Thursday 31 August 2023

Seeing the World for the First Time


Geocarta Nautica Universale (Color) Public Domain

In 1523, in Spain, two men set about making a map of the world. They were well equipped for the task. One was Giovanni Vespucci, cartographer to the King of Spain and nephew of the great Amerigo. The other, Captain Juan Elcano, had returned the previous year after completing the first ever circumnavigation of the world. He had been second-in-command of Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition. Magellan himself lost his life in the Spice Islands. The expedition had taken nearly three years and was a feat of navigation no less intrepid than the Apollo 8 mission that first rounded the far side of the moon.

I am in the dimly lit basement of the Royal Library at Turin, looking at the very map. It is exquisitely drawn and coloured on 12 sheets of cotton canvas. It is nearly twice as wide as my arm span. It looks a bit like a modern Mercator projection, but it is not. Mercator was only eleven years old. Navigators in the 16th century knew that the Earth was round and had a fair idea of its circumference.   They knew of the Americas but not what lay beyond or whether they could get through or round them to Asia. They found the way and what did lie beyond was the Pacific Ocean taking up a third of the map, and demonstrated for the first time in history.

But what of the world that the map reveals? Europe, the Mediterranean and Black seas were well known and accurately drawn. North Cape and the Arctic Ocean had yet to be properly explored. The Caribbean and Central America, already discovered by Columbus, appear in detail. The rest of the eastern seaboard of North America is still unknown, except for a ghostly, detached sketch of Florida.

The east coast of South America for is shown in detail, right down to the first ever representation of Cape Horn. Magellan rounded the Horn, through what we now call the Magellan Strait. He did not know how close he had passed to the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The great continent of Antarctica does not feature on the map. It was not the only continent that he would miss.

From Cape Horn, Magellan set off west to find Asia. The west coast of South America and almost the whole of North America are missing. But then, the map shows the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean stretching to the West. The idea of longitude had yet to be conceived. It was easy enough in those days to know how far north or south a ship was but east and west could not be accurately measured. Day after day, they had travelled westwards hoping they were on the right latitude to make landfall on the Spice Islands (the Moluccas). They were. The Moluccas are shown, as are the great islands of Java and Sumatra. China and eastern Asia are only roughly sketched in. India is shown in detail as is the Arabian Peninsula and Madagascar. They missed the continent of Australia. Africa is about right as the expedition, now under the command of Elcano rounded the continent. The mountains of the moon, legendary source of the Nile, and the Atlas Mountains appear as coloured sketches.

500 years on, this map is a gorgeous and spellbinding work of art. There is much missing but our minds fill in the gaps. I am looking at the world we know drawn for the first time.

I travelled with the excellent PTG Tours

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