Posts Tagged ‘Mappa Mundi’

Maps and Atlases

October 8, 2014

9780007551408Readers of this blog who are interested in my posts about travel writing won’t be surprised to learn how much I love atlases and maps: visually attractive, often beautiful, they allow me to explore from the comfort of the sofa, and follow the travels of a host of writers. You will understand why I so often complain about the poor quality of maps attached to travel books nowadays – penny-pinching by publishers, or decisions by editors who have no real feel for what they are preparing for publication, and the needs of those who will actually buy and read the book. I can gaze for hours at the curious shapes of continents and countries, the locations of settlements and the countryside that surrounds them; I can appreciate the vastness of the world, in these days when it’s possible to reach remote places very quickly.

I especially like maps from the past: they are like a time capsule or time machine into a world that doesn’t exist any more. John Speed’s seventeenth century maps of Great Britain, for example, show older names for places, how difficult it was to travel from place to place in those days, places that were important then and are now faded into insignificance, and one notices the absence of some places which have grown up in the intervening years and did not exist, or merit a place on a map way back then. Johann Blaeu‘s stunning Atlas Major from the 1660s, now available again, albeit in an abridged version thanks to those wonderful publishers Taschen, allows one to look at the approximations of places when Westerners hadn’t fully explored and mapped everywhere: there are real blank areas on maps, although often filled up with drawings of (sometimes mythical) flora and fauna – nobody likes a blank space – there are places where only the coastline is known or partially known; there are places just not on the maps… And don’t get me started on wonders like the Mappa Mundi, of which I have a very faded reproduction, and its allegorical representation of the world.

For today’s world, I’ve yet to find anything to better the Times Atlas – I’m on my second copy, since the first was rendered rather less useful by the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the emergence of new countries and the renaming of so many places. The scale and level of detail is marvellous, only the size is a limitation: it doesn’t sit easily or comfortably on my lap while I’m reading. When there’s not enough detail in it, I tend to buy a one-off specialist map, so I have huge maps of the Sahara, the Silk Route countries and so on. I once saw, in a secondhand bookshop, a copy of the Soviet-era Atlas Mira (Atlas of the World), and it was huge: it made the Times Atlas look small. I didn’t buy it, but often wish I had. I do have a smaller Atlas of the USSR, which is very useful when reading about travels in Russia, and especially Siberia. I also have a fascinating road atlas of the Soviet Union from the 1980s. This is fascinating partly because of the large areas that don’t figure in it at all – why would they, when there are no road there? – and also because of the roads which travel 400, 500, 600, even 700 km into the depths of the continent and then just stop. There are no side turnings to right or left. So when you’ve got there, the only way out is to do all that journey over again. It boggles my mind.

I have Google Earth on my computer. Occasionally it’s really useful. I can pinpoint the clearing in the forest deep in Belarus where my father’s home village (hamlet, really: only four houses) used to be. But it remains a curiosity, whereas I would be lost (literally) without my collection of maps and atlases.

Umberto Eco: Baudolino

May 11, 2014

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I saw it on the shelf and thought, ‘I haven’t read that for a while!’ picked it up and was off…

It’s a wonderful yarn – a romance, I suppose, to be technically correct – set in mediaeval times, where I’ve always felt Eco is at his best. I don’t call it a novel, because I think Eco has deliberately written a story in the style of the times: the plot is linear, centred around the adventures of a central character, with everyone else as companions or incidental to the plot. It’s a Rabelaisian tale for the twentieth century, complete with the fiction of the teller needing someone to whom to tell his story.

Except – there is also the meta-narrative of the power of the storyteller over the hearer or the reader: we know from the outset that Baudolino is a liar, or an inventor; can he be trusted? but then, what author can?

The story centres around the legend or myth of Prester John, allegedly a Christian king with a great empire somewhere in the unknown lands of the East (perhaps India way, or maybe Ethiopia, depending on which source you follow) with whom various Western monarchs are keep to make an alliance of some kind. Baudolino and his companions create and build the myth, believe in it and eventually set off on the quest. Eco is masterly here, in his understanding of mediaeval ways of thinking and reasoning, and attitudes to knowledge, which is so outside our rational(?) paradigm: something must exist because there is no reason for it not to exist, and, abracadabra! – there it is. “There is no better proof of the truth than the continuity of tradition” – what? Thus the Prester John myth is manufactured, documents created to authenticate it, and so, you can set off to find his kingdom, because it must exist! And if we think it’s a mediaeval trait for humans to be prisoners or dupes of their own inventions, what about the evidence of WMD in Iraq before our invasion…. untruth has its part to play in the powerplays of the world; you can make things have existed just by writing them down, such is the power of the written word. Nor has Eco invented everything himself; much of it is taken from mediaeval sources, such as Mandeville’s travels. If it is in Pliny or Isidore, it must be true!

The imagining of other worlds is done under the influence of alcohol and drugs: no change there, then. There is ample documentation of this in Eco’s fascinating tome The Book of Imaginary Lands.

The actual story involves Baudolino’s relationship with his adoptive father, Frederic Barbarossa and his wars of conquest, his (Baudolino’s) education in Paris and his companions there, their search for clues and maps to enable them to get to Prester John, the crusaders’ sack of Constantinople at the end of the twelfth century, and their journey eastwards and the increasingly weirder creatures they encounter, as they make their way to the city of Pndapetzim, the gateway to Prester John’s kingdom. The weird creatures, whose pictures can be seen around the edges of the Mappa Mundi, and in the Nuremburg Chronicle, embody all the different Christian heresies feared at the time, reinforcing the idea that the truth depends on the teller…

Our hero never gets beyond Pndapetzim; no-one there actually knows if the fabled kingdom is actually beyond the last chain of mountains, or what is there: the kingdom is also the kingdom of Heaven, if it exists, and here we are, confronted with all the possible inventions and unknowables of religion in the world; ironically Prester John’s world seems to be the refuge of all the heretics expelled from known Christian lands over the centuries. So, as well as swashbuckling adventure, we are exploring the nature, purpose and meaning of religious faith, the afterlife, and I don’t know what else… there’s even some masterly detective work in the style of William of Baskerville in the closing chapters.

I think Baudolino is an underrated work; it lacks the polish and tightness of The Name of the Rose, true, but it’s as knowledgeable and as challenging, and a compelling read.

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