Digital Library

Ars nautica

Title: Ars nautica

Author: Fernando Oliveira

Year: c. 1570

Country: Portugal

Description :  Bound codex

Owner:  Leiden University Library, Ex Bibliotheca Viri Illustris Isaaci Vossii, Leiden, Netherlands

Call No.:  Ms Voss. LAT. F. 41 (Codices Vossiani Latini in folio)

Notes:  Unpublished

Some illustrations published in the late 17th and 20th century. See Reith, Eric. “Remarques sur une série d’illustrations de L’Ars Nautica de Fernando Oliveira”, Paris: Neptunia (1988) 169:36-43.


This manuscript was written in Latin around 1570. It is the longest of Oliveira’s works, a complete treatise on all of the technical aspects of navigation. That was written for scholars and not as a practical treatise for navigators is evidenced by the use of Latin and by the type of navigation it discusses. It received little attention at the time, and was never published. Leiden University acquired the manuscript in 1710. It remained unknown to Portuguese historiography until 1960.

The Author

Fernando Oliveira was born c. 1507 in Aveiro, a coastal city with a long maritime tradition. He entered the Dominican Order at the age of nine or ten.  He studied in Évora, where he may have been pupil of a well-known humanist, André de Resende, who had studied in Spain with Antonio de Nebrija, the author of the first Spanish grammar. Oliveira left the Dominicans around the age of twenty five, in 1532. He later published the first Portuguese grammar, in 1536.  This book was followed by other scripts, among which are:
Arte da Guerra no Mar (1555), Ars nautica (1570, in Latin), Livro da fabrica das naus (c. 1580), and a history of Portugal.  Ars Nautica was compiled from previous notes, as he explains in Arte da Guerra no Mar, but these are probably lost.

He had an adventurous life as a sea pilot and political mediator.  It is not known how or when he acquired the skills to become a pilot. In the late thirties or early forties the French captured him while he was sailing from Barcelona to Genoa. He ended up working for François I in his fleet of war galleys, which was stationed in Marseille. He later returned to Lisbon, perhaps in 1542. In 1545, he enlisted again in the French navy as a pilot of one of the galleys sailing to England. He may have witnessed the sinking of the Mary Rose. In 1547, he was first arrested by the Holy Inquisition. He spent two years in the Inquisition dungeons. In 1552, during a Portuguese mission, he was made prisoner in the north of Africa.  He then returned to Portugal where he was again arrested by the Holy Inquisition. Despite spending at least another two years in their jail, from 1555 onward Oliveira seems to have settled and stayed in Portugal. He turned down invitations to work for the French and Spanish navies in the late 1660s.  He died after 1581, probably around 1585.


The manuscript is divided into three parts.

I. De quibusdam instrumentis ad primam nautarum institutionem conducentibus

This section focuses on the art of sailing itself, with special attention to how charts and navigational instruments are made and used.

II. De nauipegia, & ejus adminiculus

The second section focuses on naval architecture, and represents the first work from Portugal on the topic. Although all of the drawings in the work are of round ships, the text itself focuses more on galleys.

Of particular note are his illustrations of the cross-section of the ship, a novel style of depiction that wasn’t adopted by other shipwrights for several centuries, although it is now standard. Nicolaas Witsen, a 17th century Dutch shipwright, was so taken with the drawings that he traced them and reprinted them in his own writing (where the images appear reversed from the original).

III. De officio nautarum

The final section addresses the logistical and administrative matters of the navy. It deals with material he had already written about in a broader context and scope in Arte da Guerra no Mar.

Works Cited

Contente Domingues, Franscisco. (2009) “A enciclopédia do mar: O manuscrito da Ars Nautica e sua história.” In: Morais, Carlos, ed. Fernando Oliveira: Um Humanista Genial. Universidade de Aviero. 405-429.

Contente Domingues, Franscisco. (1985) “Experiência e conhecimento na construção naval portuguesa do século XVI: Os tratados de Fernando Oliveira.” Revista da Universidade de Coimbra. XXXIII: 339-364.

Additional Sources

Malhão Pereira, José Manuel. (2009) “O padre Fernando Oliveira, um marinheiro português do século XVI.” In: Morais, Carlos, ed. Fernando Oliveira: Um Humanista Genial. Universidade de Aviero. 431-458.

Reith, Eric. “Remarques sur une série d’illustrations de L’Ars Nautica de Fernando Oliveira”, Paris: Neptunia (1988) 169:36-43.

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