In the spring of 1571, a cassocked Spanish Jesuit named José de Acosta, who hailed from the arid plains of Medina del Campo, found himself testing his sea legs on the deck of an oaken caravel lurching about in the mid-Atlantic. The mother church had ordered him to distant Peru, and so he bowed his head and went. But as his balky vessel blew across the equator, he looked up, spotted a pasty sun set high in the sky, knitted his brow, shivered a little, and burst into peels of philosophical laughter—the sort of kick-the-chair-out-from-under-the-teacher belly laugh that Nietzsche would have loved. I’ll let Father Acosta explain:
Here is what happened to me when I crossed over to the Indies: Having read what the poets and philosophers write of the “burning zone,” I persuaded myself that coming to the equatorial region I should perish from the violence of the terrible heat. But it fell out otherwise, for when I passed over—the sun being directly overhead, and it being March—I was so incredibly cold that I was forced to go out into the sun to warm myself. What could I do then but laugh at Aristotle and his philosophy, seeing that in that place and in the season when, according to his principles, everything should have been scorched with fire, my companions and I were freezing cold?
Those long-faced men who crammed theology in the stony cloisters of Toledo seldom found themselves busting a gut at the foolishness of Aristotle (known simply in those days as “The Philosopher”), whose metaphysics had become the basic architecture of Catholic doctrine. In Acosta’s chortle, then, one feels the earth move. For a moment the vaulting edifice of classical learning teeters, and with it the whole theory of knowledge in the Renaissance—that hallowed notion that the deepest truths lay in the deepest recesses of antiquity, that one went back to the old books to find the right answers. Acosta, plucked up from the half-light of his cell and lashed to the mast of the age of discovery, found himself watching his cherished textual authorities wash away in the wake. A little travel is a dangerous thing.
And the sixteenth century saw a lot of travel. Right about the same time that Acosta was kissing Aristotle on both cheeks and chucking him overboard, a short Flemish mapmaker from Rupelmonde named Gerardus Mercator (né Kremer, son of a shoemaker) was doing much the same for Ptolemy, the towering cosmographic authority of antiquity. By the 1570s Ptolemy’s famous chart of the known world—which hailed from the second century and saw publication by enthusiastic Renaissance scholars shortly before the voyages of Columbus—had been for nearly a hundred years the base map upon which European explorers had plotted their expanding sense of the globe. While Ptolemy’s original chart emphasized a homey wedge of the Mediterranean lands (known in Greek as the oikoumene, meaning roughly “the inhabited world”), the Portuguese expeditions around the horn of Africa and the transatlantic passages of the Spaniards forced cartographers to stretch this tidy frame bit by bit, adding on awkwardly at the edges. It proved an unwieldy business. And indeed, by the time Mercator set to the task of compiling his Atlas (named, of course, after the Titan of Greek mythology who bore the earth on his shoulders), the idea of trying to keep Ptolemy au courant had given up the ghost. Rather than beef up the original Ptolemaic plat with more than a century of new geographical discoveries, the Flemish mapmaker adopted a radically new strategy: print the original Ptolemaic maps in their original form as a sort of standalone cartographic appendix, with a headnote saying something like, “Here, want to see what the world looked like to some Greek guy more than a thousand years ago? Check this stuff out. But should you want to see what the world really looks like, let me direct you to my latest publications ”
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