Exhibition : The golden age of nautical charts

The golden age of nautical charts When Europeans discovered the rest of the world




October 23rd 2012 I January 27th 2013


The BnF holds such treasures as several parchment illuminated nautical charts called « portulans charts ». These scientific documents made between the16th and the 18th century are true works of art. They help us understand what the representation of the world was in Europe during 500 years. As the most extraordinary pieces on display, these charts take us back to the time of great Discoveries and long sea voyages. 

« The library houses the most important collection of portulans charts in the world. We are looking forward to disclosing some pieces of this precious collection that includes almost 500 masterpieces of nautical science », says Bruno Racine, President of the BnF. 

« Portulans charts » – from the italian term « portolano » – show the succession of harbors and havens along the coasts. The rhumb lines dotted on the maps correspond to bearings as measured to relative north. Thanks to this graphic system, navigators could find their way by writing down on the chart the distance they thought they had covered. The oldest portulan chart of the West would date from the late 13th century : it is the «carta pisana », housed at the library’s Department of maps and plans.

This exhibition is an original opportunity to focus on Europeans and how they discovered, conquered, observed and represented foreign territories and peoples between the 16th and the 18th century. The representation of our planet took shape with sea expeditions and the discovery of other civilizations. Each new development was a human adventure. Each technical innovation allowed to go further. Each new discovery completed blank areas on the map. As early as the 14th century, « portulans charts » were major tools to control Mediterranean sea areas. Thus, representations of New Worlds circulated indicating peoples, animals, plants, customs and landscapes. « Portulans charts » were both technical innovations and science instruments. In the past, they represented the quest for faraway lands, whether real or imaginary; today, they are considered as true works of art. These impressive polychrome documents – often enriched with gold – are spectacular; furthermore, they conjure up some sort of exotic universe.

 The exhibition is divided into four parts and presents close to 200 items : portulans charts, globes, astronomy tools, objets d’art and ethnographic objects, stuffed animals, drawings, prints and manuscripts. These items belong to BnF’s collections or are exceptional loans from the musée du Quai Branly, musée Guimet, musée du Louvre, Arts et Métiers, Service historique dela Défense, British Library, Mobilier national and musée dela Marine.

The first part focuses on the exhibition subject : the origin, use and users of portulans charts, manufacturing techniques. The second part proposes to analyze the political meaning of charts and how they disclose the rivalry of the great European powers of the time. The third part of the exhibition is both dedicated to the Indian Ocean and knowledge transmission between theMediterranean Sea and the Asian continent. The fourth part of the exhibition presents five cartographic marvels rarely on display.

BnF site François-Mitterrand  Quai François-Mauriac, Paris 13

Tuesdays to Saturdays 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Sundays 13 a.m.-7 p.m.

Closed on Mondays and bank holidays

Admission : €7, concession : €5 Bookings FNAC

tel: 0892 684 694 (0.34 euros TTC/mn), www.fnac.com



Jean-Yves Sarazin, Director, Department of maps and plans, BnF

Catherine Hofmann, Chief Librarian, Department of maps and plans, BnF

Emmanuelle Vagnon, research fellow, CNRS and Université Paris 1

Hélène Richard, Inspector general of libraries



* L’âge d’or des cartes marines. Quand l’Europe découvrait le monde

Exhibition catalogue under the direction of Catherine Hofmann, Hélène Richard and Emmanuelle Vagnon.

Editions de la BnF/ Editions du Seuil. Price : 45

 * Cartes et images des nouveaux mondes

Jean-Yves Sarazin. 170 X120 cm. 50 illustrations including eight maps to spread out.

Co-edition BnF / Gallimard découvertes Hors série. Price : 9,70

 * Nouveaux mondes

Jean-Yves Sarazin. 290 X250 cm. Also available in English

Co-edition BnF / Bibliothèque de l’image. Price : 10


Contacts presse

Claudine Hermabessière, Head of press office – +33 1 53 79 41 18 – claudine.hermabessiere@bnf.fr

Isabelle Coilly, press officer – +33 1 53 79 40 11 – isabelle.coilly@bnf.fr


With the support of Fondation d’entreprise Total and ESRI France

In partnership with Agence nationale dela Recherche, MeDIan Les sociétés méditerranéennes et l’océan Indien

Jean-Yves Sarazin

Directeur du département des cartes et plans de la Bibliothèque nationale de France

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Jean-Yves Sarazin

Directeur du département des cartes et plans de la Bibliothèque nationale de France

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