G.P.S. – circa 1600

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Matteo Ricci’s map of the world measures 5.5 feet by 12.5 feet, and was made using woodblocks.

With today’s Global Positioning Systems, Google Earth and Yahoo! Maps, it’s hard to imagine living in a world in which your exact location was a mystery. But a very rare map now on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts provides a picture of a time of great exploration and discovery.

The map, made in 1602, was created by Italian-born Jesuit priest, Matteo Ricci, who was stationed in China for thirty years. It is now known to be the oldest surviving Chinese map to show the Americas. The map on display at the MIA was just recently acquired by the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota; MIA curator Rachel McGarry says this will be by far the most important piece in the library’s collection:

The Ricci map is exceedingly rare; just six survive from the 1602 edition and just two from the 1603 edition, which is why it is popularly called the “Impossible Black Tulip.” It is not the kind of thing a curator would put on their acquisition wish list because the possibility of finding a complete Ricci map seemed impossible. Just one was known in private hands in a collection in France before the discovery of the example purchased by the James Ford Bell Trust. This one emerged from a Japanese private collection and was previously unknown to experts.

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Portrait of Matteo Ricci, 1610

In his thirty years as a Jesuit missionary in China, Ricci mastered the language, studied Confucianism, and adopted the dress of a Chinese intellectual.

McGarry says to understand the importance of the map, you also have to understand the context in which it was made.

The early 17th century is an exciting time. In 1602, Shakespeare had just completed Hamlet, Queen Elizabeth is in the last year of her life, Descartes is 6 years old, Rubens is living in Italy, and Caravaggio’s career is flourishing in Rome. Jamestown was founded in 1607, Galileo published “Starry Messenger” in 1610, and the Mayflower would set sail in 1621.

China had newly learned of Europe, as and was wary that its neighbor might be a powerful enemy. But Ricci’s map, with its detailed descriptions of stormy sea passages and massive mountain ranges separating the two cultures, helped put the Chinese aristocracy at ease.

Ricci and his colleagues were often suspected by the Chinese of nefarious intent (they particularly disliked the image of Jesus on the cross, thinking the Jesuit priests were intent on killing their king, too), But Ricci showed a deep intellectual curiosity and respect for the local culture. In 1601 he was invited to enter the Forbidden City, becoming one of the first Westerners ever to gaze upon its interior.

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Detail of Ricci’s map of the world, 1602

Ricci’s map combines his own knowledge from Dutch atlases with the maps and charts of Chinese scholars. And Ricci filled the map with his own commentary, written in Chinese. His descriptions, which cover everything from astronomy to anthropology, reveal an imaginative, fantastical bent. For example:

“Country of Dwarves. The men and women of this kingdom are only a little more than one foot tall. At the age of five they already have children, and at eight, they are already old. Constantly devoured by cranes and hawks, they live in caves for safety. Here they wait until the third month of summer, when they come out and destroy the eggs of their enemies, riding on goats.”

“In Monomotapa [modern-day Zimbabwe and Mozambique] there is an animal with a head like a horse, a horn on his forehead, and an extremely thick hide with scales all over; the limbs and tail are similar to those of a cow. One wonders if it is a unicorn.”

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Abraham Ortelius, Map of the World, Antwerp, 1570

Ricci brought with him to China Ortelius’ map of the world, and relied on it heavily for certain parts of his own map. Meanwhile, Europeans had made many new discoveries, of which Ricci wasn’t aware.

While we now know the animal of which Ricci spoke was a rhinoceros, not a unicorn, other aspects of Ricci’s work have proved both factual and long-lasting. Many of Ricci’s Chinese translations of place names are still used in China today, including Ya-ma-chia (Jamaica) and Ku-pa (Cuba).

Ricci’s world map is on display in the Cargill Gallery of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts through August 29, accompanied by rare Chinese woodblock prints from an illustrated Bible published by a colleague of Ricci, western maps, and a select group of Ming dynasty objects.

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