I Found It at the JCB



Delamination in a Ptolemy Manuscript.
Wilczek-Brown Codex, mid-fifteenth century.
Original in the John Carter Brown Library.

< click on image for enlargement >

The Wilczek-Brown Codex of Ptolemy's Geography (mid-fifteenth century)

by Chet Van Duzer

One of the cartographic treasures owned by the JCB is a manuscript of Ptolemy’s Geography. The manuscript is called the Wilczek-Brown Codex after its former owner, the bibliophile Count Wilczek of Vienna, and the library in which it has resided since 1952. It is not a manuscript of the whole of Ptolemy’s Geography: it does not contain the text; the world map is not handmade, but is instead a printed map added to the manuscript from a copy of Francesco Berlinghieri’s 1482 Geographia, a verse adaptation of Ptolemy’s work; and it lacks the traditional twelve Ptolemaic maps of Asia. The manuscript is thought to date from the mid fifteenth century. The maps, some of which are on parchment, while others are on paper, are mounted on heavy boards which seem to consist of a compressed paper product.

The Wilczek-Brown codex is best known for its fourteenth map, which is of Africa: it is the only map in any manuscript of Ptolemy, and indeed the only Ptolemaic map, manuscript or printed, before the edition of 1511, that shows Africa as being circumnavigable. Ptolemy believed that a land bridge joined southern Africa to southern Asia, enclosing the Indian Ocean as sort of enormous lake, and the ocean is thus depicted in the maps in all other manuscripts of his work that include maps, and in all of the pre-1511 printed editions that include maps. The map in the Wilczek-Brown codex shows open water south of Africa, a remarkable innovation in a manuscript of Ptolemy.

In the late 1980s, Susan Danforth, Curator of Maps and Prints at the JCB, had images of the map of Africa made using beta radiography, a type of imaging that permits one to see beneath the surface. These images revealed that the map had been repainted: originally its depiction of Africa was closer to the typical Ptolemaic image, and where there is now open water, the land once continued to the map’s southern edge, and trended off to the southeast towards southern Asia. In fact if one looks closely, one can with the naked eye see faint traces of the rivers’ former southern courses in what is now the ocean.

I have been interested in Ptolemy’s Geography for years. Both the text and particularly the maps had a strong influence on fifteenth- and sixteenth-century cartographers, not least on Henricus Martellus and Martin Waldseemüller, whose works were the subject of my research at the JCB; in addition, the maps, particularly in manuscripts of the work, are usually strikingly beautiful. So when I came to the JCB, I was eager to see the Wilczek-Brown codex.

The manuscript’s binding is disintegrating, so examining it is a nerve-wracking experience: one hopes to generate an insight that will somehow compensate for the ineluctable wear to the binding that opening it causes. It was also a very exciting experience to be able to study this unique document while talking with Susan about her previous work with it. What I noticed were signs that two of the other maps in the manuscript, in addition to the one that now shows Africa as circumnavigable, had been repainted so as to alter their geography. I also saw that one of the boards on which the maps are mounted is delaminating, and if one looks at the interior layers of the board which are thus exposed, one can see some writing.

Thus, as often happens at the JCB, having come to pursue one project, I had found another. I am now arranging to have multi-spectral images made of all of the maps in the Wilczek-Brown Codex, which should reveal the original states of the maps, and perhaps supply evidence about when the repainting was done and why. If it proves possible to read the text inside the delaminating board, it may offer clues about when and where the boards were made, and thus about the date and provenance of the manuscript, about which we have little good information. This is an exciting opportunity to learn more about one of only four manuscripts of Ptolemy’s Geography in US libraries.

Leo Bagrow, “The Wilczek-Brown Codex,” Imago Mundi 12 (1955), pp. 171-174

O. A. W. Dilke and Margaret S. Dilke, “The Wilczek-Brown Codex of Ptolemy Maps,” Imago Mundi 40 (1988), pp. 119-124

Susan L. Danforth, “Note on the Scientific Examination of the Wilczek-Brown Codex,” Imago Mundi 40 (1988),  p. 125

Chet Van Duzer was a Jeannette D. Black Memorial Fellow at the John Carter Brown Library during the spring and summer of 2011.



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