This Oldest Map is a Beauty

The oldest surviving Latin diagram of the world was rediscovered by accident in the Vatican Library in the 1920s. Youssouf Kamal (1882-1965), an Egyptian prince and aesthete, had financed a huge undertaking to publish a collection of ancient maps depicting Africa fully or obliquely. While combing through the Vatican, the scholars stumbled on a lavish, full-page colored spread, folios 64v-65r in Vat.lat.6018, which had been completely overlooked in all previous historical research.

A few weeks ago I digitally plotted a simpler diagram of similar age which is now held by the archives of Albi, France and has been recognized as a UNESCO world heritage treasure. The Vatican Mappamundi was drawn in about 760 or 770 CE and has been a good deal more difficult to plot, since the photographic images compress the central part into the gutter of the book binding.

This is the first-ever color plot to be published. Zoom in and you will see that the diagram has south at the top and therefore Europe at bottom right. The scribe evidently turned the parchment as he worked and wrote place names from every side.

Six cities are represented by star-shaped symbols: Constantinople, Rome, Alexandria, Carthage, Jerusalem and Babylon. The big island at left is Sri Lanka and at lower right are the British Isles. The meaning of the "fourth continent" at top right has been much debated. The crescenty things on the rim are thought to represent sun and moon.

The current received wisdom is that this is a Christian adaptation of a diagram which had been used to teach (secular) geographical knowledge in late antique schools in the Latin West. The Vatican Mappamundi is probably contemporary with the original of the 12th-century Tabula Peutingeriana, a Latin diagram in roll form which shows the whole known world as a very long strip. My view is that abstract diagrams (of which both are fine examples) are an invention of late antiquity, not earlier.

For this digital plot I used the Vatican Library's scans, uncurling the center part with the lattice deformation tool in Inkscape. The transcriptions are mostly Francois Glorie's, while a black and white engraving by Menéndez Pidal helped decode some of the ambiguities. The color adaptation is my own. The SVG file will soon appear in my Library of Latin Diagrams where you will be able to read it with a tablet computer and rotate it to your heart's content.

Now, back to the discoverer. Prince Youssouf belonged to a dynasty of Albanian origin who ruled Egypt until the army-led revolution of 1952. Through polygamy it was a large family and Youssouf held back from the jostling for leadership, instead founding seats of learning and cultivating the arts. Such was his wealth that he built three palaces and financed culture.

He seems to have been interested in two major topics: the depiction of North Africa in ancient cartography and the contributions of Islamic learning to cartography. That is why he financed the Monumenta cartographica Africae et Aegypti, a catalogue of facsimile images of manuscript maps.

He is listed as author, but the research and compilation was done by Frederik Caspar Wieder (1874-1943) of the Netherlands. Only 100 copies of the 16-part series published in Cairo between 1926 and 1951 were ever printed, with a few sold to collectors and most given away to libraries and institutions. It was never digitized, meaning it is a very hard-to-access resource.

Chekin, L. S. (1999). Easter tables and the Pseudo-Isidorean Vatican map. Imago Mundi, 51(1), 13–23. DOI 10.1080/03085699908592900.
Edson, E. (1998). Mapping Time and Space: How Medieval Mapmakers Viewed Their World. London: British Library.
Englisch, B. (2002). Ordo Orbis Terrae: Die Weltsicht in den Mappae mundi des frühen und hohen Mittelalters. Akademie Verlag.
Glorie, F. (1965). Mappa Mvndi (Vat. lat. 6108). In P. Geyer, O. Cuntz, A. Francheschini, R. Weber, L. Bieler, J. Fraipont, & F. Glorie (Eds.), Itineraria et alia geographica (pp. 456–466). Brepols.
Menéndez Pidal, G. (1954). Mozárabes y asturianos en la cultura de la Alta Edad Media, en relación especial con la Historia de los conocimientos geográficos. Boletín de La Real Academia de La Historia, 134, 137–292.
Uhden, R. (1935). Die Weltkarte des Isidorus von Sevilla. Mnemosyne, 3rd series, 3, 1–28

No comments :

Post a Comment