The Tabula Rogeriana, one of the most precise geographical maps of the Middle Ages

by Silvio Sannino

The Tabula Rogeriana is, without a doubt, among the greatest achievements of medieval cartography. Its drafting took place during the reign of Roger II, under whose dominion they were united, for the first time, all the lands of that kingdom which, albeit under different political and dynastic forms, would have survived until nineteenth century. His court, despite political, religious and cultural inclusion within the concert of European Christian monarchies, it was culturally polyphonic, gathering personalities from within it every corner of the Mediterranean and not only.

The Norman south was perhaps among the very few places in the history of humanity to be able to boast one interpolation of peoples and cultures so marked, inferable not only from official documents (often written in several languages) but even by coinage and from artistic and material productions, in which styles, iconographic motifs and production techniques from the Arab world, the Byzantine world and Western Christianity were linked, the three great fires which animated the Norman court.

The Tabula Rogeriana constitutes in this sense a thistorical testimony of the first order: its drafting could only be accomplished thanks to the centrality, within international exchanges, of Regnum Siciliae, continuously crossed by soldiers, pilgrims and traders, coming from every part of the then known world.

Tabula Rogeriana
Tabula Rogeriana

The Tabula Rogeriana: characteristics and drafting

The author of the paper, Al Idrisi, was among the great Islamic travelers of the Middle Ages. His wanderings allowed him to go to the north Africa to England, experiencing firsthand the characteristics of the places that he would later describe in his period of stay at the Norman court which probably began around 1145 and lasted until his death in 1165.

Al Idrisi was commissioned by Roger II to draw up one map of the then known world. The interest lavished by the monarch must have had so much roots in nature cultural how much policy: a work of this kind, perhaps only equaled by the works of Ptolemy (which among other things were consulted and used by Al Idrisi) showed the political and cultural strength of the new kingdom born in the south, interested in know the lands from which the goods came and the men who passed through it.

La Tabula Rogeriana, tra le più precise carte geografiche del medioevo
Roger II in Arab robes, Palatine Chapel of Palermo

The geographical horizons of the Tabula Rogeriana represented those cultural and commercial of the kingdom of Sicily, a hinge area between east and west. The original specimens of the Tabula Rogeriana are gone today lost, as well as most of the treasures of the Norman court. The specimen intended for the monarch was engraved on a silver disc weighing about three hundred pounds, while those manuscripts, probably finished shortly before the death of Roger II and written in Latin and Arabic, they included, in addition to the descriptions of the various areas represented on the map, also the drawing of a small planisphere.

The drafting of this work, mammoth for the time, according to the chronicles, it took about 15 years. to gather information on different parts of the world they were questioned numerous travelers passing through the kingdom as well as used numerous royal emissaries to gather information. The result still appears astonishing today:

La Tabula Rogeriana, tra le più precise carte geografiche del medioevo
ducal of Roger II

The Tabula Rogeriana includes within it North Africa, all of Europe and almost all of Asia. The direction in which the card is represented is also a further and precious cultural testimony: the axis is reverse compared to the one conventionally used today, it “flips” north and south. This peculiar given makes us understand how the systems of cataloging and subdivision of the world are historically determined e merely conventional in almost any case.

The Tabula Rogeriana constitutes one of the most great scientific and cultural achievements of the Middle Ages. It will remain the most accurate map of the world for about three centuries. The polyphony of the Palermo court will be a useful legacy for posterity: it allowed the spread of the Tabula in all over the Mediterranean: although the original has been lost, ten manuscripts are preserved, preserved in various places in Europe and the Mediterranean, from Cairo until Oxford.

La Tabula Rogeriana, tra le più precise carte geografiche del medioevo
Sicily in the Tabula Rogeriana

Bibliography

Leo Bagrow, History of Cartography, Taylor & Francis, 2017

Marina Tolmacheva, The Medieval Arabic Geographers and the Beginnings of Modern Orientalism, International Journal of Middle East Studies, May, 1995, Vol. 27, No. 2 (May, 1995), pp. 141-156, Cambridge University Press

GM Cantarella, Roger II: the Norman conqueror who founded the Kingdom of Sicily, Salerno publishing, 2020

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