The Oldest Known Globe to Depict the New World Was Engraved on an Ostrich Egg, Maybe by Leonardo da Vinci (1504)

Image by Davidguam via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Every time you think you’ve got a han­dle on Leonar­do da Vinci’s genius (which is to say, you think you’ve heard about the most impor­tant things he paint­ed, wrote, and invent­ed), yet more evi­dence comes to light of the many ways he meets the stan­dard for the adjec­tive “genius”.… Recent­ly, Leonar­do re-appeared not only as an inven­tor of futur­is­tic mil­i­tary tech­nol­o­gy or dis­cov­er­er of com­plex human anato­my, but also as the first Euro­pean to depict the “New World” on a globe–proving he knew about Colum­bus’ voy­ages when the globe was made in 1504.

The dis­cov­ery “marks the first time ever that the names of coun­tries such as Brazil, Ger­ma­nia, Ara­bia and Judea have appeared on a globe,” notes Cam­bridge Schol­ars Pub­lish­ing, who released a book by the globe’s dis­cov­er­er and pri­ma­ry researcher, Ste­faan Missinne. The arti­fact attrib­uted to Leonar­do is engraved, “with immac­u­late detail,” writes Meeri Kim at The Wash­ing­ton Post, “on two con­joined halves of ostrich eggs.” And it fea­tures a sin­gle sen­tence, in Latin, above South­east Asia: Hic Sunt Dra­cones–“Here be drag­ons.”

We’ll notice oth­er unique fea­tures of the engraved egg Missinne calls, sim­ply, “the Da Vin­ci Globe,” such as the fact that in place of Cen­tral and North Amer­i­ca are the islands of Colum­bus’ “dis­cov­ery,” sur­round­ed by a vast ocean in which Pacif­ic and Atlantic join. Why ostrich eggs? Humans have used them for dec­o­ra­tive pur­pos­es for mil­len­nia. Also, “in that time peri­od,” says Thomas Sander, edi­tor of the Wash­ing­ton Map Society’s jour­nal, Por­tolan, “the ostrich was quite the ani­mal, and it was a big thing for the noble peo­ple to have ostrich­es in their back gar­dens.”

Missinne, a real estate devel­op­er, col­lec­tor, and globe expert orig­i­nal­ly from Bel­gium, dis­cov­ered the globe in 2012 at the Lon­don Map Fair. It was pur­chased “from a deal­er who said it had been part of an impor­tant Euro­pean col­lec­tion for decades,” and its buy­er and own­er remain anony­mous. After the globe appeared, Missinne “con­sult­ed more than 100 schol­ars and experts in his year-long analy­sis,” putting “about five years of research into one year,” says Sander, call­ing the research “an incred­i­ble detec­tive sto­ry.”

Missinne’s inves­ti­ga­tion seems to sub­stan­ti­ate his claims that the globe was made by Leonar­do or his work­shop. The evi­dence, some of which you can find on the Cam­bridge Schol­ars Pub­lish­ing site, includes a 1503 prepara­to­ry map in da Vinci’s papers; the pres­ence of arsenic, which only Leonar­do was known to use at the time in cop­per to keep it from los­ing its lus­tre; “The use of chiaroscuro, pen­ti­en­ti, tri­an­gu­lar shapes, the math­e­mat­ics of the scale reflect­ing Leonardo’s writ­ten dimen­sion of plan­et earth”; and a 1504 let­ter from Leonar­do him­self stat­ing, “my world globe I want returned back from my friend Gio­van­ni Ben­ci.”

Missinne and Geert Ver­ho­even, of the Lud­wig Boltz­mann Insti­tute for Archae­o­log­i­cal Prospec­tion & Vir­tu­al Arche­ol­o­gy, have pub­lished a paper on the “unfold­ing” of Leonardo’s globe into the two-dimen­sion­al image above (see an inter­ac­tive ver­sion here). “This minia­ture egg globe is not only the old­est extant engraved globe,” the authors write, “but it is also the old­est post-Columbian globe of the world and the first ever to depict New­found­land and many oth­er ter­ri­to­ries.” Pre­vi­ous­ly, the Hunt-Lenox Globe, a small cop­per globe, was thought to be the old­est known such arti­fact. Dat­ed to around 1510, this globe, Missinne dis­cov­ered, is actu­al­ly a copy made from a cast of the old­er, orig­i­nal ostrich-egg globe.

Missinne’s find­ings have their detrac­tors, includ­ing John W. Hessler of the Library of Con­gress, who claims Missinne him­self is the anony­mous own­er of the globe, which rais­es issues of con­flict of inter­est. “Where this thing comes from needs to be clar­i­fied,” says Renais­sance car­tog­ra­phy expert Chet Van Duzer of the John Carter Brown Library in Prov­i­dence, R.I., though he adds, “It is an excit­ing dis­cov­ery, no ques­tion.” Missinne’s claims for the egg’s prove­nance are more mod­est than his mar­ket­ing. He “spec­u­lates,” writes Kim, “ the egg could have loose con­nec­tions to the work­shop of Leonar­do da Vin­ci.” Hessler’s view is less equiv­o­cal: “The Leonar­do con­nec­tion is pure non­sense.”

A layper­son like Missinne, what­ev­er his per­son­al invest­ment, might be inclined to over­in­ter­pret evi­dence or make ten­u­ous con­nec­tions a trained schol­ar would avoid. The many schol­ars he cites in sup­port of his claims for the globe are also vul­ner­a­ble to these charges, how­ev­er, though to a less­er degree. What do we make of French Mona Lisa expert Pas­cal Cotte’s tes­ti­mo­ni­al, “I here­by con­firm the evi­dence of the left-hand­ed­ness of the engrav­ings on the Ostrich Egg Globe. As Leonar­do was the only left-hand­ed artist in his work­shop, I here­by endorse the hypoth­e­sis of Leonar­do da Vinci’s author­ship”? As in all such aca­d­e­m­ic debates, “Here be drag­ons.” Weigh the case in full in Missinne’s 2018 book, The Da Vin­ci Globe.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Ele­gant Stud­ies of the Human Heart Were 500 Years Ahead of Their Time

Leonar­do da Vin­ci Draws Designs of Future War Machines: Tanks, Machine Guns & More

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Ear­li­est Note­books Now Dig­i­tized and Made Free Online: Explore His Inge­nious Draw­ings, Dia­grams, Mir­ror Writ­ing & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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