Down North

Fra Mauro Map

Sometimes I like to spend my idle hours wandering Google Maps. Maybe I’ll hunt for a remote chunk of the Great Wall of China, or look for that mountain in the Adirondacks I hiked back in 2007, or wonder what’s up with a tiny village with dirt roads in Greenland.

But my favorite tourism-by-satellite locale is North Korea. Car traffic on North Korean streets is extremely sparse, even in the country’s biggest cities, giving them an eerie feel, as if they’ve been abandoned. At least you can often make out small blurry smudges that are almost certainly people going about their day, unaware that Google is letting some American in a cozy dining room eyeball them from afar.

Of course, the quilt of satellite photos that make these maps is a recent phenomenon. Old world maps, for which crafters had to mix stories from travelers with their own imaginations are even more enchanting.

On a recent visit to Florence I happened upon this 15th-century map at the Galileo Museum. This wild pinwheel of jagged continents by the Italian monk Fra Mauro illustrates one of my favorite things about maps: North is not really up. East and west? Also arbitrary. In Fra Mauro’s map, it’s all in reverse. You can start with Africa in the upper-right corner, and traveling clockwise, find Europe, then Russia, then China (“Chataio”) in the lower left. Continue the circle and you travel through India, Persia, Arabia, then finally back to Africa. The Americas, of course, are absent.

I also love the Fra Mauro map for its color and style. Painstakingly drawn ocean waves. Craggy coastlines that resemble jigsaw-puzzle pieces. Tall, majestic buildings that compete with mountains. It’s more than a map. This is what the world was to a learned, well-traveled human being in the 1400s — full of marvels, danger, and most of all uncertainty.

There are, of course, more conventional modern-day upside-down maps, designed to make a jarring point about the difference between familiarity and reality. But even Google Maps, which lets us peak at the most concealed landmasses on the globe, defaults to the north-is-up convention. It’s tempting to wonder if the world would be different if south were up by default; if the people in the developed countries that dominate the northern hemisphere might be well-served by a frequent, casual reminder that whoever’s “on top” can be an arbitrary thing. But that’s probably a question as unanswerable to us now as the full truth of the continents was to Fra Mauro.

(Above photo, with upside-down Italy in the middle, taken by me at Museo Galileo. You can find a clear, high-resolution image of the Fra Mauro map here.)


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