First printed maps on exhibit at St. John's College

The page from an encyclopedia shows an ocean ring around a circle that is partitioned by a T-shape into three continents — Asia, Africa and Europe. The continents are populated by Noah's sons, from whom mankind descended after the flood, according to the story in the Bible.

Something of a diagram, the design is a map derived by a Spanish bishop around the year 600 from the works of the ancient Greek astronomer-mathematician-geographer Ptolemy.

It is also the first known map of the world to have taken advantage of a key technological advance: the printing press. Don't look for the New World here; the black-inked German print shows a flat Earth and predates Columbus' 1492 voyage by two decades.

The map is part of an unusual show at St. John's College's Mitchell Gallery that features 30 maps printed between 1472 and 1700.

All are among the earliest printed maps, from the first ones printed from carved wood blocks to the later ones printed from engraved copper plates. The traveling exhibit is from the collection of Henry and Holly Wendt, formerly of California, and it shows the gradual understanding that the Earth isn't flat, a realization that planets revolve around the sun, and the addition of islands and continents discovered by explorers on their voyages.

The exhibit, in the art gallery at the Annapolis campus, fits in with St. John's renowned "great books" curriculum, said Lucinda Edinberg, art educator there.

"Our students study Ptolemy," she said, as well as Copernicus and others whose ideas are embodied in the maps.

St. John's students learn across disciplines, reading works of philosophy, studying roots of civilization and analyzing concepts such as the Pythagorean theorem. Maps such as these pull from many of those disciplines, Edinberg said.

Many blend mythology, theology and stories of their eras with mapmaking, as they depict Hercules, constellations and sailing ships in monster-infested seas, and place Jerusalem at the center of the world. Some are black and white, but others are hand-colored in rich browns, reds and blues.

Some show the winds as cherubic faces blowing the oceans at the edge of the flat Earth back toward continents; one shows cherubs turning the Earth with a hand crank. Later maps show Greenland and the Americas (sorry, no Alaska), and are highly decorative.

A late 17th-century Dutch print —by then the Dutch were masters at mapmaking, Edinberg said — is awash in deep blues and greens, and is decorated with mythological figures, among them eagles guiding Apollo's chariot, and the Seven Wonders of the World.

Not that you could find your way around based on these maps. Rather, they are generally atlas-style geographical and celestial maps.

"None of these are navigational maps," Edinberg said. "Navigational maps were kept very close," she said, noting that the era of these handmade prints was a time of competition in exploration and trade among European monarchies.

In these maps, entire continents are missing or misshapen,. Only one has enough detail to have aided travelers.

That one is the famed Peutinger Table, the oldest known printed road map. It was printed in the 16th century but is based on an earlier original version that was taken from a map in the fourth or fifth century, believed by scholars to come from ancient Rome. According to the exhibit catalog, "Envisioning the World," it shows the roads and landmarks used by the couriers of the Roman emperors, much the way an old AAA TripTik would guide a motorist.

For navigation, however, the Naval Academy Museum has loaned the college an old compass from above a captain's bed and about a dozen instruments. Two of its historical globes add a rounded view of Earth.

Edinberg said the exhibit — which is free and open to the public, and includes an audio tour — is proving to be popular with adults and school groups. Visitors with a Navy background have also pored over it.

"It's really interesting to see how the world was viewed then. Even if you aren't interested in all the scientific aspects, you can see the evolution of discovery," she said. "And there is the art, the wood blocks, the advances to copper plate. Some of the artwork, the ships, the colors, the composition, it's beautiful."

The exhibit, "Envisioning the World: The First Printed Maps, 1472-1700," is on display through April 13 at the Mitchell Gallery at St. John's College, 60 College Ave., Annapolis. Information: 410-626-2556.

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