The map represents the whole ecumene in the 15th century: in addition to including Europe, Asia, and Africa, it also represents Iceland, Greenland, and further west, a land called Vinilanda Insula "island of Vinland", with an inscription that speaks of its discovered by the Vikings in the 11th century. In the Atlantic are also drawn some islands present in legendary accounts such as that of the navigation of San Brandano.
The sensation aroused by its discovery derives precisely from the fact that it depicts, within the then known world, the Vinilanda Insula: if it had been authentic, the Vinland map would therefore have contained the oldest representation of the New World, thus confirming the thesis of the Viking attendance of America. The authenticity of the map, however, has been questioned since its publication in 1965; recently, both chemical analyzes and the most recent scientific monographs have indicated that it is certainly a forgery.
Philological studies have also come to this conclusion, as pointed out by Paolo Chiesa in a conference held at the University of Milan.
It was in the autumn of 1957 that the antique dealer and collector of antique maps Laurence Witten II came across the map of Vinland.
We just missed him taking a hit, given that such discoveries happen to a collector of ancient maps only once in a lifetime (at best). Leafing through the parchment pages of a fifteenth-century volume that contained the Tartar Report, an account of a journey to the East attributed to Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, the map that would change Witten's life and the history of cartography came out.
On the parchment, an anonymous fifteenth-century cartographer had traced the boundaries of the ecumene known at the time: Europe, Africa, and Asia. And so far nothing strange, what amazed and at the same time did fail to perplex the American collector, was the western part of the Vinland map where they appeared with precision (somewhat suspicious, as the collector did not fail to note), the borders of Greenland and even further west the island of Newfoundland or perhaps even Labrador.
The latter part was designated with the name of Vinland, the mythical land of vines and pastures discovered by the Viking expedition of Bjarni and Leif Erikson, between the end of the 9th century and the beginning of the 10th.
Laurence Witten II could not believe what he was facing.
That parchment preserved in the pages of the Tartar Report represented irrefutable proof that the Norwegians had reached the coasts of North America just four hundred years before Columbus thought of embarking on his journey west.
The second and perhaps most important clue that comes to us from the Vinland map is that presumably since before the 15th-century land was known to the west: the Vinland map, in fact, is a medieval copy of an older pilot book dating back to the travels that the Norwegians made it first in Greenland and then on the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland between 985 and 1001. The gothic scribbles that accompany the Vinland map (top left) clearly speak, reporting, in black and white, these dates.
Witten's initial excitement gave way to the suspicion that for a collector of ancient maps it goes hand in hand with the intuition, that the whole thing was a colossal scam orchestrated by the owner of the map: the Italian Enzo Ferrajoli de Ry.
Let's go back, then, to the starting point, to put together the pieces of a cartographic puzzle whose solution goes far beyond the restricted areas of the antiquarian world of rare books and ancient maps.
Vinland Map: The Discovery
What do we know about the Italian who sold the Vinland map to Laurence Witten? Little or nothing. An officer in the Italian army during the Second World War, Enzo Ferrajoli became an art dealer, specializing in rare books and manuscripts.
Hence the meeting with Nicolas Rauch, Swiss antiquarian and supplier of information and rare objects to collectors from around the world, including Larry Witten. Rauch was able to arouse the interest of his buyers for the ability with which he was able to find rare books by relying on channels, very often on the verge of lawfulness, including characters such as Ferrajoli.
The discovery of the Vinland map took place in this environment where a scam could cost the reputation of the antiquarian involved and where figures with few scruples and a great desire to make money moved.
The flair and intuition represented for a collector like Witten, essential qualities and it was on the basis of his own intuition that he judged the Vinland map authentic, paying 3,500 dollars for the map and Tartar Report (at current exchange rates around 320,000 dollars).
The reasoning that led Witten to close the deal was as simple as it was practical, to create a map like that of Vinland.
With respect to the discovery of the Vinland map, it is worth pointing out a further curiosity that Witten, at the time of purchase, was not aware of. A few months earlier the map and the manuscript of the Tartar Report were in the rooms of the British Museum to be studied by R. A. Skelton and George D. Painter: the first head of the Maps section of the London museum, the second deputy head of the Books section.
The request for analysis was motivated by a possible purchase of the Vinland map by the collector Irving Davis. Eventually, not getting official confirmation of the map's authenticity, Davis decided to give it up, returning the Vinland Map and the Tartar Relationship to Ferrajoli and Rauch. And so ends, at least for the moment, the circle on the discovery of the Vinland map.
From this moment on, a long, often heated, and never ended diatribe will begin between expert cartographers and zealous chemists, collectors, and prestigious universities to try to solve the puzzle of the Vinland map: a clever fake or the greatest treasure of ancient cartography?
Vinland Map: A Cartography Treasure?
Larry Witten has never had doubts about the authenticity of the Vinland map, and I would also like to see it. Paying $ 320,000 (at current exchange rates) for a modern counterfeit would be a blow to even the most armored pride, of which collectors are still well equipped. As much as flair and intuition are part of the talents of any seeker of ancient books, Witten's certainty of the authenticity of the Vinland map would have been supported, on his return to the United States, by far more convincing evidence.
The first was obtained, by chance, by his friend Tom Marston in 1958. Not exactly the latest arrival in terms of antiquity, as curator of the section of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at the Yale University library. Morston sent a series of ancient manuscripts to Witten, including the Speculum Historiale, probably dating back to the 15th century. For Larry Witten, the Gothic writing of the work proved to be a useful yardstick for the calligraphy, in the same style, present on the Vinland Map.
But at this point, a decisive element comes into play: the woodworm holes present on the ancient map of Vinland which coincided perfectly with those found on the Speculum. Not only that but on the back of the map there was also the writing Speculum, on which Witten had conjectured since his discovery, trying to understand to which work the anonymous editor of the map was referring. It goes without saying that the dimensions of the work and those of the map were the same: 27.8 X 41 centimeters.
In short, a lucky series of coincidences allowed Witten, a year after the discovery of the Vinland Map, to go back to the original work of which it was part: the Speculum Historiale.
This is where a third character comes into play: philanthropist Paul Mellon, a former Yale student and a sincere supporter of the map's authenticity. It was he who bought it for $ 300,000 (about $ 2,600,000 at current value ) from the Witten family and sold it to Yale University. In the following years, the uproar aroused by the Vinland map attracted many exceptional supporters including the same Skelton and Painter who in 1957 had first analyzed the map.
It is difficult to imagine the media echo aroused in the 1960s by the Vinland map, a small parchment capable of questioning the primacy attributed to Christopher Columbus.
We must also think that in the 1960s the research conducted at Insle aux medaow, the first Norwegian settlement discovered in America, was still ongoing and, in black and white, the irrefutable proof of the Viking maritime primacy over the navigators of the Mediterranean unleashed stadium typhus between the supporters of authenticity and its detractors. The former would have received a knockout uppercut in 1974; from which they would recover only about ten years later.
Or a modern fake?
At the time when the Vinland map was discovered by Witten, the confirmation of the authenticity of an ancient manuscript was based, on the intuition of the discoverer, a non-decisive and rather biased element and on historical and comparative analyzes of calligraphy.
Thus it took about ten years before in 1974 the innovations in the field of microscopy allowed McCrone Associates to carry out an analysis of the ink present on the map. The amount of anatase, a pure pigment of titanium dioxide found in the samples taken, gave the final blow to the supporters of authenticity: the massive presence of anatase undoubtedly placed the Vinland map at no earlier than the 1920s. . The quantity of this element was in fact incompatible with medieval inks.
End of the story? Not at all, the following decades saw a back and forth between one faction and the other.
In 1985, analysis by the Crocker Nuclear Laboratory questioned the reliability of previous research: the traces of titanium dioxide were not representative of all the ink on the map. As proof of this, the fact that higher quantities of anatase were found in the Gutenberg Bible. This did not mean, as the authors of the study were quick to point out, that the Vinland map was authentic, but only that an ink compatible with those used in the Middle Ages had been used for its realization.
Other decisive evidence supporting the hypothesis of a modern forgery would come in 2002 with the research published in the journal Analytical Chemistry which once again focused, but with more advanced means, on the amount of titanium dioxide present on the map. And in the same year, it was the researcher Kirsten A. Seaver, an expert in ancient maps, who put forward the most suggestive hypothesis about the author of the Vinland map, corroborating the hypothesis of a modern forgery.
The clues brought by Seaver to support her theory tighten the circle around the figure of Joseph Fischer, a Jesuit, expert in cartography and ancient maps. An authority on the subject, to whom we owe the discovery of the lost map by Martin Waldseemuller, which disappeared in 1507 and was found by Fischer in the library of Wolfegg Castle in Württemberg. Not a small map, given that the term America appeared for the first time and for the purchase of which, in 2002, the Library of Congress would have shelled out 10 million dollars.
Joseph Fischer had within him all those skills that Larry Witten thought impossible for one person when he discovered the Vinland map.
There was no motivation, but even for this Seaver had a solution. The Jesuit cartographer would have made the Vinland map to make fun of Nazi theories of Aryan superiority. It was precisely because of the German occupation of Austria that Fischer was forced to abandon his chair of History and Geography at the Stella Matutina college in Feldkirch, Austria.
The Vinland map would have been proof that the Aryan Norwegians had first discovered America, but, as we read on the Vinland map, it was Bishop Eric of Greenland who accompanied them in the exploration of the new lands to the west. he had taken possession of the new settlements in the name of Almighty God, confirming the primacy of the Church of Rome over the Aryan ideology. As if to say: this time to we got there first.
If the motivation appears somewhat nebulous to you, you are in good company, but it must be said that the reasons supporting Seaver's hypothesis rely on a thorough knowledge of Fischer's personality and on the way in which a Jesuit scholar could have mock the hated Nazis.
Vinland Map: Where We Are
To dispel any doubts about the authenticity of the Vinland map, with a lapidary statement, was in 2011 Paul Freedman, professor of history at Yale University: The Vinland map is, unfortunately, a fake.
It is a mistake to think that this is the end of the matter. In a 2012 paper, Dr. Jacqueline S. Oilin not only confirmed the medieval attribution of the ink on the Vinland Map but invited scholars to continue research to determine the origin of the map and accompanying manuscripts: the Tartar Relation and the Speculum Historiale. As we read in the report: Further research is needed regarding the provenance of the Vinland Map and the documents that are proposed to have been bound with it in the 15th century, also hoping for further research on ink and parchment.
Although, as in Seaver's suggestive hypothesis, medieval ink + medieval parchment does not necessarily result in a map of medieval origin, if there are characters like Joseph Fischer involved. And this is not necessarily the truth either.
What is certain is that archaeological research conducted at Anse aux Meadows, the first Viking settlement discovered in Newfoundland, has somewhat lessened the need for evidence to support Leif Eriksson's journey to the mythical Land of Vinland. There is less and less talk about the Vinland Map, yet there remains the testimony of how a map can ignite passions and diatribes so intense and profound as to find space in the daily world of those who use maps only to find the fastest route. to reach a destination.
It matters little whether the Vinland map is authentic or not, from the 15th century or the early 1920s. Because in both cases he told a story that many did not want to believe: that 400 years before Columbus, other adventurers, before him, had discovered the coasts of North America. Perhaps the dream of an angry Jesuit, or the authentic testimony of an ancient pilot book, the Vinland map tells of a journey that today, from archaeological evidence, we know to have really happened.