A good idea from ... old maps

The modern map seems to become an instrument of humiliation

IF LOOKING at maps seems a bore, it is perhaps because we tend to look only at modern ones when we're lost. Pulled up on the edge of a country road, we grow red trying to match the scene through the windscreen with the arrangement of shapes printed before us, and - more often than not - fail completely to locate where we might be. The map becomes an instrument of humiliation, in command of a landscape which we cannot comprehend through our senses.

What is charming about old maps is the way they get everything wrong. For most of human history, maps have been in a spectacular muddle about geographical reality. Only by 1490 could you have learnt that the bottom of Africa was not in fact joined to South-East Asia, another decade had to pass before the Indian peninsula assumed its recognisable shape, and navigating according to a map by Giovanni Contarini in 1506, you would have been at the mercy of Columbus's belief that Cuba was an island off the coast of east Asia. It was not until the end of the 17th century that most landmasses found their correct locations.

Old maps remind us of the extraordinary obstacles in the way of an accurate representation of the world. They evoke the tenacity and bravado of the great adventurer-sailors who left Europe in search of new lands, of the epic journeys of Columbus, Magellan and Vespucci. We've grown too aware of Europe's atrocities in newly colonised continents to feel any easy pride on seeing the first well-drawn map of America, but still it does not seem fair to resist any sense of awe at what such a map represents.

Just as there is something exciting in the gradual discovery of new lands, it is also rather sad when everything has been found. There is something romantic about coming across an old map with terra incognita written on a section of the American continent, where modern maps announce prosaically that Detroit stands.

Any picture of the world is based on historical and relative assumptions about what should be depicted, and so it would be hasty to call old maps "false", simply because they don't look like the world we recognise. Throughout the Middle Ages, mapmakers sought to illustrate the religious world, not the best way to get from A to B. They placed Jerusalem at the centre of the universe, they mixed locations of religious events such as the Fall, the incarnation, the Judgement, with real countries and towns. In the Hereford Mappa Mundi (c1300), if one travels north of Scotland, one eventually hits the Garden of Eden. (As more and more of the world was discovered, religious mapmakers were involved in the comic task of having to shift the location of Paradise).

New maps may be best for finding your destination, but old ones are best for dreaming.

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