Michael Mouse

Mr. M. Mouse regularly logs on to the world’s free airport wifi to do a spot of blogging. His email address is of course mickey@mouse.com and I often wonder how many companion mice I have in my effort to confuse the planetary data hoarders.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the service, just that calling something free when I’m obliged to share commercially valuable personal data is a bit of a stretch—and my upbringing in a fascist country has instilled a lifelong big brother allergy.

You already know about Modena and the Cantino map, so it’s time to describe my foray to the Biblioteca Marciana. As the name suggests, the library is located in St. Mark’s Square, but it’s hardly the tourist destination of choice.

Once again, Italian bureaucracy put up a fearsome fight—when I arrived for my February 15th appointment, a staff member informed me I was expected on January 15th. Bizarre because her email was dated January 25th, and while I do spend a lot of time in travel, I haven’t yet perfected the art of time travel.

It turned out the reply from the library mentioned the wrong month, since all prior exchanges said February—but that was no use because the lady who I’d corresponded with wasn’t there. I rescheduled for Wednesday.

When the day came, it turned out I needed a library card, a detail no one had mentioned—so that got done. The staff said the Marciana was the oldest library in the world, but I suspect the natives of Alexandria might have something to say about that.

Then the fun started.

The Andrea Bianco map is from 1436, and it’s not assembled as a single chart like the materials in the Estense. Instead there are seven separate maps covering parts of the world, and three world maps. Numbers nine and ten are similar to the Catalan portolan in Modena, a planet earth rather than a planet water, in the tradition of Ptolemy. It was this kind of map that Fra Mauro endorsed, and after him Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly. And it was a similar depiction of the oceans, drawn by Toscanelli in 1476, that led Columbus astray.

The Toscanelli map has vanished. I suspect the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 destroyed one of the only copies—but I wonder if somewhere in Portugal a parchment hides in a musty attic overlooking the Tagus.

I only had access to a facsimile of the Bianco materials, and I leafed through the pages anxiously, stopping here and there to identify familiar places—yes, there was the coast of Portugal and Northwest Spain, and look, here’s the village of Baiona, where Martin Pinzon landed. I worked my way past the Pyrenees to France, to another Baiona, this one in the Basque country.

Across the channel, Londra. England is poorly drawn, with Bristol to the east, for reasons difficult to fathom. I turned the page. Then another. Suddenly, there it was—a red rectangle, indented to represent inlets and bays, and bearing the caption of Antiglia. The Antilles, or before islands, of The India Road. But before what?

The big rectangle, about the size of Portugal, was the legendary site of the lost kingdom of Atlantis. Myths vary—they grow in size and change in form, but in the Middle Ages this place was thought to be the destination of the seven bishops.

The legend has it that the clergymen sailed from Iberia in the eighth century to set up a new community and escape the yoke of the Islamic Caliphate. When they reached the Antilles they burned their ships—the bishops had come to stay.

I continued my search.

There. On the western side of the Azores was the island I was looking for: Ysla de Brasil. I’ve been fascinated with this island ever since I found the map inside a nineteenth century book written by Justin Windsor. The book was digitized by the Gutenberg project—the internet has turned into a gold mine for scholarship, as long as you know which doors to open.

Why Brasil? What did this mean? Either Brasil was a common word, or Bianco had heard about such a land to the west, presumably from the Portuguese—but like the Antilles, he had no idea what it looked like, or where it actually was.

I pored over the map, moving west and then north, looking for the magic words: Questo Xe Mar de Baga—the first known mention of the Sargasso Sea. And there it was, written not vertically but horizontally. I mouthed the words one by one. Savored them. Questo Xe Mar de… I studied the last word: not Baga, the ubiquitous Sargassum berry, but Spagna.

The Bianco folio that contains the red rectangle of the seven bishops, the lost world of Atlantis. Above it, written upside down in red letters, the caption of the Spanish sea.

The Bianco folio that contains the red rectangle of the seven bishops, the lost world of Atlantis. To the right above it, written upside down in red letters, the caption of the Spanish sea.

I read the word Spain once more in disbelief. How was this possible? The Sea of Spain? With islands from the Portuguese possessions of Madeira and the Azores marked on it? Surely not.

It was then I approached the curator. “Excuse me,” I whispered, “I need to see the original.”

We went up two flights of marble stairs to an inner courtyard.

“Wait here.” She laid out four small velvet cushions and donned a pair of white gloves. She came back with a leatherbound case and carefully pulled out the folio—for the second time in a week, I was inches away from a document that survived half a millenium of human strife. We went through the maps until we found the chart for the Atlantic.

Questo Xe Mar de Spagna—I reread the words in despair. How could the map drawn on page eighty-seven of the Windsor book be wrong? Part of the story of Clear Eyes is built around the baga, the notion that the Portuguese knew the ‘Sea of Berries’ in 1436—and while the book is a historical novel, the ‘novel’ component cannot include a corruption of known historical facts.

I’ve been finishing this chronicle on the plane heading west, with a heavy heart—The Portuguese Sargasso Sea was an error.

As the miles fly by, I’ve reviewed the materials downloaded in preparation for my visit—and this is the text for the fifth folio.

Tav. 5 (ff.5v-6r): Mediterraneo occidentale da barzalona in Spagna e da tenexe in Africa; costa atlantica dell’Africa fino a a una località non identificabile, in quanto l’inchiostro è caduto in questa parte della carta (probabilmente Bojador); nell’Atlantico, detto qui mar de spagna, le seguenti isole (da nord a sud e da est a ovest): corbo marinos, coruos, y.a de la man satanaxio (o forse: s[ancto] atanaxio), y.a de san zorzi, y.a de bentusta, y.a di colonbi, y.a de brasil, y.a de antillia, chapasa, lobo, porto santo, y.a de madera, y.a de xanta, y.a de lancilotto, gracioxa, forte uentura, y.a de inferno, y.a de gomiera, y.a de le palme, y.a del fero; costa atlantica della Spagna fino a s[ant]a marta.

It describes the Antilles, the island of Brasil, and the Fortunate Islands: Fuerteventura, La Gomera, Hierro. It identifies the Portuguese islands of Madeira and Porto Santo, and the Azores islands of Corvo and Graciosa.

But wait… there’s a sixth folio mentioned, one that I looked at closely, but not to the west, because the Windsor map shows the Mar de Baga as a vertical label next to the red rectangle. But the sixth tavola doesn’t show the Antilles at all.

Tav. 6 (ff.6v-7r): Europa atlantica da baiona a chomin; Inghilterra (59 toponimi), Scozia (6 toponimi) e Irlanda (56 toponimi); nel mar de baga (di Portogallo), le isole de uentura e de berzil.

And what is the description of the sixth folio, ensconced in the middle line? The beautiful words ‘Sea of Berries (Portugal).’

I was right after all—I just missed the correct folio.

My heart jumps for joy as the plane starts the descent into Lisbon. It seems I’ve just found a reason to return to Venice. Only this time I have a library card.

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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