A Directional Rose

A compass rose with direction names, not wind names

The “rose of the winds” or “wind rose” is the older name of the compass rose. In a time when boats and ships were moved by wind,  the wind from a specific direction was given its own name. Some of these—Mistral, Sirocco—are still common parlance in modern Mediterranean culture because of their importance to agriculture (grape-growing, in particular) and because their distinct character has allowed them to remain personified entities, much as the Santa Ana winds of southern California do.

But when these winds represented the motor force that drove freight across the Mediterranean they were one of the ruling principles of commerce. Their seasonal occurrence influenced the flow of trade among southern European, northern African and Middle Eastern ports. In the 14th century a graphic representation of 32 wind directions (and their names) began appearing on navigational charts. The ornate radiating polygons of color evoked the appearance of petals on rose.

Wind rose on portolan map by Jorge Aguiar

The compass roses began appearing on portolan maps as points with 32 straight lines radiating outward. The portolan maps showed the details of coastlines, including all ports, harbors and coves that could possibly be of interest or use to a vessel traveling long distances. They were devised by combining the written accounts of landmarks and distances preserved in pilot books (peripluses) with graphic depictions of the world (called orbis terrae or O-T maps) in the latest 13th century in Pisa. Through the following century the decorative aspects of the rose of the winds became progressively more elaborate.

Wind rose with initials of named winds (and cross for Levanter).

There were eight named winds. Counterclockwise around the wind rose from the north they are the Tramontana, Gregale (NE), Levanter (E), Sirocco (SE), Ostro (S), Libeccio (SW), Poniente (W), and Mistral (NW). These were then divided further into eight more half-winds and sixteen quarter-winds. All of the named winds had predecessors in Greek and Latin cultures where they were personified as part of folklore, occasionally figuring in minor roles alongside the gods of Olympus. (Zeus, for example, could be counted on to dispatch Zephyrus (the west wind) to blow a fleet off course to influence the outcome a battle in which he had some petty stake.) The names above are those of the western Mediterranean. They are by no means standard throughout the region and were certainly different in the North, Baltic and Black seas. One feature that transcended region was the frequent placing of a fleur-de-lis at the north or Tramontana position.

The Chinese invented the compass in the 11th century during the Song Dynasty. It took the form of a magnetic needle floating in a bowl of water. How the technology made its way to the Mediterranean (and apparently nearly simultaneously to the North Sea) is not precisely know. However it got there, whether directly from the Chinese to the Europeans, via the Arabs or even by independent invention in Europe as some hold, the compass became part of European navigation eventually the “wind rose” was transformed into the “compass rose,” usually labeled with north, south east and west instead of the names of the winds.

With traditional colors and fleur-de-lis

The “dry” mariners compass was invented in Europe in 1300. It consisted of a magnetized needle suspended under a glass cover and over a wind rose diagram. On a ship the whole apparatus was suspended within a gimbal to keep it level as the vessel heeled, pitched and rolled. Credit for the invention is generally given to Flavio Gioja, a pilot from Amalfi on coast south of Naples.

The colors of the wind rose design were initially not purely aesthetic, but practical, as this was a graphic that would have to be read in all weather and at all times of the day and night (by flickering oil lamp) on the deck of a moving ship. The eight primary directions (which were entirely equated with the wind that blew from them) were presented in black to be clearly visible. The half-winds were generally in blues and greens and the quarters-winds in reds.


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