Vincenzo Coronelli, the multifaceted Franciscan friar who drew the world and the cosmos for the Serenissima

19 January 2022

His terrestrial and celestial globes, enriched down to the last detail with all the geographical discoveries of the time, have enchanted the courts of Europe, from that of the Duke of Parma to that of Louis XIV in France. His geographical maps and encyclopaedic studies were so important in the scientific sphere that they left a tangible influence. Geographer, cartographer, cosmographer, encyclopaedist and expert in hydraulics: the multifaceted Franciscan friar Vincenzo Maria Coronelli dedicated his life to Venice, which this year celebrates the 1600th anniversary of its foundation, making available his knowledge and technique and significantly enriching the cultural and scientific heritage of the Serenissima.

Born in Venice on 15 August 1650, Vincenzo Coronelli entered at a very young age the Franciscan order in the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. Trained at a time when Venice was heavily investing in culture and science, the Franciscan friar managed to combine theoretical study with the importance of cultivating important diplomatic relations.

"He was ahead of his time from this point of view," says Elisabetta Vulcano, founder of the Centro Studi Riviera del Brenta and author of the recently published book Vincenzo Coronelli: a Glimpse on the River Brenta. "He managed to put down on paper all his studies, which were based not only on books but also on diplomatic relations with personalities he met during his life at the European courts. Coronelli used his connections to get them to describe the landscape, the city and the stretch of coastline where they lived. He then created a network of valuable informants, so that he could decipher the information on paper and tell the world to those who would later travel".

Furthermore, it was thanks to his connections that the Franciscan friar was able to visit some of the most prestigious courts in Europe, first and foremost that of Ranuccio Farnese, Duke of Parma, who in 1678 commissioned him the creation of two globes, of 1.75 metre of diameter, representing the Earth and the celestial bodies. Similarly, his friendship with Cardinal César d'Estrées, the French ambassador to Rome, took him to the court of Louis XIV in Paris, for whom he made two globes almost 4 metres in diameter and weighing 2 tonnes, far superior to any made at the time. Synthetic representations of the world then known and of the sky at the birth of the Sun King, these two handwritten works, considered to be the emblem of Louis XIV's enormous power, can still be admired at the National Library of France, in the François Mitterrand building.

The fame and admiration for his work grew to such an extent that, on his return to Venice in 1684, Coronelli was appointed Cosmographer of the Republic of Venice, a title he would be proud of for the rest of his life, and was given an annual salary to continue his work.

"The Serenissima fully supported the Franciscan friar because he was an illustrious figure," Vulcano continues, "and this support would bear its fruit: Coronelli carried out many studies that he converted into maps and charts, which at the time were the most important and up-to-date because they were the result of his inclination to continue studying the territory, not only the one in which he lived. Through the network of diplomatic connections he built in Europe, he codified the information he received to produce up-to-date maps. Vincenzo Coronelli was therefore an important figure for the Republic of Venice, who passed on to posterity an incredible cartographic and geographical heritage'.

From this point onwards, the Franciscan friar was tireless: in the same year as his return to his homeland, he founded the Accademia degli Argonauti, considered the oldest geographical society in the world, he finished the first volume of the Atlante Veneto, the first work of Italian cartography and geography to be able to hold its own against the most famous Dutch atlases, and he drew numerous maps for the Serenissima, aimed at showing the Venetians the territories they had conquered in the Mediterranean. He also continued his production of globes, some of which are still carefully preserved in the Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Marciana and in the Museo Correr.

But Vincenzo Coronelli's genius was not limited to cartography and globe-making. As a consultant to the Venice Republic's Water Authority, he also designed major public works, especially in the field of hydraulics, which were later implemented, such as the Murazzi, the imposing work in Istrian stone that still extends from the Lido to the Sottomarina coastline. Until the 18th century, in fact, the Serenissima spent a great deal of money every year to defend the lagoon from the fury of the sea storms: in the points where there was the greatest danger and damage, they tried to provide with the so-called palade, piles reinforced with stones which, however, did not last long. In 1716, Coronelli, in the appendix to his book Europa vivente, suggested a new and more stable method of defence, consisting of a wall of Istria stone blocks. As Elisabetta Vulcano points out, 'His skill lies in having analysed the context and sought solutions. He doesn't stop at a pure representation of the territory from a geographical point of view, but he skilfully studies it and the projects he does, such as the Murazzi and the series of engravings where he shows how the navigation sluices work. They are scientific plates: you lose the aesthetic aspect of the engraving, although they are also beautiful, and you concentrate on the ability to study how they work".

Even the lands of the Riviera del Brenta, considered at the time as the "great garden of Venice", did not escape the attentive eye of the Venetian friar, who studied and drew the architecture of its villas and palaces in a collection entitled La Brenta quasi borgo di Venezia, printed in Venice between 1708 and 1710 and including about 160 plates of the buildings between the lagoon and Padua. "With Coronelli we see, by comparing the palaces and villas present today, those that are still standing and those that have undergone enormous transformations," Vulcano says, "so it is a very important document from a geographical point of view. Perhaps this was the intention of the Venetian friar: not so much to give the idea that there was such an aesthetically and architecturally extraordinary waterway in the Riviera del Brenta, but to give a geographical meaning to the type of architecture that stood along the bends of the river Brenta at that time".

Coronelli's works are truly extraordinary for the era in which they were created, for the attention they paid to every detail, and for the admiration they earned throughout Europe. A tireless worker, multifaceted scholar and prolific publisher: for the Serenissima, Vincenzo Coronelli was one of those rare figures endowed with the ability, and the predisposition, to illuminate several areas of Venetian culture with their vast knowledge and mastery.