15 December 2007


Today (July 2007), at the Newberry Library, in Chicago, where I am on a National Endowment for the Humanities three-week fellowship, I saw a beautiful, breathtaking and nearly perfect copy (meaning original specimen) of a Ptolemy Geographia, printed 1486 (only 521 years old!), about 34x24x6 in., with a Ptolemy world map inside.

Allow me to explain the significance of the Ptolemy. Old friend Cristoforo would have had a copy of this same atlas. Actually, there were many editions printed throughout the 15th century, beginning ca. A.D. 1400, when it reappeared after a thousand years, brought from Byzantium. The problem was that Ptolemy, working ca. A.D. 150, underestimated the circumference of the Earth by 1/6 and overestimated Asia by 1/3, stretching it eastward way too far. Columbus used this to justify sailing west to find the Spice Islands (and riches). Anyway, even though the leather-bound book was printed (remember, this was just approx. 40 years after the invention of printing), it was beautifully hand-tinted.

The procedures to "page" and view items are complex and a bit daunting. Sometimes patrons must wear gloves--I don't know when, but they'll certainly tell you. What's neat is that they bring you an item (we, under no circumstances, can ever see the "stacks") and place it, if a book, on whatever size padded cloth book-holder is required. And, you also get padded cloth page holders and de-acidified book-markers. If Homeland Security were run like the Newberry, we could go to bed assured of total safety, with only dreams of cartographic missteps, like Columbus', to disturb our dreams.

The second item I paged just for me. It was a small (about 8x5x1") leather-bound manuscript book
(ca. 1600) from Turkey, in Arabic, with EACH PAGE exquisitely hand-written and hand-tinted, in, particularly, medium blue, red, and gold. Besides about 12 paintings, it contains three maps: a world map, Asia, and the New World (which is incomplete, of course). Now here is the kicker: Turkish/Arab/Persian maps placed south at the top! (I coined the neologism--australocentrism--to call this practice.) That's why I especially wanted to see this book and its three maps.

I also paged an Albrecht Durer world map (1515), which attempts to show the globality of Earth in two dimensions. You recall Durer; his early self-portrait etching was the envy and model for every hippie male during the 1960s.

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