Cartography of Brazil in the Hispanic Monarchy

The early modern European period was marked by important changes in the way of thinking about space and representing it in cartography. If during the medieval period the maps were linked to an idea of symbolic space, in early modernity there is a transformation in this conception. From geometry, space starts to be thought mathematically, admitting blank spaces, unknown territories, which before were not part of the cartographic imagination of the West (Padrón, 2002: 28). Another important change in the 16th century is the way governance is understood. Sovereignty, which in medieval Europe was linked to power over people, gradually passes, over the centuries, to the idea of territoriality, a territorial sovereignty. These two changes, both in the way of conceiving and governing spaces, brought a valorization of cartography in the period, making it one of the pillars of the modern state building project (Kagan and Schimidt, 2007: 661-662). These transformations can be seen even during the reign of Charles V, with the emperor’s growing interest in learning the secrets of cosmography and astronomy. It was necessary to understand the shape of his territories, to visualize them. Cartography then became official, produced on demand and under the control of the crowns, and used for jurisdictional disputes – a practice made possible by the revolution in the way of thinking about space. The period of the union of the Iberian crowns, between 1580 and 1640, was significant for this change. Charles V transmitted to his son, Philip II, not only his knowledge of geography and cartography, but also the idea of incorporating regular instruction in these sciences in the training of princes, a tradition that permeated the entire Habsburg dynasty (Kagan and Schimidt, 2007: 664). The reign of the first of the Felipe, between 1556 and 1558, is considered a moment of deep appreciation and encouragement of cartographic production, in the service of the administration of the empire. Maps became indispensable tools of imperial power, instruments of government (Doré, 2014: 171). It was under the orders of Felipe II that one of the largest mapping projects of the American territories was carried out: the Relaciones Geográficas, completed in the 1570s by two prominent Spanish cosmographers: Alonso de Santa Cruz and Juan López de Velasco. The first modern atlas, the Theatrum Orbim Terrarum, by cartographer Abraham Ortelius, was also prepared at the king’s request, in 1570. In the 1584 edition of the atlas appear the maps of America by Diego Gutiérrez and Jerónimo de Chaves – with emphasis on the territory of Brazil separated from the rest of America by the basins of the River Plate and Amazon, illustrating one of the most important cartographic issues concerning the borders between Portugal and Spain in America, the so-called myth of the island-Brazil (Cortesão, 1965; Costa, 1999; Bonato, 2018). It is in this context of institutionalization of cartography that can be understood the maps drawn about the Portuguese territories recently annexed to the monarchy. Despite the great interest in the production of geographic knowledge in the rest of the empire, historiography points to the marginal place of the Portuguese territories in America. Despite some requests from the monarchs, it seems that there was no major project to map these spaces (Doré, 2014: 74). Among the documents that have been preserved, we find the representation of the lands of Brazil on the map of South America included in the beautifully ornamented atlas by Joan Martines, which had several editions in the second half of the century. In 1591 Martines was appointed by Philip II as royal cosmographer. Already in the seventeenth century probably commissioned by Felipe III, Lucas de Quirós includes an intensely colored map of all South America in his work Description Corographica de las provincias del Piru Chile nuevo Reyno i tierra firme of 1618. The author signs the map as cartografo mayor del mar del sur. (Buisseret, 2007: 1146). The interest of the Habsburg kings in the cartography of the new territories annexed in America can also be seen through more specific works, produced in the first decades of the century. One example is the Atlas de las costas y los puertos de las posesiones portuguesas en América y África, an anonymous document preserved in the National Library of Spain called. The atlas shows in fifteen maps details of the coast of the State of Brazyl. The estimated date for the atlas is 1635 (Cortesão; Mota, vol.V, 1960, p.121-122). Another, much better known work, the Livro que dá razão do Estado do Brasil, shows the connection between the Crown and Portuguese cartographers. Before dealing with the work, it is interesting to note the different interpretations given by historiography devoted to the subject of Portuguese cartographers under the reign of the Filipes. For a long time the Habsburg period was considered as one of decline and even decadence of Portuguese cartographic production (Cortesão, 1935: 32). Currently other works question this interpretation, demonstrating the large production of cartographic documents in the period (Alegria et alli., 2007: 991). Specifically about the region of present-day Brazil, the analysis of Portuguese maps produced between the beginning of the 16th century and the end of the 17th century shows a visible concentration between the decades of 1620 and 1640 (Alegria et alli., 2007: 996). On the other hand, as already suggested, numerous references to this space during the period are not preserved in the Spanish archives (Santos Pérez in. Cabria, 2008: 51). In any case, the Livro que dá razão do Estado do Brasil, written by Diogo Campos Moreno, and illustrated with maps by João Teixeira Albernaz I, was produced in the years 1612 and 1613. João Teixeira was a royal cosmographer and a member of one of Portugal’s most distinguished families of cartographers, of which at least five generations of cartographers are known. He was the son of Luis Teixeira Albernaz, who was a major cartographer in Portugal and brother of Pedro Teixeira Albernaz, with whom he worked in Madrid in the service of another Portuguese, João Batista Lavanha, major cartographer under Philip III (Cuesta Domingo, 2010: 31). Twenty-four works are attributed to João Teixeira, including nineteen atlases, which makes him the Portuguese cartographer with the largest number of known charts in the seventeenth century (Cortesão; Mota, vol. IV, 1960, p.79). Most of the works of João Teixeira concerns Brazil, among them are the Descripção de toda a costa da Provinsia de Santa Cruz and the Atlas of Brazil. In the Livro que dá razão do Estado do Brasil there are about two dozen maps, with details of the Atlantic coast of present-day Brazil. Besides the chorographic plans, the author included in the work one of the most important maps of the period, with the title “Description of the whole state of Brazil, that to the north begins in Grão- Pará, whose entrance is under the equinoctial, and to the south ends in the entrance of the Rio da Prata, in height of 35 degrees. Are shown in this letter all their ports, in their true heights and in the following tables each one in particular, with its probes, bars and settlements. And together it is shown, this map, the confrontation that has this state with the lands of Peru and the New World, and with the Straits of Magellan and St. Vincent”. Only a small part of the cartographic production of the Philippine period was published contemporaneously. Most maps remained in manuscript, largely because of the attempts of the Iberian crowns to maintain secrecy about the geographic knowledge of the overseas territories from the beginning of the discoveries. The difficult balance between the desire to hide the location of the newly discovered lands and routes and the constant need for new navigational charts (Sandman, 2007: 1139), as well as the circulation of cartographers of different naturalities in various European courts in the period show the difficulties and limits of this policy. If the publication of maps on the peninsula was small in the period, the turn of the seventeenth century marks the flourishing of the golden age of cartography in the Netherlands. Antwerp, throughout the 16th century and later Amsterdam were the central cities of map production and trade (Doré, 2015: 27). Besides the atlas of Abraham Ortelius, Philip II’s geographer born in Antwerp, other important atlases were published in the Netherlands at the turn of the century, with boards representing all of South America. Gerard Mercator’s Atlas sive Cosmographicae meditationes de fabrica mvndi et fabricati figvra of 1595 is one of the best known. It was constantly reprinted and updated, by different families of cartographers. In 1606, Jodocus Hondius published the atlas again after acquiring the plates from the original, including forty maps of his own. These editions came to be known as the Mercator-Hondius series. In the following decades, Jodocus’ son Henricus Hondius made new editions of the atlas in partnership with his brother-in-law, Joannes Janssonius, the Mercator-Hondius-Janssonius series (Cross, 1918: 68). Besides these atlases, it is important to highlight the production of Willem Jansz Blaeu, notably the mural maps of South America, with the borders entirely decorated by drawings showing views of cities and the populations of the new world. Another important figure for the study of cartography about Brazil in the period is Georg Marcgraf. The botanist, astronomer, and naturalist came to Brazil with Mauricio de Nassau, in the context of the conquest of the captaincy of Pernambuco by the Dutch. Marcgraf produced maps that were considered for centuries to be the most accurate representations of northeastern Brazil (Vieira in Doré; Furtado, 2022: 79).


Alegria, M. F. et alii. (2007). Portuguese cartography in the Renaissance. En Woodward, D. (ed) The history of cartography. Volume Three. Cartography in the European Renaissance. Part 1. Chicago: The Chicago University Press.

Bonato, T. (2018) Articulando escalas: cartografia e conhecimento geográfico da Bacia Platina (1515-1628). (Tese de Doutorado). Universidade Federal do Paraná, Curitiba.

Buisseret, D. (2007). Spanish colonial cartography, 1450-1700. En Woodward, D. (ed) The history of cartography. Volume Three. Cartography in the European Renaissance. Part 1. Chicago: The Chicago University Press.

Cabria, J. V. B. (2008). Cartografia manuscrita de Brasil en las colecciones españolas (1500-1822). Salamanca: Universidad de Salamanca. 

Cortesão, A. (1935) Cartografia e cartógrafos portugueses dos séculos XV e XVI (Contribuição para um estudo completo). Vol. I. Lisboa: Seara Nova.

Cortesão, A., Mota, A. T. (1987) Portugaliae Monumenta Cartographica. Volumes I-V. Lisboa: Imprensa Nacional, Casa da Moeda.

Cortesão J. (1965). História do Brasil nos velhos mapas. Tomo 1. Brasília: Ministério das Relações Exteriores, Instituto Rio Branco.

Costa, M.F. (1999). História de um país inexistente. O pantanal entre os séculos XVI e XVIII. São Paulo: Cosmos, 1999. 

Cross, R. (1918). Dutch cartographers of the seventeenth century. Geographical Review, n. 6, 1, p.66-70.

Cuesta Domingo, M. (2010). Tres cartógrafos portugueses en la corte de España: Ribeiro, Lavanha, Teixeira. Lisboa: Academia Portuguesa de História.

Doré, A. (2014). O deslocamento de interesses da Índia para o Brasil durante a União Ibérica: mapas e relatos. Colonial Latin American Review, 23, 2, 171–196.

Doré, A. (2015). A América do Sul no mapa mural de Willem Blaeu de 1608: contribuições para a construção do continente. Domínios da Imagem, 9, 17, p. 26-42.

Kagan, R., Schmidt, B. (2007). Maps and the early modern state: Official cartography. En Woodward, D. (ed) The history of cartography. Volume Three. Cartography in the European Renaissance. Part 1. Chicago: The Chicago University Press.

Padrón, R. (2002). Mapping Plus Ultra: Cartography, Space, and Hispanic Modernity.  Representations, 79, 28-60.

Martín-Meras, L. (1992). Cartografia marítima hispana. La imagem de América. Madrid: Lunwerg for Ministerio de Obras Públicas, Transportes y Medio Ambiente.

Mundy, B. (1996). The mapping of New Spain. Indigenous cartography and the maps of the Relaciones Geográficas. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Portuondo, M. (2009). Secret Science: Spanish cosmography and the new world. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sandman, A. (2007). Spanish Nautical Cartography in the Renaissance. En Woodward, D. (ed) The history of cartography. Volume Three. Cartography in the European Renaissance. Part 1. Chicago: The Chicago University Press.

Vieira, D. L. (2022) O Brasil holandês. Brasilia qua parte paret Belgis, Georg Marcgraf, 1647. En Doré, A., Furtado, J. História do Brasil em 25 mapas. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras.


Tiago Bonato (Universidade Federal da Integração Latino-Americana)

How to quote this entry:

Tiago Bonato. “Cartography of Brazil in the Hispanic Monarchy“. In: BRASILHIS Dictionary: Biographic and Thematic Dictionary of Brazil in the Spanish Monarch (1580-1640). Available in: Date of access: 25/06/2024.

Keep Reading