Johannes Shnitzer, 1482

One of the things that most captivated my imagination in graduate school was pre-modern cartography. The maps produced before the modern era are not only visually fascinating, but they speak of so much more: mystery, knowledge/ignorance, longing, hope, adventure, human limitations. But mainly of hope, since, if you don’t know what is beyond your world, you can imagine almost any wonderful thing!

In 1482 woodcutter Johannes Schnitzer re-imagined a map of Roman geographer Ptolemy. Schnitzer created his map based on the writings of Ptolemy who had recorded the Roman world’s knowledge of geography along with a treatise on cartography in his book Geography around the year 150. The book was written in Greek and was only translated into Latin in 1406. It was translated into Arabic in the ninth century, after which time it contributed to the geographic knowledge of the Islamic world. The oldest version of Ptolemy’s map, from the thirteenth-century Codex Seragliensis, was found in a palace in Istanbul.

From the Codex Seragliensis, 1300-ish

These maps blow my mind. I love the way they look, with their intricate details and beautiful colors and distinct sense of the artist’s/cartographer’s hand at work. But mostly I love that they are so incomplete, and that their makers understood that there was more beyond the borders of their maps. You can understand why people might have believed that they could find such mythical places as El Dorado, the city of gold.

Today we know so much that it seems like there’s nothing left to discover. (On this planet at least.) We have mapped the world in careful and precise detail. We understand the basics of the cosmos. We understand, even if we cannot always successfully treat, human illness. Mystery is pretty much absent from modern life.

But this is where art and literature and music and archaeology come in. There is always the great hope that something new will be discovered in these areas, thus shedding new light on our already brightly-lit world. We are so lucky that these sorts of discoveries are being made all the time. To wit:

In 2014, a manuscript by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was discovered. It is being published this year in a translation by Forrest Gander.

Earlier this month a painting was discovered in an attic in France. Experts think that it very likely may be a lost Caravaggio. A lost Caravaggio! (That said, not everyone agrees.)

Three Renaissance paintings that were seized during World War II have been rediscovered in Milan.

Virtually as I write, a diary of Salvidor Dali with writings and sketches, is selling at a Sotheby’s auction in Paris.

And then there’s musical reconstruction, which, before I started this blog, I would have had no idea occurred with such frequency. (I’ve written about other musical reconstructions before: here and here.) A researcher and a team of musicians at Cambridge have reconstructed medieval music, largely based on an eleventh-century manuscript. The performance is rather haunting.

And, you know what? Maybe we don’t know so much about the geography of the world after all. Just last week there were reports of a new, massive (3600 square mile) coral reef that was discovered at the mouth of the Amazon River.

If you pay attention, you’ll see that so much is being discovered every day. And while we may not be learning about the existence of new lands & people or flora & fauna, these hidden pockets of knowledge are no less revelatory. Contemplating all that we still may yet discover gives me some sense of how it must have felt to look at one of Ptolemy’s maps in the thirteenth or fifteenth century. It keeps me looking. It keeps me hopeful.


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