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Monday, April 25, 2011

THE ORIGIN OF THE COMPASS ROSE

                
     The compass rose has appeared on maps since the 1300's when the portolan charts first made their appearance. These were charts frequently drawn on sheepskin which showed coastal features and ports. In earlier days, what could be used as a harbour encompassed more of the coastline than now. As ships were smaller back then they might need to seek refuge more often and some ships were intentionally beached for maintenance and repairs. Thus, nearly any protected bay or flat beach might be of interest to mariners, for safe harbour but also as coastal reconnaissance.

     The straight lines criss-crossing many portolan charts represent the thirty-two directions (or headings) of the mariner's compass from a given point. This is similar to the compass rose displayed on later maps and charts. Unfortunately, portolan charts failed to take into account the curvature of the earth. Therefore, they were not helpful navigational tools in crossing the open ocean. But they were of use in close quarter identification of landmarks and were used for navigation in smaller bodies of water, such as the Mediterranean, Black, or Red Seas.

     The term "rose" in compass rose is derived from the figure's compass points resembling the petals of the well-known flower. Originally, this device was used to indicate the directions of the winds (and it was then known as a wind rose), but the 32 points of the compass rose come from the directions of the eight major winds, the eight half-winds and the sixteen quarter-winds.

      In the Middle Ages, the names of the winds were commonly known throughout the Mediterranean countries as Tramontana (N), Greco (NE), Levante (E), Siroco (SE), Otro (S), Libeccio (SW), Ponente (W), Maestro (NW).
   
    On portolan charts you can see the initials of these winds labeled around the edge as T, G, L, S, O, L, P, and M. The 32 points are therefore simple bisections of the directions of the four winds.
                                       
       For western apprentice seamen, one of the first things they had to know were the names of the points. Naming them all off perfectly was known as "boxing the compass".

     There is no absolute standard for drafting a compass rose, and each school of cartographers seems to have developed their own style. In the earliest charts, north is indicated by a spearhead above the letter T for tramontana. (Tramontana or Tramontane can refer to Tramontane, a northern wind).

       This symbol evolved into a fleur-de-lys around the time of Columbus and was first seen on Portuguese maps. Also in the 14th century, the L was found representing levante.  (Viento de Levante is  an easterly wind that blows in the western Mediterranean.  Levant indicates the lands in the eastern Mediterranean, covering Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq).

      Seaon the east side of the rose was replaced with a cross, indicating the direction to Paradise long thought to be in the east, or at least to where Christ was born.


      The colors on the figure are supposedly the result of the need for graphic clarity rather than a mere cartographical whim. On a rolling ship at night by the light of a flickering lamp, these figures had to be clearly visible. Therefore the eight principle points of the compass are usually shown on the compass rose in black which stands out easily. Against this background, the points representing the half-winds are typically colored in blue or green and since the quarter-wind points are the smallest, they are usually colored red.

     Today, wind roses are used by meteorologists to depict wind frequencies from different directions at a location. The compass rose is used in global-positioning systems (GPS) and similar equipment and devices.


     The compass rose is also seen in tile and inlay.


   


  In flower arranging, embroidery, and woodworking.
  


    
              
   And the more flamboyant renditions are favorites in the tattoo world.  




  

Thanks to Bill Thoen for his invaluable article.

1 comment:

  1. Very beautiful! I'm an ex-mariner and a lot of this is new to me. The wind-rose, or compass rose, and the incorporation of the Fleur de lis had to be very evocative of land and matters of the heart for sailors at sea for weeks on end. I don't think this is an accident, but some notion that the winds or the compass could carry the mariner back to his love.

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