Studia humanitatis in Text and Image: The Liber insularum Archipelagi by Cristoforo Buondelmonti

Around 1400, manuscripts were not just a textual medium for humanists to disseminate their substantive work. Rather, as aesthetic artefacts, they were a tool for visual communication too. Information and knowledge were portrayed in text as well as images because the beneficial learning aid of graphic presentations regained popularity. According to Aristotle, Plato, Quintilian, and other ancient authors, the human memory was predominantly influenced by visual stimuli and was thus dependent to a considerable degree on spatial arrangements in the form of images.1 Maps thus found their way into humanistic books as an elaboration on the text. But these maps do not just function as visualizations; they create a narrative of their own. In particular, isolarii, or ‘island books’, used the different characteristics of text and maps to shape an alternative history.

An important example of this survives in the Liber insularum Archipelagi compiled by the Florentine presbyter and traveller Cristoforo Buondelmonti (c.1385–c.1430). His book of Aegean islands, written in 1418–22, combines historical narration with visual representations. The information is adapted through its layout: the mise en page. This is determined by the ruling system, which divides the page into sections of text (in this case with a single-column layout); images and decorations, such as ornamented initials; and margins for glosses and commentaries. On opening the Liber insularum Archipelagi, the reader finds information on various locations within the Mediterranean region. The etymology, history, and myths of each place are presented in text form, followed by a cartographic drawing showing the vegetation, topographical and geographical details, and any villages or towns.

The humanist cursive script in a copy of the Liber insularum Archipelagi
held at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, GE FF 9351, fo. 33v (1475).
Reproduced with the permission of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

These maps make the educational programme of the studia humanitatis especially clear. References to antiquity were used to insinuate ancient lineages, and medieval monarchs justified their rule by adopting genealogies that traced their ancestry back to the kings and heroes of Troy. The Trojan legend was repeated in historical chronicles and adapted into vernacular poetry, and these texts circulated widely throughout the Middle Ages and well into the early modern era. It is therefore not surprising that Buondelmonti would include such a rich and powerful story in his codex, although the text, maps, and even the location of Troy changed in the many copies that were subsequently made of his book.

Through his travels, Buondelmonti discovered the Aegean region first-hand and expanded his interest in Greek mythology. He probably visited many ancient sites where mythological stories were reputed to have taken place and then incorporated what he had seen into his codex. Classical references are frequent in all the copies, especially ones to Ovid, Virgil, and their accounts of the fall of Troy.2

Gallipoli and the ruins of Troy on the mainland.
From a manuscript held at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, P 13, fo. 28r (c.1450).
Photograph by the author.

This image, from a manuscript held at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, shows Gallipoli and the ruins of Troy. We see a densely populated city on the peninsula coast opposite the mainland, where a schematic outline of the remains of the ancient city has been drawn in a bare valley and labelled troya. The way Troy is depicted here shows the state of knowledge at the time: it was believed to be somewhere in turchia (modern-day Turkey). The draftsman and scribe thus gave only an approximate location by sketching the ruins to cover the whole region.

In another manuscript in the British Library, a different location is given for Troy: the ancient city is depicted on the island of Tenedos, from where, according to myth, the attack on Troy was launched. But the location was not the only thing that changed; so did the way it was drawn. The map in this manuscript does not include the city, it appears only in the text. The last sentence describes the location of the ancient site:

[…] and so the island looks upon the noble Troy. On the island, you will definitely see antiquities lying in ruins. On the left, through a narrow mouth, we finally approach the Hellespont where the Dardanelles are. There, where today there are still many pillars, was, so I believe, the dominion of Troy, across the whole plain and through the entrance of the Hellespont unto the Dardanelles.3

As in most versions, the mise en page of the London manuscript features a ruling system that allocates the text and image plenty of space in the middle of the page, leaving only a narrow margin on the left-hand side. The text is written in a hurried, almost upright humanist hand, and appears alongside a schematic drawing of the island Tenedos in between two blocks of text. The first block describes Tenedos, whereas the second block, after the map with the label ‘per totum vinea’, deals with Gallipoli. The mise en page of this folio creates a connection between the text and the map, in that the last sentence of the text about Tenedos is split over several lines, with the second half separated from the rest of the block and placed above the map, so in between the text and the image. In other versions, this final sentence is also split off from the main text but is placed directly within the map and not between the map and the text. In this way, the text creates a narrative structure with an illustrative localization of Troy by placing the second part of the sentence on the map in the position where the city’s undepicted remains should appear. Through both these means of connecting text and image in the mise en page––that is, by leaving a space or writing on the map––a bridge is built between the two media.

Insula Tenedi in a manuscript held in the
British Library, London, Sloane 3843, fo. 30v (1474). Photograph by the author.

In all versions the mise en page creates an interaction between text and map. This purposeful interlocking of cartographic images and text, however, is unique to the account of Tenedos, as no other figurata merges passages from the main text into the image.

Such interactions between text and image are at the heart of my Ph.D. project on the Liber insularum Archipelagi and its many copies. My research question concerns the individual decisions that went into shaping the narrative of the Renaissance Aegean Sea in text and image, the influence these treatises had on humanist concepts, and the reception of cartographic material among copyists and readers. In the corpus of the Liber insularum Archipelagi, the page layout changed according to its use, transforming the folio into a visual experience. Alongside the many changes made to the cartographic images between copies, the text was also modified in terms of the script (neat humanist handwriting or a less precise hand), the lettering (Gothic or humanist), and the abbreviations—for instance, to fully justify the text. Through these variations in script, colour, and detail, the contents of the book developed over time.

My dissertation argues that each version of the Liber insularum Archipelagi has aspects that are specific to the time and circumstances of production, but that all the different versions are related to some extent. I approach each manuscript as a window into the mind of a premodern artist setting out a specific view of the Aegean. Thus, each manuscript offers a subjective cultural, political, and social conception of the Mediterranean. Successive illuminators and scribes did not just present a view of the Aegean archipelago; instead, they revealed part of their habits and structures of thought with every formative decision they made in each manuscript. The copyists were influenced by multiple factors, such as their educational background or the reason for the copy being produced—whether patronage or otherwise—and this resulted in compositional diversity across the corpus of copies. For want of information about the copyists, intended clients, patrons, and place and time of production, I will focus on the source material itself rather than the people behind it in order to answer the question of how the manuscripts are linked.

As my Ph.D. project shows, the copyists of Buondelmonti’s work were by no means passive but held a position of power that allowed them to create and shape subjective narratives in which geographical accuracy was not the primary concern. By copying the Liber insularum Archipelagi, they captured the highly contested territory of the Aegean, at least on paper. Their different pictorial strategies were used to occupy the territorial space as they saw fit, and thus Buondelmonti’s isolario is significant for the history of map-making in terms of the power of maps to project subjective images of time and space.


The featured image shows the islands Lemnos and Embarus in text and map in a manuscript held at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, Ms. Canon Misc 280, fos. 56v and 57r. Photograph by the author.



Cite this blog post
Beatrice Blümer (2023, June 13). Studia humanitatis in Text and Image: The Liber insularum Archipelagi by Cristoforo Buondelmonti. German Historical Institute London Blog. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/p1r8

  1. Veronica Della Dora, ‘Mapping a Holy Quasi-Island: Mount Athos in Early Renaissance Isolarii’, Imago Mundi, 60/2 (2008), 139–65, at 155. []
  2. For more information on Buondelmonti, see Hilary Louise Turner, ‘Christopher Buondelmonti: Adventurer, Explorer and Cartographer’, in Monique Pelletier (ed.), Géographie du monde au Moyen Âge et à la Renaissance (Paris, 1989), 207–16. []
  3. ‘ . . . et si[c] versus nobilissimam olim aspicit Troiam multa fragmenta antiquitatum ipsius vere videbis. A leva denique in hellespontum intramus mare ore stenuo In quo introitu Dardanellum ostendimus ubi nunc et olim columne elevantur multe per totam planiciem istam et per istrictum usque Dardanelum puto Troia ampliabatur.’ Quoted from the manuscript in Paris, Ms. Latin 4825, c.1466, fo. 33v. Translation my own. []

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Beatrice Blümer

Beatrice Blümer studied history and the history of art in Kassel, Hamburg, and Rome. She received her master’s degree in 2021 and is currently completing her Ph.D. at the University of Kassel. Her dissertation project, ‘The Liber insularum Archipelagi by Cristoforo Buondelmonti’, explores the copying tradition of this Renaissance isolario by analysing its textual and pictorial descriptions of the Aegean islands. Her research interests lie in Renaissance and Mediterranean art with a focus on Florence, Venice, Constantinople, and the wider Aegean archipelago. She specializes in manuscript studies and the correlation between visual and textual culture. Her research has been supported by the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz—Max-Planck-Institut, the German Historical Institute in Rome, the German Historical Institute in London, the Centro Tedesco di Studi Veneziani in Venice, and the German Historical Institute in Paris.

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