Wednesday, November 6, 2013

World's greatest maps on show at National Library in Canberra

The centrepiece of the National Library exhibition will be the circa 1450 Fra Mauro, one of the most famous world maps.

By Adrienne Francis and Penny McLintock

A collection of some of the oldest and rarest maps in the world is on show in Canberra.

The Mapping Our World: Terra Incognita to Australia exhibition at the National Library examines the history of cartography from ancient Greek days and medieval times through to European explorations and the voyages of Flinders and Cook.

It features 135 maps, wall charts, atlases, paintings, clocks, cartography and navigational instruments, many of which have never before been seen in the southern hemisphere.

Some of the priceless treasures are on loan from the British Library, the Vatican, and the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

Curator Nat Williams says the maps inspired the idea of Australia.

"It really gives people an overview of how people envisioned the world, how they imagined there may have been a great south land, something to balance the northern hemisphere," he said.

"And progressively how out of the mists of confusion, speculation and exploration, ultimately the continent of Australia sort of loomed larger and larger via the Dutch, and the French, and finally the British with Cook and Flinders."

Mr Williams says it is a myth busting display.

"If you ask people 'Who discovered Australia?' many would say Captain Cook," he said.

"Of course Captain Cook had a great role in documenting New Holland, the east coast of Australia, but in fact we know the Dutch had been here since 1606, and there is speculation of Portuguese exploration of the area.

"So there are lots of stories about how we became clearly on the map."

The exhibition's centrepiece is a fragile encyclopaedic and secular view of the world in 1450 created by Venetian monk Fra Mauro.

The two-metre hand-painted disc depicts the world oriented to the south, meaning the world appears upside down to viewers.

Mr Williams says it took five years to create and was before Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese Indian Ocean discoveries.

"One of my favourite parts of the map is a tiny little inscription at the very top of the map where it says 'Here commences the dark sea'," he said.

"It really is this great heralding of information and the sense that the world is about to change very quickly.

"Once you look for us (Australia), you realise we are not there and it is really the idea that the world was compressed into this spherical form."

Considered the greatest medieval map in the world, the Fra Mauro features over 3,000 inscriptions drawn from the voyaging and discoveries of Marco Polo.

It was created ahead of the voyages to America by Christopher Columbus and was the first of its kind to show Africa as a separate continent from the then great southern land mass.

"It sets up the dialogue about the fact that the northern hemisphere was very much concentrated on the Mediterranean, England and UK," Mr Williams said.

"We see Java, we see Japan pictured for the first time. Sri Lanka, India but there is this great mysterious sea where we are notionally located."

It is the first time the Fra Mauro map has left Italy in its 563-year history, and transporting the fragile piece from its home in Venice to the National Library has been no easy feat.

A window and wall at the library had to be removed in order to install the work in the new exhibition.
"To move something as big, significant and heavy and loaded with significance as the Fra Mauro map all the way from Italy to Canberra is not a direct route obviously," Mr Williams said.

Mapping Australia across time

The exhibition begins with ancient mapping and navigation used by Indigenous Australians for thousands of years.

"We have real, spiritual ... and celestial mapping of Indigenous people, alongside the imaginary mapping of the southern hemisphere," said curator Martin Woods.

"At the same time that European cartographers were imaging something there that is liveable, Aboriginal people were using maps in their special way."

A 17th century copy of the first map of the world, the atlas of Ptolemy of Alexandria, is also on show, along with the 'great history' from the bedchamber of Henry III, the Psalter World Map.

James Cook's original east coast of Australia map, Abel Tasman's original journal and map of New Holland, and the secret mapping of Australia by the Dutch East India Company are also on display.

"There are some quite ordinary looking maps there that have a story," said Dr Woods.

"Cartography isn't something that is very well understood today. One hundred years ago cartography was king. Maps were king. Printed maps were everywhere.

"In our days of geo-location and Google Maps and so forth we take them for granted. We are doing different things with maps that are truly exciting, but they're not like these."

Mapping Our World is on display at the National Gallery until March 10.

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