Cultural events

The golden age of nautical charts - When Europeans discovered the rest of the world


from October 23, 2012 to January 27, 2013 François-Mitterrand / Large gallery

The Bibliothèque nationale de France holds such treasures as scientific documents that take us back to the time of great discoveries.
As the most extraordinary pieces, one can find the parchment and often enriched with gold illuminated nautical charts, called ‘portulans charts’ (from the Italian term ‘portolano’, book of nautical instructions). These maps show the succession of harbours along the coasts; the rhumb lines dotted on the maps correspond to bearings as measured to relative north. Thanks to this graphic system, navigators could find their way by writing down on the chart the distance they thought they had covered.

The oldest portulan chart would date from the late 13th century: it is the famous ‘Carta pisana’, housed at the Department of maps and plans. Only a few portulans charts among the oldest ones have survived to this day. The BnF’s collection is the biggest in the world as it gathers five hundred portulans charts. Both technical innovations and scientific objects, ‘portulans charts’ also represent the quest for faraway lands. These often impressive polychrome works of art are spectacular; furthermore, they conjure up some sort of exotic universe.
The exhibition presents a selection of 200 main pieces: charts, globes, astronomy tools, objets d’art and ethnographic objects, stuffed animals, drawings, prints, paintings and manuscripts. These items belong to the BnF’s collections or are exceptional loans from the musée du Quai Branly, musée Guimet, musée du Louvre, Arts et métiers, Mobilier national, musée de la marine, Service historique de la Défense, British Library, Italian and French regional institutions. The exhibition focuses on various issues: sailing conditions and use of charts; discovery of Africa, Asia, Americas and the Pacific; rivalry of maritime powers; geographical knowledge transmission between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean sea; creation and dissemination of the iconography of the new worlds, its landscapes, peoples, customs, fauna and flora.



With the support of

Logo de la fondation Total Logo d'Esri France

In partnership with

L’Histoire - La Croix - Le Figaro Magazine

Visites guidées


Les vendredis à 16h et les dimanches à 15h aux dates suivantes :

  • novembre : vendredi 2, dimanche 4, vendredis 9 et 16, dimanche 18, vendredi 23, dimanche 25, vendredi 30
  • décembre : dimanche 2, vendredi 7, dimanche 9, vendredi 14, dimanche 16, vendredis 21 et 28, dimanche 30
  • janvier 2013 : vendredi 4, dimanche 6, vendredi 11, dimanche 13, vendredi 18, dimanche 20, vendredi 25, dimanche 27

Visites sur réservation au 01 53 79 49 49 ou
Prix d'entrée de l'exposition +3 €.


Renseignements et inscriptions 01 53 79 49 49 ou

Accompagnement pédagogique


  • Ateliers : Voyager à l’âge d’or de la carte marine/Marco Polo et la route de la soie/Des globes de Louis XIV au Voyage autour du monde de Bougainville/Dans l’atelier du cartographe à l’époque de Coronelli
  • Visites guidées enseignants, visites guidées pour les classes de primaire, collège et lycée
  • Ressources en ligne : et iTunes U > BnF

Friday, September 14, 2012

Voir aussi