by Paolo Ciampi
Journalist and writer
Director of Agenzia di informazione della Regione Toscana
When I was a boy, I used to wear out my fingers by turning a globe and dreaming of the places where I would go one day. As an adult I think there was no time when, entered in a travel bookshop, I came out without a map of some corner of the planet: so many to explore through the body and even earlier through the imagination that maps are able to feed. However, only recently I have tried to question myself on the meaning, or rather, on the meanings of this predilection. Many questions and answers that have found a place in a book of the Little Philosophy of Trip of Ediciclo, a wonderful book series with which to wonder about our relations with places.
The dream of maps – this is the title – suggests something that I am convinced of, that is that maps are not just representations of a land or a sea, but visions that from time to time mix convictions, emotions, desires. Sometimes they say much more about us than about the reality they would like to describe.
Visions, then. And I add: visions that descend from our history and which at the same time influence history. Useful concepts also to describe our Mediterranean, I believe. To investigate the events of the centuries and millennia that had preceded us we shouldn’t only use military records, trade registers and travelers’ memories. The cartography of the various Mediterranean civilizations is eloquent as well. Indeed, perhaps we can start from this: from the possibility that the ancient maps talk to us again, proposing the idea of a sea and the lands that overlook it.
Sometimes I go back and think of Hecataeus of Miletus who depicted the earth as a perfect disk surrounded by the Ocean, with Greece at its center. I remember Isidore of Seville with his globe where the inhabited lands were arranged in a shape of a “T”, and Jerusalem was at the intersection of the two branches. I go back to Ptolemy, who through geometry gave a meaning to the world, tracing latitudes and longitudes. I reflect on the Romans who, much more concretely, tried to satisfy the needs of travelers by illustrating routes and distances.
And I tell myself, once again, that nothing can be taken for granted in maps: not even the north for so long has been where today we expect it to be. And without this calling into question any scientific basis.
Visions, but also expressions of will, the maps. A more or less legitimate right is claimed in the act of creating them. Moreover, this claim already occurs at the very moment in which we give a name to the places of the world, arranging them on a map: in this way the places begin to become ours.
It is the same appropriation that we can follow in the stages of the cartography of a continent like Africa: first the features of the coasts and in the empty place, even the hic sunt leones; only later, names and details populate interior, thanks to explorers, missionaries, colonial troops. But it does not matter to reason about an entire continent, when in the nearest waters there are rocks that retain a plurality of names, real proof of different languages and will, of changing fortunes.
It is no coincidence that for a certain period of time they were the Italians who produced the best globes and the best navigational charts – to mention one, a pilot book like the Carta Pisana. These were the times of the maritime Republics, the same era in which the mathematician Fibonacci learned on the other side of the sea the numbers we would call Arabs. And precisely with regard to the Arabs: let us think of the works of Al-Idrisi and of all the others, in a period in which the known world widened dramatically.
Until the best cartographers began to work in the service of the military and mercantile powers that with their fleets aimed at other continents, beyond the ocean…
Maps show us the fragility of human affairs. Also with regards to borders. Today they seem more and more solid, irrevocable, and definitive in relation to the fate of entire peoples. The same sea that in our history has also united, now more than in the past it is crossed by a border that too often becomes a wall, an invisible wall, but still a wall.
On the maps, the boundaries return to be what they actually are: arbitrary representations, the result of visions and will, in the same way as maps.
It is good to cultivate maps, the old ones and those of our times. It is good to reconsider the way in which men have interpreted them from time to time. Thanks to them we return to be who we have always been, people travelers.
As far as I am concerned, this is how I always rediscover my sea. As a man of land, who does not have a boat waiting for him, but knows how to shake out the sails of dreams. The names of a map are enough, touching the coasts, the islands and the harbors with one hand is enough. This is how we greet the piers and we are already far away.