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Art / Carta Marina

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Sea serpents and maelstroms and giant whales, oh my!

The Carta Marina is a Renaissance-era map of Northern Europe and the North Atlantic, printed in 1539 in Venice. Carta Marina means Sea Map, but this is only an abridged nickname; the full title (Carta Marina et Descriptio Septemtrionalium Terrarum ac Mirabilium Rerum in Eis Contentarum) translates to Sea Map and Description of the Northern Countries and the Marvels Contained in Them. It is frequently reproduced for the sake of its lavish illustrations.

The Carta Marina was created by Olaus Magnus (1490-1557), a learned and widely travelled Catholic Swedish dignitary who lived in Italy after Sweden had joined the Protestant Reformation. The original was printed in an extremely limited edition of nine copies, so as to increase its value. Only two of these survive today (located in Munich and Stockholm respectively), although a scaled-down replica was produced in 1572, of which several copies survive. The original map was not colored, and none of the two remaining specimens is.


The size of the original map is 1,25 m x 1,70 m. It consists of nine separate woodcuts, each marked with a capital letter from A to I, and combined in a 3 x 3 grid. There are three different commentaries that go with the map, a Latin one in the bottom left sheet of the map itself, and two separately printed ones in German and Italian respectively. Of these, the Italian commentary is somewhat more exaggerated and fantastic.

The Carta Marina has the merit of being the first fairly correct map of Scandinavia, and for a long time helped to shape the popular image of Scandinavia in the rest of Europe. The most salient feature of the map, however, is the gallery of blood-curdling sea-monsters that populate the map's North Atlantic. Descriptions and pictures of sea-monsters throughout the 16th and 17th century and beyond are frequently based on the Carta Marina.


You can explore the Carta Marina of 1539 online as a virtual tour or as an interactive version. There is also an interactive version of the 1572 reprint.

See also A Description of the Northern Peoples.


  • Behemoth Battle:
    • While Ziphius, a "terrible seamonster" (actually a swordfish), is swallowing a whole seal, it is itself attacked by an unnamed monster which is sinking its teeth into Ziphius' side.
    • South of Tile, a whale (balena) is being attacked by an orca.
  • Eyes Do Not Belong There: The "monster seen in 1537", called a "sea-hog" in the commentary, has three additional eyes on each side of his body, making eight eyes in total.
  • Giant Enemy Crab. There is a kind of giant lobster between Orkney and the Hebrides, holding a man in his claw. According to the commentary, this monster is called "Polypus" and is considered very dangerous.
  • Horse of a Different Colour: To the east of "Finnmarchia", there is an armed troop of "Scricfinns" ("Skiing Finns", meaning Saami) riding to battle on reindeers.
  • Kraken and Leviathan: The map depicts numerous "pristers", which are whales "as big as mountains" and which can capsize a large ship just by surfacing from the water.
  • Loud of War: South of Iceland, a ship is being pursued by two "pristers" (giant whales) while a man standing on the ship is blowing a trumpet. The commentary explains that the sound of trumpets frightens pristers away, which is necessary to prevent them from capsizing ships.
  • Mega Maelstrom: There is a large swirl in the sea amid the Lofoten islands, captioned Hec est horrenda Caribdis ("This is the horrible Charybdis"). There is also a small ship in the middle of the maelstrom that is apparently just being sucked down.
  • Portent of Doom:
    • The appearance of the Great Norwegian Serpent ("200 feet long and over 20 feet thick") is a bad omen that betokens a sudden change of rule in Norway, or else an imminent war.
    • Mermen coming near ships is a sign of imminent danger, and may actually presage the sinking of the ship.
  • Sea Monster: There is a sea-serpent, numerous types of gigantic whales, a merman, a marine unicorn, a sea-cow, a kind of giant seahorse, a giant lobster holding a man in his claws, a bizarre "sea-hog", a so-called "sea monk" and various other weird fishes or sea creatures.
  • Turtle Island: The English ("Angli") have cast anchor on a giant whale and apparently boil a kettle on its back.


Example of: