The Ricci Map

Fascinating story by Edward Rothstein (he of protean mind and catholic interests who pens the "Ideas" section in The New York Times) about the exhibition at the Library of Congress of a marvelous map. It was drawn by the great Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, in 1602. Readers of this blog probably know a great deal about Matteo Ricci but perhaps not about this great work of art that he completed. (I certainly didn't!) The map had been in private hands since last October, and was bought by the James Ford Bell Trust; it will be permanently displayed in the library of the same name at the University of Minnesota after its stint at the Library of Congress. 

One cavil: I'm not crazy about Rothstein's mixing up of "Jesuitical" and "Catholic." That is, Ricci's project was not so much "Jesuitical" (a word that is like catnip to journalists) as it was Catholic. But overall, Rothstein's piece is terrific.  

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[O]ne of the remarkable aspects of the world map on display at the Library of Congress through April 10, is that along with its imposing scale (it is 12.5 feet long and 5.5 feet high) and grand ambitions (it encompasses the known world of the early 17th century), at its very center stands the “Middle Kingdom,” as China called itself, its mountains and rivers commanding attention with dense annotation, all of which is in Chinese.

Created by a visiting Italian-born Jesuit priest, Matteo Ricci, and apparently commissioned by the court of Emperor Wanli in 1602 — the year after Ricci became the first Westerner admitted to Peking and then the Forbidden City— this map is indeed partly a tribute to the land in which Ricci had lived since 1582, and in which he would die in 1610.

One of his commentaries on the map (placed just south of the Tropic of Capricorn), declares that he is “filled with admiration for the great Chinese Empire,” where he has been treated “with friendly hospitality far above my deserts.” Over the landmass of China, he comments: “The Middle Kingdom is renowned for the greatness of its civilization.”

That greatness can be sensed in the delicate cartographic detail that had to be meticulously carved onto six wood blocks before being printed on rice paper. Ricci’s explanatory Chinese commentary is so extensive in some regions that it seems to cover the terrain. The map was meant to stand on six folding screens and can be imagined engulfing its observer.

Ricci created two earlier versions, beginning in 1584, drawing on atlases and materials he took with him on his journey from Italy. But this third version is the earliest to survive and the first to have combined information from both eastern and western cartography. It is also the oldest surviving map to have given the Chinese a larger vision of the earth.

Even the sturdiest of wall maps tend to have limited life spans, but this large, segmented map is so rare that for centuries it was uncertain if this copy even existed, which is why it has been nicknamed the “impossible black tulip” of maps. It is one of six known copies. 

Read the rest of this fascinating piece here.

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