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Into the Unknown

November 2013

  • William Charles

Mapping Our World at the National Library of Australia, Canberra.


Mapping can be as simple a thing as X marks the spot – an element of children’s games – and is usually taken for granted given its sheer ubiquity and multiple forms. Yet mapping represents one of the finest conceptual achievements of civilization – a transfer of three dimensional geographic (and abstract mental) space and environment into a specifically designed (usually) two dimensional representation. Maps tell the story of our world and how we navigate it, and what tools are at our disposal to do so. Maps are windows into the art, aesthetics, scientific development and moral universe of their creators, and are like cross-sectional samples taken from ice or wood: each reveals the conditions of the time in which it came into being.

Maps serve to represent not just the known but, even more enticingly, the unknown. In centuries past maps swelled at their corners with beasts and demons, guarding the uncharted deeps and uncrossed mountain chains, denizens of lands of terror, ignorance and death. The unmappable was a truly awful void; even Satan in Hell had his inscribed place within Dante’s ever-descending, contracting circles of pain.

The map has, paradoxically, no boundary: it can represent both factual landscapes and imaginary ones with equal exactitude. While maps allow us to tie and section the world, rope it away behind boundaries, measure its contents and chart its treasures and dangers, chart its points of home and reassurance, at the same time they allow us to create entire worlds anew, worlds without necessary or rational limit.

Maps delight with their colours: empires at a glance, voids of blue; swathes of pink across colonial ambition and desire. Maps invite challenge, conflict and endless dispute: lines drawn across desert sands or over rebellious mountain ranges divide people by cartographic concept and governmental expedience rather than ethnographic reality. Wars are fought over scraps of territory; neighbourhood gangs define the limits of their influence; real estate prices fluctuate on either side of the lines we draw.

Little, it seems, remains unmapped in our obsessively technological world: distant galaxies perhaps; the deeps of the oceans; the centre of our planet; desire; the contours of the human heart.

But what maps inspired the idea of Australia? In Manning Clark’s History of Australia we read of Javanese who “on finding the current carrying them southward… abandoned their junks and rowed for shore in fear of being drawn into the abyss of Pausengi from which there was no return.” How did the concept of the Great Southern Land emerge from suspicion, hint and fantasy into reality? Mapping Our World: Terra Incognita to Australia, recently opened at the National Library of Australia in Canberra, brings together the finest collection of historic maps yet assembled in Australia that together chart the coming of our region into the modern, European consciousness – our austral terra incognita slowly incorporated into the rational northern mind.

This is the first time many of these maps have been seen in Australia, rarely coming out of their European vaults. The British Library, the Vatican and the Bibliotheque Nationale de France have all lent treasures that (practically and conceptually) map the journey from ancient and medieval ideas of what lay at the lower ends of the earth, through to Matthew Flinders’ brilliant charting of Australia in 1814.

Not only maps: a variety of instruments of knowledge and navigation are on display, including globes, atlases and scientific devices, some drawn from our own national collections. A highlight among these treasures is the Fra Mauro from the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice, a two-metre hand-painted disc world that leaves Italy for the first time – its maiden voyage now after 600 years.

The Fra Mauro, a large circular planisphere, is drawn on parchment and mounted on wood in a square frame. Unusually for medieval European maps, it is oriented with south at the top. It was created by Fra Mauro, a Camaldulian monk from the island of Murano.

Other highlights include the map that first made the Pacific an ocean – Hessel Gerritsz’s Mar Pacifico, Mar del Sur, on loan from the Bibliotheque Nationale De France; Hendrick Doncker’s The Sea Atlas (1659) with its gold-leaf illustrations and fantastic guesses as to parts of the world yet undiscovered; an 1842-printed Cosmographia by Ptolemy; beautiful medieval Christian and Islamic maps; and secret maps of Australia commissioned by the Dutch East India company, before completing the journey with examples from Captain James Cook, Louis de Freycinet and Matthew Flinders.

The National Library in Canberra is the exclusive Australian venue for this exhibition which runs for a strictly limited season. The exhibition coincides with both the national capital’s centenary year and the bicentenary of Matthew Flinders’ map of Australia in 2014.

Mapping Our World: Terra Incognita to Australia is on show now at the National Library of Australia, Canberra, until March 10, 2014. The exhibition is free but bookings are essential.




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