Photograph courtesy British Library Board, Add. 24065
Photograph courtesy British Library Board, Add. 24065

A Map Fit for a King Shows the World of 1550

An extravagant map commissioned by a 16th-century French admiral fancifully depicts continents and the journeys of fabled explorers.

This story appears in the July 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.

French admiral Claude d’Annebault knew his political career was in trouble. Once a top adviser to King Francis I, he fell out of favor after Henry II inherited the throne. What to do? He decided that a magnificent gift—a lavish map of the world—might maneuver him into the new king’s good graces.

D’Annebault hired Pierre Desceliers, one of the best cartographers of his day, for this project. Directing a team of artists, Desceliers produced the illustrated, annotated map, full of geographic features both real and imagined. “It’s one of the most beautiful maps to have survived from the Renaissance,” says Chet Van Duzer, a historian of cartography. And it’s so large, about five by seven feet, that it covers several pieces of parchment. Van Duzer’s new book, The World for a King, reproduces the map in the original colors and at full scale—in 42 sections—for the first time. His research found that Desceliers took most of his descriptive texts from two books. One was the 1522 edition of the Geography of Claudius Ptolemy, the other a collection of historical narratives whose authors included Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus.

It’s impossible to know for sure if this extravagant present had the desired effect, but it’s tempting to think it did. D’Annebault returned to favor briefly before his death in 1552.