In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. We all know the famous rhyme from elementary school, but what was going on 40 years earlier? In 1452? What was the world like? What did it look like on a map at that time? In the Golda Meir Library, here at UWM, there is a glimpse of the world at that time.
On the third floor, in the American Geographical Society Library is Giovanni Leardo’s MappaMundi. MappaMundi is a term that means, “Cloth of the World,” or any medieval European map. Leardo made two other MappaeMundi, which reside in Italian museums, but the AGSL’s is the most elaborate of the three. The MappaMundi’s estimated worth is $5 million. Over 520,000 maps are in the AGSL’s collections and the MappaMundi is the oldest and most valuable.
“It is the finest example of a MappaMundi in the Western Hemisphere,” said Aims McGuiness, Associate Professor of History at UWM. “And it’s one of the last examples of this form of cartographic representation.”
For the AGSL, it’s much more.
“This (the MappaMundi) is our biggest treasure,” said Jovanka Ristic, AGSL Reference Librarian.
Little is known about the Giovanni Leardo. All we know is that he made three MappaeMundi and that he was from Venice.
So how did the MappaMundi end up at UWM? The map came to UWM in 1978 when the American Geographical Society moved its library from New York City to the third floor of the UWM Libraries due to the Society’s financial problems. The Geography faculty at UWM at the time were persistent in convincing the Society to move the library to UWM.
Kept in a special, air conditioned room, in a special frame, along with other antique maps and atlases, the MappaMundi is a relic of a time when people only knew of three continents: Europe, Asia and Africa. Thought the far East was Paradise, and at the far South and North-inhabitable hot and cold deserts.
“It’s a map of a European’s view of the world at that time,” said Ristic
It’s also wildly different from any map you would be familiar with. For starters, a map that hangs in your geography teacher’s classroom typically is oriented with North at the top, South at the bottom, East to the right and West to the left. The MappaMundi, however, turns everything 90 degrees to the right, with East moving to the top of the map and West to the bottom. The city of Jerusalem sits at the center.
“It’s a bit weird to look at the map because it’s so disorienting, we’re so used to north being at the top,” said Ristic.
Jerusalem at the center seems odd at first, but Leardo was heavily influenced by Christianity.
“For Europeans at that time, religion was a big part of their world view,” said Ristic. “It was the seat of their world.”
Around the map is a ring of blue to represent the oceans, and beyond that, a circle of rings containing a Venetian calendar, a diagram mapping the phases of the moon, zodiac signs, a list of feast days for saints, and festival days. The rings are packed with information.
Surrounding the circles are faces of the four cardinal directions blowing from the respective directions. And in the four corners are symbols for the four authors of the gospels, the lion for St. Mark, the bull for St. Luke, the angel for St. Michael, and the eagle for St. John.
Dotting the map are castles, walled towns, and churches to mark where cities, kingdoms, and churches are. Another major detail in the map is the Red Sea. While the other seas are all painted blue, the Red Sea is colored bright red, a standout feature.
The map itself was made at an interesting point in history. It was created a year before the fall of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire.
According to McGuiness, it was made during a time when exploration was just getting from being land based- to the exploration by sea by explorers like Prince Henry the Navigator and Columbus.
“It exists at a hinge in between two eras of history: Exploration of land routes and trade, and exploration by ocean,” said McGuiness. “The Leardo MappaMundi captures a world in flux in terms of religion, in terms of navigation, exploration, trade, war, and empires,”
The MappaMundi’s History
Well, for starters the map was discovered in 1850 by Vincerzo Lazari in Italy. And then in 1906, Archer M. Huntington bought the map from a Mrs. Bertha White who had bought the map from a friend for 250 pounds, according to Geography in the Making-The American Geographical Society 1851-1951 by John Kirkland Wright.
According to Wright, Huntington was a very wealthy man whose father built the Southern Pacific Railroad, but Huntington’s business involved building ships. Huntington was a member of American Geographical Society and a huge supporter of them.
“He gave them money, and donated the map in 1906,” said Ristic.
So the map stayed in the American Geographical Society’s Library in New York, in its collections until 1978. Before then, according Ristic, the Society was in trouble financially, and started looking for places to move the Library and its collections. And that’s where UWM comes in to play.
“The Geography faculty at UWM really got in early in the process,” said Ristic. A factor in the AGS choosing UWM, was not only the persistence of geography faculty members, but also the fact that the third floor of the library was empty. Another reason was UWM promising to keep the AGSL separate and keep the AGSL as the name. It was a complicated negotiation, lots of people in New York wanted the library to stay, but in 1978 the library was moved to UWM, and along with it, the MappaMundi.
Since its arrival at UWM the MappaMundi has only been moved once from the library. In 2007, the Field’s museum in Chicago held an exhibit called Maps: Finding Our Place In The World, and the Mappa Mundi was part of it. When preparing to move it the AGSL had to have it appraised for insurance purposes where it was found to be worth $5 million, according to Ristic.
Now, the map is shown off by staff at the AGSL.
“We show it to tour groups, students, elementary school students, it’s one of a kind and we like showing it off,” said Ristic. “ It is so colorful and beautiful.”