor Fidei. The Emperor is also the defender of new knowledge and the New World: knowledge and science need Caesar in order to become power.

In the Charta Cosmographica the Empire is presented as the guardian of the world. It is the spatiotemporal context in which knowledge turns into power and in which Ptolemy and Vespucci surrender their knowledge to Zeus and Mars. The Emperor, Mars in the Empire’s arms, defends the new knowledge and turns it into political power. The knowledge-to-power “machine” can but make us think of the famous formula of Sir Francis Bacon: Scientia Potentia est, Knowledge is power. Later, during the 20th Century, Michel Foucault had numerous reflections on the rapports between space, power and knowledge. In our case study the centre, here the Empire, is what transforms spatialised knowledge into power. Science by itself is not but small power: what makes it big is political power. Thus the journeys of Vespucci needed the sword and the might of Charles V in order to be fulfilled, otherwise all his new-name-on-the-map thing would have been in vain, our Frisius might have thought!

We always find this crucial role of political centre: its authority. Authority is what turns knowledge into [legitimate] power and what relates old knowledge to new power. It is important, yesterday and today, to link this authority to a power from a “higher” level, from a metaphysical dimension. This map shows how authority of the Empire was understood by its loyal subjects (like Frisius and Apian): universal, Imperial, omnipresent and “overseeing” the Planet. It is not given by mortals, but by gods. It is important to trace back the origins of European state authority as we know it today: a part of this state authority is but a direct descendant of the “God and Caesar” and “Knowledge is Power” formulas. This means that, in political centre, God and Caesar work (or conspire) together in order to turn knowledge into power.


[1] In the painting the latin inscription behind him reads:

Lux tenebris rursus.

luci tenebre fugienti

succedunt. Stabilis

res tibi nulla manet.

(an approximative translation: Light returns to darkness, darkness succeeds to fleeing light, nothing remains stable for you). It might signify the deep challenges of his age and the “changing times” in politics, religion and even science.

[2] Peter Apian or Petrus Apianus (1495 in Saxony-1552 in Ingolstadt) was a humanist mathematician and cartographer, and a favourite of Emperor Charles V.

[3] Matthew 22:15-22 (KJV)

15 Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk.16 And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men.17 Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?18 But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites?19 Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny.20 And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription?21 They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.22 When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.

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