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America Mapped

How the Old World saw the New World in perspective.

Aug 9, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 44 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
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The impact of this view of an uncorrupted, idyllic America was reflected immediately, Lester points out, in Thomas More’s Utopia (1516)—another playful coinage out of Greek, suggesting both “good place” and “no place.” And it’s also at work a little later in Montaigne’s essay “Of Cannibals” (circa 1578). Both of these humanist classics satirically suggest that the intruding Europeans are the savages, not the natives. You don’t have to believe in devout noble savage myths or Avatar to think they had a point: The reader of this book will have his stomach turned by the way the Portuguese, when they reached the Canary Islands, immediately began to dispossess, kill, and enslave the initially welcoming and generous natives, and by the early stages of the same story as it was repeated in Africa and the New World.

But of course, Lester is concentrating on the admirable, earnest, and odd characters who did the exploring, thinking, and mapping: medieval merchants, southern and northern European voyagers, Florentine and German humanists. There’s the fat Franciscan monk John of Plano Carpini, who made his way across Europe, Russia, and Siberia, enduring ordeals by blizzard and hunger and marathon horse rides, to call on the Great Khan of the Mongols, who was terrorizing Europe in the 13th century. He carried with him a highly unrealistic diplomatic overture from the pope advising the Tartars, as they were known, to cease and desist and convert. They laughed at him, but John somehow made it back alive, and his account of the journey turned him into a celebrity. The more familiar stories about Marco Polo, Vasco da Gama, Columbus, John Cabot, and others still offer, in Lester’s retelling, new angles and revelations.

Finally, there are the maps. They quickly went from being iconic medieval devotional objects, dominated by religious symbolism and dividing the world into its three ordained, symmetrical, smoothly contoured parts (Asia, Europe, and Africa), to the meticulous, elaborately colored and illustrated and inscribed maps of Waldseemüller and others that depicted the world in all its seductive irregularity and mystery, and changed the way it was understood. 

They are wonderful to look at. You start wishing that the world deserved the beautiful maps that have been made of it. In any case, for those who love old maps and traveler’s tales, Toby Lester’s book is a sumptuous feast in the storied, opulent kingdom of Prester John.

Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York. 

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