Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Impossible Black Tulip of Cartography

The four of us have recently been fascinated by the work of Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary who lived in China during the 16th and 17th centuries. As you may recall, we even went so far as to visit Ricci's grave site, which is located a few miles away from where we lived in Beijing. So it was a no-brainer when we found that a map of the world created by Ricci just went on display at the Library of Congress...We were there!

Ricci's map is noteworthy for a number of reasons. First, there is the map's unusual nickname, reflected in the title of this post. And then there are the map's dimensions...12 feet wide, 5 feet high, 6 rolls of rice paper.

As for the map itself, Ricci broke new ground by creating the first work in Chinese that depicted areas of the world such as the Americas. To be sure, Ricci gave the Middle Kingdom a prominent place near the very center of map, a move that must have been met with pleasure by Emperor Wanli and other Chinese nobles.

As for us, we spent out time marveling at the relative accuracy of Ricci's more than four hundred year old creation. Sure, Southeast Asia and Japan are drawn too big, while the reverse holds for India and other locations. But, overall, the Impossible Black Tulip of Cartography must have been yet another feather in Ricci's missionary cap, a credential to go along with his knowledge of Chinese culture and language and general effort to introduce Western science to the Ming Dynasty.



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