The Lost Art of Cartography
(Another in the In Media Res series, this time sparked by a picture.)
The most powerful object in the world, the old man said, can be found in the house of the Vandermeer family gathering dust.
You know them, of course. The Vandermeers are one of the richest merchant families in Amsterdam. Every one knows the Vandermeers: even the King of England does business with the Vandermeers and you know what a tight-fisted crown sits on their throne.
But I tell you this: the fools don’t know what has been hanging on their wall.
What is it? Why it’s a map of course.
Given as a gift to the beautiful daughter of the Vandermeers’, the map had been drawn by Maladorno when he was still a young man prone to heart-felt declarations of love. Of course, no one knew what it really was. But then again, nobody knew who Maladorno really was.
You don’t know who Maladorno is also? Ah, let me tell you. After all, the art of cartography had been lost for almost a decade now and the young Italian had been the last of the great cartographers.
No, cartography then was more than what the sketchers and scribblers do today. Now, cartographers are mere map-makers, map-drawers: listening to accounts of ship captains about misty far-off lands, malevolent sea-monsters, demon-infested jungles, cannibal islands and ruins of ancient empires that had once ruled during the time of the Christ.
And most importantly, the old man emphasized, the trade-routes to these fantastic places.
But a long time ago, cartography was a puissant art. If a powerful cartographer were to detail these accounts on a piece of parchment, the map itself would become a link to that fantastic land. There would be no need for travelers to go on arduous journeys on months on end. One touch on the map and you would be there!
Of course there would be no way to come back except through sail, mount or pathway. But ah, the riches overwhelmed the risks. And what glory could be reaped by the returning traveler.
But: Maladorno. He was a young man then and susceptible to the charms of a young maiden named Adrienne Vandermeer. In keeping with all young men who think they had first discovered love, the Italian had crafted a map from the accounts of several ship masters and gave it as a gift to the young woman.
But the Vandermeer spurned the luckless youth and turned the suitor out on his ear. The gift, of course, they kept. They never knew what it was they hung on their wall.
You say: what use is an old map? I agree: a number of trade routes have been drawn and re-drawn based on accounts of merchanteers seeking trade with new lands. Maladorno’s map was old, probably out-dated as well.
But the art of cartography is such a powerful thing. It bends reality; it places you not-here but there. And any fool of who would tinker with reality knows that the first rule of the sorcery is that belief is all.
So imagine that. New lands, not of this earth. And all ripe for the taking, if one were bold enough to snatch an old, dusty map hanging on the wall of the Vandermeer house.
Imagine that, said the old man.
(First published Wednesday, February 16, 2005 at 1:45 P.M.)