Three of a Kind

The sign on the doors said ‘closed for maintenance on the 11th and 12th of February.’ Strange that the chief librarian had forgotten to mention it in her email.

I read the words in disbelief and peered through the glass. A receptionist sat at his desk, unfazed. Next to me, a couple of workmen tinkered with something electrical on the wall.

I pointed at the sign. “Don’t worry,” one of the electricians said. “It’s been superseded.”

“Ah.” Superseded. For a foolish second I wondered why the superseded sign was still there. Then I pushed the door open, with an inward sigh of relief. Welcome to Italy.

The public gallery at the Estense library is opened only on demand, presumably because the materials it holds are so precious that a librarian must be present at all times.

I demanded. It took three phone calls, ten minutes, and a spirited exchange in Italian, then the gates parted. I spent the morning in the gallery, while half a dozen other visitors came and went. All Italians, they chatted with the library assistant, worked their way around the statues, books, and parchments, and made their way out.

One or two of them came over to see the maps, but they didn’t linger.

Photographs? Yes, you can take pictures, but not of the room. Another Italian curiosity. The room?

Nothing wrong with the room, as far as rooms go, but here in front of me was the original Cantino map, made in Lisbon in 1502, drawn from Portuguese cartographic knowledge—now that was worth photographing.

I knew the map, but one thing is downloading an image from Wikipedia, no matter how high the resolution, quite another is standing inches away from history.

Cantino was commissioned by a true Renaissance man, perhaps the greatest of them all—Ercole I, Duke of Ferrara. Hercules was the son of Niccolo, a promiscuous man even by the exacting standards of the XVth century. Niccolo d’Este is reported to have bedded eight hundred women, which works out at roughly one a week for sixteen years.

This copulatory enthusiasm took place before syphilis arrived in the Old World, otherwise Nick would certainly have had something to show for his trouble.

His son Ercole (who looked nothing like him) was the father-in-law of Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI and his mistress Vannozza dei Cattanei.

Ercole was a true patron of the arts. At the duke’s behest, Alberto Cantino went to the only city where an accurate map of the world could be made. The Italian cartographer journeyed to Lisbon, assembled six large pieces of parchment to produce a composite map measuring twenty square feet, and returned home with his treasure.

As is often the case, the amazing map got lost for a period of time—in this case eleven years—but luckily it was retrieved from a salumeria, a processed meat store in the historic quarter of Modena, where presumably it graced the walls, along with the salami and prosciutto.

The thin blue line – by far the greatest Portuguese diplomatic achievement.

The thin blue line – by far the greatest Portuguese diplomatic achievement ever.

Even the Estense Library’s notes refer that Cantino didn’t make the map—he purchased it. The planisphere shows the intricate detail of West Africa drawn by Jorge de Aguiar, and it’s the first world map to show the demarcation line of the Treaty of Tordesillas, drawn along a meridian three hundred and seventy leagues west of Cape Verde.

The stories of all this permeate Clear Eyes, and being in this part of the world is inspirational—when you’re sitting on a manuscript, it’s hard to resist touching it up here and there as you taste the food, drink the wine, and wander the winding medieval alleys.

To the left of the Cantino is a portolan probably made in the Balearic Islands—a center of Jewish and Arab scholarship, famous for men such as Jacome of Mallorca.

This circular  portolan is known as the mappamondo catalano, dated 1450-1460. It still shows the medieval view of the world—mostly land, with only a narrow band of water at the periphery. The map is inspired by Il Milione, the book of Marco Polo, and represents a world of three continents—Europe, Africa, and Asia. The Pacific is a small band labeled Oceanus Orientalis, and it’s altogether unclear how this becomes the Atlantic.

What is most interesting about the portolan is its resemblance to the Toscanelli map that inspired Columbus. The latter map has been lost, but existing reconstructions suggest a vision of the world based on Ptolemy, with a large continental mass and a thin strip of ocean.

On Cantino’s right is another Spanish map, this one known as the Castiglione planisphere. Once again, the map isn’t named after its author—one Diego Ribeiro of the Casa de Contratacion of Seville.

Dated 1525, it was drawn after the Portuguese explorer Magellan circumnavigated the globe. Once again, the demarcation line of Tordesillas is clearly marked, but the map lacks the detail of the Cantino work, particularly the written accounts of exploration.

Perhaps because it was made by the Portuguese, the Cantino map shows both Newfoundland and Greenland with a paragraph explaining their discovery by the Corte Real family of the Azores, as well as a text about Brazil illustrated with three parrots.

The Spanish map of 1525 does show an interesting novelty of the Iberian peninsula.

A small factual 'inaccuracy.' The southern part of Portugal bears a Castilian flag, in a fit of Spanish wishful thinking.

A small factual ‘inaccuracy.’ The southern part of Portugal bears a Castilian flag, in a fit of Spanish wishful thinking.

Midway down the Portuguese coast, the River Tagus splits the country into two halves. In this map, the lower half, including the provinces of Alentejo and Algarve, appears to have become Spanish, as evidenced by the flag of Castile and Aragon.

The flag is not only incorrectly placed, but incorrectly drawn—the red and white squares are opposite to the other flag in central Spain.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones and tablets.

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