Gondolas, Venice (2004) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
The other day at Powell’s Books (Portland), I came across a wonderful little book called “The Mapmaker’s Dream” by James Cowan. The book is the translation of the diary of Fra Mauro, a sixteenth century Venetian monk and cartographer who set out to make a perfect mappamundi (map of the world) though he had never stepped outside the confines of his cloisters. Instead he gathered travelers’ tales through exchanges of letters or interviews of missionaries, merchants and soldiers travelling through Venice. His task became well known and he received envoys from as far afield as the court of the Chinese Emperor. Not only was this book astounding for the fact that word of his venture travelled so far in the 16th century, but the information he collected and the workings of his mind fascinated me.
Yes, his travelers brought stories of the Cyclopedes, beings in the southern hemisphere with only one huge foot that they used for hopping and also for shade when the sun in the antipodes became too fierce, but envoys also brought other tales that caused good Fra Mauro much reflection. This was what captured my attention for they showed a keenness of mind and a shifting view of the world much like new age philosophers. This seemed strange for his time; given Fra Mauro was a devout Catholic.
His encounters left him pondering whether the soul could possibly transmigrate into another person upon the death of the body and whether we are ‘all drifting towards a more complete life in someone else’. The visit of an old Jewish merchant from Rhodes left him contemplating how the loss of place (in the holy land) ‘condemned the man to inhabit his loss forever’ and how the rootless person came to inhabit a region of his own mind instead.
Holy Schwedigon pagoda at sunset, Yangon, Myanmar (Photo (C) Karen Abrahamson)
Visits from others left him considering how venerated holy relics become something more because of that veneration, and how those objects take on their own life because they unite an idea that men aspire to. They left him wondering at cultures that worshiped Satan and yet were not evil, and others that determined their actions and their future through the calls of seven forest birds.
But most of all he wrote of the minds of travelers. He was struck by the notion that travelers not only travelled with their bodies, but also that they travelled in their minds and were transformed by that travel or, alternatively, transformed the place they had been. He wrote of the journeys of envoys sent to find the mythic kingdom of Prestor John and looked at the evidence of such a kingdom – the long letter still held in the Vatican archives that describes a kingdom so perfect it could not possibly exist. Fra Mauro concluded that the reason the search for Prestor John’s kingdom became all consuming, was not just the desire for aid against the Moslem hordes, but the desire to know that it was possible for paradise to exist on earth. Travelers longed to become ‘slaves’ to Prestor John’s perfection and bounty. But the country of Prestor John would never be found because it was only built on dreams.
Buddha face, ruins of the ancient capital of Sukhothai (1997) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Ultimately, Fra Mauro realized the challenge of creating a perfect map arose because each man’s perceptions of place were different and any ‘perfect’ map must capture not only the land forms, but also the forms of the world created by men’s minds.
The lowly monk of Venice completed his life’s work, but today no trace of his perfect mappamundi exists, except in references in the pages of his journal. Perhaps, like the worlds he described, it faded away to become the world as we know it today, but more importantly what his journal shows is a man of deep thought who’s Sixteenth Century perspectives still resonate with readers today.
Thank you, Powell’s, for this gift.