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Getting lost among the enchanting maps of the Vatican

Getting lost among the enchanting Maps of the Vatican

red-feniks | Shutterstock

V. M. Traverso - published on 11/11/20

These frescoes, which were commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII in 1580, are probably the most beautiful maps you’ll ever see. 

Well before Google Maps or Street View, maps were a work of craftsmanship that required deep knowledge of geography as well as printmaking techniques. The Renaissance era marked a turning point for mapmaking, thanks both to the Age of Exploration that increased our geographical knowledge and to innovations in the fine art of cartography.

Maps from the Renaissance were mostly made according to two techniques: woodcut and plate intaglio. Woodcut maps were made by chiseling finely sculpted details of land and sea on hardwood, which was then pressed against a sheet of parchment. The resulting indents in the parchment were then filled with finely colored ink. Intaglio maps were made by engraving copper or brass sheets and then pressing them against a sheet of paper. The pressing technique would leave deep lines in the paper sheet, which were then filled with ink. Mapmakers had to master science, in order to understand how to work with chemical reactions of ink and parchments, but were also fine craftsmen producing beautiful works of art.

One of the most jaw-dropping collections of Renaissance maps was actually done with the fresco technique. More than 40 panels representing different areas of the Italian peninsula were commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII in 1580 to a team of artistsm who painted the gigantic maps based on drawings by Italian friar and geographer Ignazio Danti. The pope-selected artists carefully laid layers of beautiful pigments over a base of lime plaster.

The result is a stunning array of brightly colored maps that decorate the 393-foot-long “Gallery of Maps” in the Vatican Museums.

Located on the west side of the Belvedere Courtyard, the Gallery of Maps is one of the Vatican’s must-see spots. Here is a selection of some of the most stunning hand-made maps in the collection:

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