A Spy, a Map, and the Quest for Power in 16th-Century Europe

In 1502, as Europeans hungrily looked to the vast new continent across the Atlantic Ocean, innovative maps of these unfamiliar territories became objects of power and intrigue. Alberto Cantino, an Italian spy, acquired a Portuguese map showing stunning finds in the New World.

Knowledge is power—and no knowledge was more assiduously coveted by European nations in the early 16th century than the information recorded on nautical maps. Coastlines, harbors, rivers, resources: Details about these features could give a nation a distinct advantage in trying to stake a claim to new lands.

The “Cantino Planisphere,” completed in 1502, is the second known chart to have depicted the New World. It included unpublished information on Portuguese trade routes and the ongoing discovery of the coastline of modern-day Brazil. At a time when knowledge of new territories lent expanding nations great strategic and commercial superiority, such maps were guarded as state secrets. Spies would do anything to get their hands on them.

Comprising six pieces of parchment attached to a large canvas measuring about four by eight feet, the “Cantino Planisphere” was created in Lisbon. The word “planisphere” means a sphere represented as a plane (i.e., a flat surface) and is more typically used to describe star charts.

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