A few days ago, we talked about the ‘New World’ Thule people traded metals with the Old World, circa 12th century AD, by entirely circumventing the European navigational network. But this time around, the focus is on how the Old World folks depicted New World – and that too on seemingly odd objects. To that end, as it turns out, the oldest globe depicting the New World might pertain to an engraved ostrich egg! Originally purchased by an anonymous buyer at the 2012 London Map Fair, the Ostrich Egg Globe fortuitously made its way into the hands of Belgian scholar and collector Stefaan Missine. And after a year-long study and analysis (that involved over 100 other researchers), he was finally able to publish his results in Portolan, the journal of the Washington Map Society in 2013.
Boasting the size of a full-grown grapefruit, the Ostrich Egg Globe dates from the early 1500s (possibly between 1500-1504 AD) – as deduced by gauging the depreciating density of the organic shells (which equates to around 10 percent every century). In fact, it is the delicate material of the globe that has flummoxed many a historian, especially considering the well-preserved condition of the spherical object. In that regard, the construction of the artifact itself was achieved by conjoining two halves of an ostrich egg. Consequently, the globe’s northern and southern hemispheres comprise the roundish bottom sections of the organic egg shell.
Now from the historical perspective, the Ostrich Egg Globe not only predates the previous record holding globe for the oldest depiction of the New World, but it might have even served as the prototype for the latter specimen (known as the Hunt-Lenox Globe – possibly made between 1504-1510 AD). In that regard, the researchers have identified how the representation of the world geography in both the globes is almost identical, ranging from the ocean wave patterns to the contours of the odd-sized continents. The Hunt-Lenox Globe made of copper also consists of the same spelling errors like ‘HISPANIS’ instead of HISPANIA and ‘LIBIA INTEROIR’ in place of LIBIA INTERIOR.
And since we brought up the geographical side of affairs, most of the New World landmasses were represented with the aid of information compiled from contemporary sources. For example, the lack of knowledge pertaining to North America confines it to just two islands discovered by Columbus. Other details reflect the navigational scope achieved by eminent explorers like Henricus Martellus, Marco Polo and of course Amerigo Vespucci – the man who was responsible for coining the term MVNDVS NOVVS or New World.
As for the seemingly weird choice of using an ostrich egg for engraving the world geography, the ‘exotic’ ambit hints at the globe’s Italian origin. Now while the identity of the globe-maker is still not known, the hypothesis can be drawn on how the artifact was specially crafted for some Italian noble family. During this particular early 16th century epoch, many such families (especially in Florence) were known for keeping ostriches in their gardens as a flaunting measure that alluded to their commercial wealth.
Intriguingly enough, the date of the Ostrich Egg Globe sort of corresponds to the professional period of Leonardo da Vinci’s life. Now da Vinci was himself based in Florence, while the city – one of the wealthiest in 16th century Europe, was also the hub for globe-making. But of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that da Vinci was the mysterious maker of the Ostrich Egg Globe, especially since there is a clear lack of New World-related subjects mentioned in his various writings. However, on the other hand, the globe was possibly made by a person who had some knowledge about da Vinci’s technique for converting 2D drawings into 3D representations (via triangular segments).
Finally, accompanying the mystery of the still-unknown globe-maker are puzzling anecdotes depicted on the globe itself. For example, a lone ship is drawn in the middle of the Indian Ocean with no labeling or mention of its purpose. Similarly, the water off the coast of South-East Asia is marked with the words ‘HIC SVNT DRACONES’ – the Latin for “here there are dragons”.