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Old Italian compass

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An old Italian Compass - very old

  Old Italian compass


The reported history to this compass is that it has been in the same Italian family in Florence for over 300 years.  So we can be confident that it is pre 1700.  However it could be even earlier and may well have been adapted over the years.

A lot of what follows is based on discussions with experts in the field - but of course we could be wildly "off course".




Italian compass case

The one thing we know with some accuracy is that the overall diameter is 65mm, height 40mm and compass rose itself is 50 mm in diameter.

However the case construction would seem to indicate that it sat in a plinth and may well have been designed to be moved from one location to another.

As to what the wood is we are not certain, it could be Walnut, Rosewood, Pear, Boxwood or Lignum Vitae. 

Old Italian compass lid


The motif on the lid may have some significance and is not unusual in compasses of this period.







Italian compass rose


The compass rose and the needle give important clues as to the period when this compass was made.

The compass rose is unusual in that not only is it marked with the winds of the Mediterranean, but also the bearing in degrees. 


The interesting point is that the lettering styles for the winds and degrees are different and one conclusion is that the numbering was added later than the winds.  The sixteen point wind direction system was featured on magnetic compasses from the end of the 15th Century onwards.  Could the fact that this is marked with the eight wind system mean this is even earlier than the C15th ? 

Compass Rose Mark


Approximate Position on Rose











Africus  (Libeccio) (Garbino)















The Italians associated the north wind with the Tramontana Mountains and this suggests that the compass was most likely of Italian origin.  Some care is needed with these assumptions since a Spanish compass manufacturer tells me that the same wind marks were also used at this time in Spain.

There are two points to note with the needle. 

The first is the overall design and it has been suggested that the needle is of quite an early design.  Turner [1] states that single needles are found in some sundials of 15th C and by 16th C Navigators compasses use soft iron wire fixed to a card.  He also points out that early compasses were in circular wooden boxes.

The seconds point to note is the cap construction.  This construction (the cross bar at right angles to the needle) must have a purpose.  A compass manufacturer points out that the compass construction at this time was very pragmatic.  Three possibilities exist:

1                    to prevent the needle from jumping off the pivot in rough weather. 

2                    allow the needle to be removed for storage

3                    prevent the needle from fouling the compass rose when the weather is rough.

 All are valid, however I suspect that the third one is less likely, since to me, the pragmatic solution would be to put the cross piece in line with the needle to limit the dip of the needle, not at right angles.


  The compass is currently owned by a dealer and if you want to discuss purchasing the compass  please contact me and I will put you in touch with the dealer.  

[1] Scientific Instruments 1500 1900 an Introduction Gerald LE Turner - p34

Thank-you to everyone who has helped throw some light on this compass.



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