Saturday, February 16, 2008

Chasing a Tangent: The van den Keere World Map of 1611

Text in red italics indicate questions for which I'm seeking answers. In other words, please help!

Here I go again. This is the third time that I've sat down and tried to plow through my entry on the Field Museum maps exhibit and spent most of the day investigating a single item. Click the image above, and you may get a sense of why I wanted to plumb this map's elaborate symbolism, especially the skeletal spectre of Death apparently wrestling with a male figure over control of an hourglass. The allegories are fascinating: Ticho(Tycho) Brahe and a warrior angel* confer over a globe about the size of the ones I just saw; Abram Ortelios(Abraham Ortelius) sits reading a book while Proclus peers over his shoulder; Archimedes likewise observes Ptolemeus(Ptolemy) working on a globe; and Euclides(Euclides) and Mercator confer over another tome while a very sinister-looking "Alphonsus Rex Hispanes" - presumably a representation of the king of Spain, but I don't know who Alphonsus is - leers over their shoulders.

Almost as interesting as the allegorical figures is the thick border, comprising forty tableau of figures, cities, and scenes from around the world. Here are the captions. Some of them are self-explanatory, some not so much.
  2. ROMA
  3. ITALI
  10. GALLI
  12. PARIS
  15. GUINENSES - Inhabitants of Guinea-Bissau
  16. MINA - Cripes! Look at all the things to which Mina might refer. One of the meanings listed is "Arabic sea port", which would seem to fit the bill.
  17. ABISSINI - Abyssinians, or inhabitants of historic Ethiopia
  20. DANI - Check out the dude on the left. Is that not the coolest outfit you've ever seen?
  21. BANTAM - When this map was made, the Dutch and the English were vying for control over this strategically important trading city in Java.
  22. IAVANI - I think this is Java.
  23. GOA
  24. MALABARI - People of Malabar
  25. REX MAGORUM - King of... um... the Magi??? The people and clothes look Arabic, but the etymological vagueness of the word's origins tell me almost nothing aside from it probably refers to peoples of Persia or India. Can someone help me?
  26. PERNAMBUCI - People of Pernambuco
  27. HAVANA
  29. PERNAMBUCO - another important region to the Dutch East India Company
  30. POLONI - People of Poland
  31. MAGNÆ BRIT. GAL. ET. HIB. REX ET REG. - The full title of James I was His Majesty, James VI, by the Grace of God, King of England, Scotland, France(Gaul) and Ireland(Hibernia), Defender of the Faith, etc.
  32. ARABI
  33. ALGAR - I just don't know. There's an Algar in Spain, but I can't find any history behind it.
  34. ÆGIPTI
  35. REX TURCARUM - The A is encircled, presumably alluding to the mystical and alchemical abilities of the Turks.
  36. TURCI

I want to delve into the theatrically symbolic world of this map to gain insight into the early seventeenth century people with whom van den Keere intended his images to resonate. I'll save that for after I've made a trip to the NYPL to peruse their copy of The World Map of 1611, a book about the map written by Günter Schilder and James A Welu in 1980. For now, all I can do is wonder if I'm completely off-base, or if I saw something that Peter Whitfield didn't when he wrote his book The Image of the World. Referring to the man and the skeletal figure I mentioned above, he says "...To their right is an elaborate vanitas, a man whose life and work is threatened by the figure of death." This is almost the opposite of how I interpreted it! The struggle between man and Death was particularly striking to me because the two seemed to be evenly matched in their wrestling over the hourglass, and because of the printing apparatus at the man's feet. I interpreted this as a symbol of printing as a new and almost godly power: mankind can now store and distribute knowledge much more easily, and this represents a partial defeat of death. Before the printing press, man could do nothing in the face of Time, the bringer of Death. Now, with the printing press, man has the power to hamper Death - to dampen the ravaging nature of time by projecting his knowledge - his essence - into the future. The man doesn't look threatened to me; far from it, he looks like he's now on an equal footing with Death!

*Whitfield says that " academy of ancient and modern scientists... are gathered around a celestial globe under the guidance of the figure of Astronomy." I tried to find a precedent for the personification of astronomy, but all I've found so far is Urania, the muse of astronomy and astrology, and Raphael's entirely human-looking figure holding a crystal sphere in The School of Athens, a fresco in the Vatican's Stanza della Segnatura. Darned if I can find any personification of Astronomy that looks like a warrior angel. Can anyone help me out here?


Martinus said...

Hugh, I believe Alphonsus Rex Hispanes would be Alfonso X of Castile, a.k.a. "el Sabio" ("the Wise" or "the Learned") and "el Astrólogo" ("the Astronomer").


Hugh Yeman said...

Huh! I guess I was wrong about that figure being sinister. Thanks! That's another figure in the history of cartography I need to study. Looks like he was a major vector of the transmission of Ptolemy back to Europe.

Anonymous said...

ALGAR must be ALGER or ALGIER. Such "misprints" weren't scarce in those times.

Peter Bruns said...

MINA refers to Sao Jorge do Elmina or simply "Elmina" on the African Gold Coast.

Peter Bruns said...

Correction: Sao Jorge do Mina in portuguese or "El Mina" (Elmina)