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A world of difference

The Borgia Map, where geography meets fantasy

John Hooper | September/October 2012

Not the least charming aspect of the Borgia Map is that no one knows why or by whom it was made. It was found in Portugal in 1794 by Cardinal Stefano Borgia and added to his rich collection of treasures from what he termed the "four parts of the world". Today, his artefacts and antiquities are mostly scattered between Naples and Rome, where the Borgia Map is to be found in the Vatican Museums. 

It is engraved on two copper plates, 63cm (24 inches) across, which have been riveted together. Experts say it dates from the mid-15th century—but its creator was blithely unaware of many of the discoveries made by then. There is, for instance, no trace of the Canary Islands, which had been colonised in 1402. 

Unusually, the Borgia Map has the south at the top and north at the bottom. The lettering suggests that it began life in southern Germany and indeed, the world view of its maker is quite similar to that of his 21st-century compatriots. Spain, Italy and Greece all loom huge, as they must do today in the nightmares of Angela Merkel.  

One way of looking at this cartographical jewel is as the first historical atlas. "Here in Alunnia in 432", declares an inscription over part of France, "Attila, King of the Huns, fought against the Romans and 180,000 were killed of both sides". In fact, Attila did not become king until 434, and the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields, to which this seems to refer, took place 17 years later. Still, it was a good try. Some of the other historical references are familiar ("Battle of Cannae in which Hannibal slew 44,000 Romans and collected from the soldiers three bushels of golden rings"), others less so. How many of us knew that "Sinopa conquered many kingdoms and vanquished Hercula, Pampedo and Insipia"?

Nearby is a depiction of what was intended to be an elephant, but turned out to look more like a pig with a vuvuzela on its snout. Elsewhere, there are more accurate renderings of camels, a gazelle, horses and a representation of the distant Seres collecting silk from the trees. The map is such a beautiful object that some believe it was intended as a wall decoration. If so, let's hope it hung in the study of a poet, for it is above all an entrancing work of the imagination. It contains enough legend, speculation and sly invention to inspire a dozen books by a latter-day Jorge Luis Borges or an equal number of films by a Tim Burton. Paradise is located on the coast somewhere beyond India and China. Between it and better-known parts of the world, there is an inscription that reads: "From here to the ocean, a land uninhabitable on account of cannibalism", which was presumably inserted to deter what is nowadays termed a fact-finding mission.

As in all the best works of fantasy, the utterly surreal crops up next to the banal, giving a whiff of the Mad Hatter's tea party. Between references, recognisable today, to "Polonia" and "Bayveria", we get "The stag, when pressed by dogs, drinks water which it vomits upon them boiling". In northern Russia are mountains "in which griffins and tigers dwell". Somewhere around Gabon, we are informed that "Here women hairy and very savage bring forth without males". 

The map goes a long way towards explaining why there were no southern Germans among those who set off across the Atlantic or round the Cape of Good Hope. They would have been all too uneasily aware of what awaited them: in India "huge men having horns four feet long" and serpents "of such magnitude that they can eat an ox whole". On the other hand, anyone with an adventurous spirit would surely be tempted by the prospect of finding, in Libya or thereabouts, the "fountain of the sun, boiling at night and tepid in the morning". And who could resist the chance to look, near the headwaters of the Nile, for the Phoenix, which "burns itself in an aromatic fire, and in three days is recreated from its ashes"? 

As you stare at the Borgia Map, it is not difficult to become intoxicated by dreams of a journey to Ergauil or Fudaur or the "State of Cambalec", which appears to have a common frontier with Paradise. Perhaps the most enticing thought of all, though, is that you might one day reach that part of Siberia marked on the map as being "The land formerly of illustrious women. In this lake..." 

In this lake, what? The nameless author leaves your imagination to supply the rest. ~ John Hooper

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