Diogo Ribeiro: Portrait of a 'Renaissance' Cartographer

Diogo Ribeiro's 1529 Vatican Planisphere.
Diogo Ribeiro's 1529 Vatican Planisphere. (Source.)

Diogo Ribeiro was a Renaissance cartographer, a mapmaker who did it all. In addition to creating several of the most extensive world maps of the early sixteenth century, Ribeiro sailed with Portugal's first expeditions to India and beyond, and he was an inventor and maker of navigation instruments. With this background he defected to Castile where he became a key player in the planning for Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition, and he later served as an adviser in negotiations over whether the Spice Islands lay in Spanish or Portuguese territory—backing the Spanish case with some grand cartographical deception.

Diogo Ribeiro's Early Career

Ribeiro[1] was Portuguese but spent much of his career working for the Spanish in Seville. He apparently sailed with early Portuguese expeditions including Vasco da Gama’s first voyage to India in 1502 and later with the fleet of Alfonso Albuquerque in 1509. Among those who joined the latter armada was Magellan.

Europe as shown on Ribeiro's Vatican Planisphere.
Europe as shown on Ribeiro's Vatican Planisphere.

After returning to Portugal, Riberio joined a group of cartographers and explorers who grew frustrated with King Manuel—whom they felt failed to reward those who served in India—a group that moved to neighboring Spain to serve the newly crowned King Charles I (Holy Roman Emperor Charles V as of 1519). Others in the group included Magellan, Duarte Barbosa, Estêvão Gomes, and cartographers Jorge Reinel, Francisco Faleiro, and Ruy Faleiro, the latter originally Magellan’s partner in his grand enterprise.

As Magellan’s fleet was being prepared in 1519, Ruy Faleiro began to show signs of mental illness, and the task of preparing the needed maps and charts fell to Ribeiro along with Pedro Reinel and his son Jorge Reinel. As a cartographer Ribeiro both contributed to Magellan’s expedition and later benefitted from the knowledge gained during the voyage.

Astrolabe from Ribeiro's Vatican Planisphere.
Astrolabe from Ribeiro's Vatican Planisphere.

In addition to maps, Ribeiro produced quadrants, astrolabes, and other navigation instruments for Magellan’s fleet, illustrations of which would later find their way onto Ribeiro’s most famous maps, a bit of cartographical advertising, possibly. 

Ribeiro After Magellan's Departure

After Magellan’s fleet sailed, Ribeiro remained in Seville making instruments and maps. In 1523, a year after Magellan’s Victoria completed its unplanned circumnavigation, Ribeiro was appointed royal cosmographer and “master in the art of creating maps, astrolabes, and other instruments” with an annual salary of 30,000 maravedis paid by the Casa de Contratación, the crown agency that oversaw trade with the “Indies.” Ribeiro would hold this position until his death in 1533, though he continued to produce instruments as a private business on the side.

In 1524, Ribeiro helped the Genoese ambassador Martin Centurion make a Spanish translation of the Book of Duarte Barbosa (Portuguese: Livro de Duarte Barbosa), a Portuguese guide to the trading ports of East Africa, India, and what was known of Asia at the time.[2] 

Portugal had tried to protect its growing knowledge of geography and navigation, making it illegal to bring charts and maps out of the kingdom, but Ribero and the other defectors had taken it all with them to Seville and combined the Portuguese knowledge base with the newest information collected by Spanish explorers. 

Ribeiro's Padrón Real Maps

Ribeiro is best known for his versions of the Padrón Real, the official template that, regularly updated, was used for maps on all Spanish expeditions. Cartographers and pilots who contributed to the Padrón Real included Ribeiro, Amerigo Vespucci, Sebastian Cabot, Alonzo de Santa Cruz, and Juan Lopez de Velasco.

Another of the Portuguese defectors, Estêvão Gomes, had made at least one voyage to India with the Portuguese and became a rival of Magellan’s in Seville, proposing his own expedition to King Charles. When Magellan’s plan was chosen, Gomes was named pilot major of Magellan’s fleet, where friction between the two men grew. Gomes was one of two officers who at the mouth of the strait took charge of the San Antonio and deserted, sailing back to Spain, bringing with them badly needed provisions.

The Americans on Ribeiro's Vatican Planisphere.
The Americas on Ribeiro's Vatican Planisphere.

In 1524, Gomes joined a new expedition across the Atlantic seeking a northwest passage that would be a shorter route to the Moluccas than Magellan’s. After failing to find one Gomes returned to Spain, and (like Christopher Columbus) he didn’t want to return empty-handed, so he kidnapped a number of “Indians” in Maine or Nova Scotia. At least fifty-eight survived.

Ribeiro took one of them into his home, a man (also) christened Diogo who had learned some Spanish and served as an interpreter. Ribeiro used information obtained from Diogo and the expedition’s crew to complete a map known as the Castiglione map. The information allowed him to fill an important gap along the North American coastline. (The area Gomes charted is listed on the map above, top center, "Tiera de Esteva Gomez.")

In 1529 and 1530 Ribeiro created the series of world maps he is best known for, the 1529 “Vatican” (also Borgian) map (top), the 1527 Weimar map, and the 1530 Wolfenbuttel map, three versions of the official Padrón Real. These show the full extent of the Pacific Ocean along with as much North American coastline as had been charted. The west of North America and much of South America is left blank.

Among Ribeiro’s final efforts was the invention of a metal pump that could empty ships’ bilgewater more efficiency and the pump was tested successfully, though before it could be widely adopted, a less-expensive wooden pump of similar power hit the market. Ribeiro died in August 1533. His date of birth is unknown, but if he sailed in da Gama’s armada as a young man, by 1533 he would have been in his fifties.

One thing that’s clear: Diogo Ribeiro was a renaissance thinker as opposed to a medieval man. Columbus by contrast believed firmly in the old maps and when he reached the Caribbean he was certain he had landed in the East Indies and that not far beyond lay Japan and China—a mistaken view he would insist on to his death. The old maps and the Scriptures showed only Europe, Africa, and Asia, and most Europeans of Columbus’s generation couldn’t conceive that the old maps and the Holy Scriptures might be wrong.

Ribeiro, conversely, continually learned and worked to discover what the wisdom of the ages could not offer. And just as the Renaissance humanists often wrote, painted, studied, and even invented, Ribeiro pursued interests in every field related to cartography and geography, right down to sailing and exploring, and manufacturing the technology and equipment involved.

A separate post on Ribeiro's Vatican Planisphere will follow soon.



1. Portuguese: Diogo Ribeiro; Spanish: Diego Ribero or Rivero.

2. Historians long credited the Duarte Barbosa who accompanied Magellan on the Armada de Molucca for this book, but three men of that name served in India at the time, and recent manuscript studies have pointed to it being a different Barbosa who wrote the book.

By John Sailors,

Enrique of Malacca's Voyage


Vigneras, L. A. “The Cartography of Diogo Ribeiro.” Imago Mundi Ltd.

Davies, Surekha. “The Navigational Iconography of Diogo Ribeiro's 1529 Vatican Planisphere.” Imago Mundi Ltd, 2003.

Ferrar, Michael J. “Diogo Ribeiro and the Square Padrón Real M. F. de Encisco, Suma de Geographia; His Geogapher.” Cartography Unchained, 2020.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. HarperCollins, New York, 2015.

Joyner, Tim. Magellan. International Marine, Camden, Maine. 1992.

Brotton, Jerry. “A History of the World in Twelve Maps: From Ptolemy to Google Earth, the world has been mapped by visionaries.” Time, 2013.

Wikipedia Links

Diogo Ribeiro. A good writeup with a links to high-resolution images of Ribeiro's work.

Padrón Real. A basic writeup with links to high-resolution images of example maps.

(C) 2023 by John Sailors. All rights reserved.

See also:

Map of Enrique of Malacca's circumnavigation
Map of Enrique of Malacca's circumnavigation: Malacca, Lisbon, Seville,
Rio de Janeiro, Puerto San Julián, Guam, Limasawa, Cebu.[1]

On March 28, 1521, Enrique of Malacca became the first person to complete a linguistic circumnavigation of the globe—he traveled so far in one direction that he reached a point where his own language was spoken. Enrique’s journey began a decade earlier following the sack of Malacca, when he was taken as a slave by Ferdinand Magellan. A teenager, he accompanied Magellan back to Portugal, then to Spain, and finally on the Armada de Molucca to locate a westward route to the Spice Islands. More about Enrique of Malacca.

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