Putting Canada on the map – literally


If you were to look at a world map today, you’d probably take it for granted that the word ‘Canada’ would be on it, but this wasn’t always the case.

Paolo Forlani, a map engraver and cartographer from 16th century Italy, was the first to use the word on a printed map. Though others had written ‘Canada’ in their manuscripts earlier, and though he never ventured out into the western part of the world himself, he is credited with spreading the country’s name more widely than anyone before him with his 1560 world map. “Within the context of 16th century Venice, Forlani may not have revolutionized cartography, but through his work as an engraver his maps made accessible some of the first geographic information from the New World,” says Thora Gustafsson, the archivist responsible for private cartography at Library and Archives Canada.

Pierre Desceliers is recognized for having written the name on his 1546 handwritten map, but few people had seen it, Gustafsson explains. It may seem like a simple feat, but it is because of Forlani’s map that Europeans would pay attention to this newly discovered portion of the world, and gain a better understanding of North America. “If he hadn’t done that, the country might have taken on a new name with time,” says Alban Berson, director of the heritage collection at the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec.

Berson says other cartographers might have started using other terminologies in their manuscripts, and then the country might have taken on another name entirely. He posits that if it weren’t for Forlani’s 1560 map, only a portion of the country might have been called Canada today.

Forlani was unique in his approach to cartography, as he was at once a cartographer and engraver—two jobs that were traditionally separate. “He was one of the most prolific engravers in Venice at a time when the city was producing more maps than any other city in Europe,” Gustafsson says.

Many today think of him as a compiler. Forlani frequently referred to, mimicked and combined a number of manuscripts and world maps, in order to print the most accurate depictions he could manage. “He compiled the work of others, but he had a good sense of aesthetics, and [knowledge] of business,” says Berson. “His work was often derived by previous work, but with changes in topography or place names.”

Forlani worked out of Venice, a veritable hub for cartography at the time, and developed a distinctly Venetian style in his engravings. It was also in Venice, during this period, that people started creating and selling collections of maps – a sort of predecessor to what would later become known as an atlas. “It was a very intellectual atmosphere,” Berson adds. Writing ‘Canada’ on his world map was far from Forlani’s only achievement. In 1565, he also became the first to print a map that focused solely on North America.

Forlani is the first known engraver to have produced a map that included the legendary ‘Arian Strait’, a version of what is now referred to as the Bering Strait. “[This means] that for the first time the Americas were seen as separate continents,” Gustafsson explains. He was also a major influence on Abraham Ortelius, a famous Flemish cartographer and geographer, best known for creating the first world atlas.

Like many cartographers of his time, Forlani livened his maps with intricate illustrations of sea creatures and other mythical figures. His drawing style would become iconic, with other cartographers adopting a similar style in subsequent centuries. “If you’re looking for evidence of his importance, the evidence is in the cost of his maps on the market today . . . they cost a fortune,” Berson adds.