A good idea from ... old maps
The modern map seems to become an instrument of humiliation
Alain de Botton
Alain de Botton is a philosopher, writer and television presenter. His books include Essays in Love (published when he was only 23), How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997), Status Anxiety (2004) and Religion for Atheists (2012)
Sunday 27 June 1999
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.
Watch the new House of Cards series three trailerTV
Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards
Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Michelle Rodriguez: Fast & Furious actor apologises after telling 'minorities' to stop taking on 'white' roles
- 2 Raif Badawi, the Saudi Arabian blogger sentenced to 1,000 lashes, may now face the death penalty
- 3 PornHub turns masturbation into energy in bid to save the planet
- 4 Robert Mugabe eats a zoo for 'obscene' 91st birthday party
- 5 The remarkable archaeological underwater discovery that could open up a new chapter in the study of European and British prehistory
Broadchurch series 3: David Tennant and Olivia Colman to return for third season, ITV confirms
Eurovision 2015: Finnish punk band with learning disabilities applies to raise awareness
Drake matches The Beatles' record with 14 singles in top 100 chart at the same time
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Broadchurch finale: Erin Kelly's short stories will help with any withdrawal symptoms
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
'Cash for access' scandal: Sir Malcolm Rifkind says 'unrealistic' for MPs to live on £67,000 salary
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
Russia's roadmap for annexing eastern Ukraine 'leaked from Vladimir Putin's office'