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A Mapmaker's Dream: The Meditations of Fra Mauro, Cartographer to the Court of Venice ()

Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels

Inevitably a book that confirms or conforms to our own conceits has a particular appeal.  So it is entirely possible that other readers will not enjoy this slender but potent novel of ideas as much as I did.  But, because I agree with so many of the concepts contained within and with the central premise on which it is based, I really thought it was extraordinary.

The narrative structure of the book is deceptively simple.  James Cowan claims to have found the journal of the 15th century Venetian cartographer Fra Mauro.  Within the pages of the journal, Mauro describes his work on what he hopes will be his masterpiece, a great mappa mundi (world map) that will contain everything that he knows about the geography of the world (the map pictured above is actually not the map described in the book, but instead the only known surviving Mauro map).  The irony, of course, is that Mauro lived in the monastery of San Michele di Murano and was not himself a traveler or explorer.  His definitive map was to be based on knowledge acquired by and from others.  The journal describes visits he received from individuals who had actually traveled abroad and were interested in sharing their knowledge with him.

Now I spend a lot of time in these reviews unabashedly arguing for the supremacy of Western Civilization--its Culture: music, literature and the plastic arts; Political and Social Institutions; Economic System; Scientific advances; etc..  And it seems to me that there is one great achievement that is really central to all of the achievements or, at the very least, has facilitated all of them; that is the development of means to systematize, retrieve and pass on knowledge.  It should be obvious on its face that no culture that failed to produce a written language can lay any claim to even being a true Civilization.  Even those which developed languages, but failed to develop knowledge or failed to accumulate and preserve knowledge, can hardly claim to be great Civilizations.  And those which made developed some capacity to further knowledge and to safeguard the results for the use of subsequent generations, but failed to disseminate such knowledge widely, must pale by comparison too.  For what we in the West achieved was a set of systems for accumulating knowledge, experimenting in order to increase that knowledge, storing and sharing that knowledge widely and a series of religious and political theories to induce citizens to strive to further all of these achievements.

Think for a moment of how insanely optimistic it was for men to first sit down and produce things like maps, dictionaries and encyclopedias.  The underlying assumption of those who set about the tasks is that all of human knowledge, in at least one area, can be contained within an ordered system of data that men can keep on a desk or on a shelf.  And, of course, we see the ultimate expression of this Western optimism in the personal computer and the Internet, with their guiding idea that all knowledge can and should be available and at the finger tips of every citizen.

This then is the great achievement of the West--the systemization of knowledge.  But the optimism that fueled this advance was the Judeo-Christian belief system as expressed in Genesis.  This foundational myth of Western man posits that God is manlike but for the fact that he has an infinite capacity for knowledge and enjoys infinite life in which to develop that knowledge.  Man's fall occurred when God realized that Man had eaten from the Tree of Knowledge.  And so God banished him from Eden before he could eat from the Tree of Life, whereupon he would have become like unto God.  Western Man's dilemma then is that we have only a limited life span in which to develop our knowledge.  so the entire project of Western Man can be seen to be the effort to pool and accumulate ever increasing amounts of knowledge until we too become God.  All of the innovations above are simply steps on our path to this end.  Language, written language, books, the scientific method, maps, dictionaries, encyclopedias, libraries, computers--all of these are the bricks in the new Tower of Babel bringing us closer to the day when we too will wield infinite knowledge.

So it is that an early map maker like Fra Mauro, cloistered within his cell, can take on such a heroic aura and his story can be so exciting.  And here are some of the passages where Cowan develops some of these same ideas:

    I see the world as a series of clues that somehow explain the universe.  Pachyderms and narwhals,
    tailpot trees and insect-eating plants, flightless birds and boa constrictors--all are part of some
    cryptic message that needs to be deciphered if we are to encounter its wholeness.


    It led me to the idea of fashioning a map that would defy every category and genre.  It would be a
    map that would contain them all; a map hard to define, yet because of this lack of definition, a map
    that would begin to define itself more precisely.  Nor would it be designed to espouse any particular
    policy or persuasion.  Rather, I wanted my map to show the earth in the sky, and the sky on earth;
    a map that would act as the prototype for all maps scattered in space and time.  It would be a
    device by which the world could surrender itself in fragments to the open, inquisitive gaze of
    everyone.  I fondly hoped that such a map would preside over the birth of another map, and then


    Mauro is visited by an elderly Jew of Rhodes, who tells him:
    It is in us all, this desire to experience the kinship that exists between our innermost being and the
    will that created such a kinship in the first place.  As such a desire is realized, we become
    preoccupied with strange and uncanny aspects in Nature herself.  We are almost tempted to regard
    them as our own moods, our own creations.  For my part, I know that the boundary between
    myself and Nature sometimes wavers and melts away, so that I can no longer be sure whether what
    I see with my own eyes springs from outward or inner impressions.  An experience such as this is
    one sure way of discovering how creative we are, and how deeply our soil participates in the
    perpetual creation of the world.  The same invisible divinity is at work in us as it is in Nature.  If the
    outside world were perchance to perish, I know that any one of us would be capable of rebuilding
    it.  I say these things because I believe that mountain and stream, leaf and tree, root and flower,
    everything that has ever been formed in Nature lies preformed within us and springs from the soul,
    whose essence is eternity.  Of course, this essence is beyond all our conceivable knowledge, but we
    can feel it nevertheless.


And lest I scare you into thinking that the whole thing is such flighty philosophizing, there are myriad fascinating and humorous asides like this one on the origin of the term navel gazing:

    Focusing on the navel was an early Christian practice devised by the hesychast monks of the Greek
    Orthodox faith.  According to Saint John Climacus, a hesychast is one who strives to maintain that
    which is incorporeal (i.e., the mind) within the body.  A technique of prayer integrated with
    breathing, the monks used to drop their heads in meditation, so gaining for themselves the derisive
    epithet of omphalopsychoi or "navel gazers" because it was believed by some that they situated
    man's soul in his navel.

or this one on the Mongol beverage called cosmos:

    According to Fra Johannes, cosmos was made from mare's milk in the following manner.  A rope
    was attached to two posts firmly placed in the ground.  Foals of mares designated for milking were
    then tied to the rope so that the mares might stand by their offspring.  .  A man would allow the foal
    to suckle for a short while, before removing the animal and milking the mare without her

    The milk was later place in a large bladder or bag and beaten with a hollow club whose head looked
    like that of a man's.  In time the milk began to boil like new wine, its taste becoming sour.  When
    the taste was so sharp that it rasped the tongue and the liquid congealed into butter, it was
    considered to be at its best.  Those who have tasted cosmos say that it leaves a taste like almonds.
    "A marvelous sweet and wholesome liquor,"  Fra Johannes called it, "which alleviates the need for
    passing urine."

And just in passing you come across such gem like sentences and ideas as this one: "Quitting the place that we love means that we are condemned to inhabit our loss forever."

I urge everyone to read and enjoy this book.  The journal entry style makes it particularly susceptible to reading in separate nightly installments.  It is a book that you can easily pick up and put down, as indeed you may wish to in order to savor the rich stew of ideas.


Grade: (A+)


Book-related and General Links:
    -Fra Mauro's Mappamundi (1459)
    -REVIEW: (Between the Lines, The Australian)
    -REVIEW: (Ann Skea, Eclectica Magazine)
    -REVIEW: ( James Neal Webb, Book Page)
    -REVIEW : of A Mapmaker's Dream (Wendy Cavenett, Between the Lines)
    -REVIEW: The World Was His Cloister (DAVID GUY, NY Times Book Review)

    -Cartographic Images Home Page
    -Internet Medieval Sourcebook
    -The Mappamundi Project: integrated, interactive, multimedia environment to enhance the study of the Middle Ages (Princeton)
    -Oddens Bookmarks: The Fascinating World of Maps and Mapping