I was wondering until the last minute if we’d have enough students to justify this “undergraduate seminar” featuring the JCB’s collection of maritime atlases, but it turns out I should not have worried. We pulled in about 10 eager Brown students, mostly from Jean Feerick’s Shakespeare class, and one intrepid voyager from U Conn Avery Point, who came with his professor, Mary K Bercaw-Edwards. We also drew in a few other Oceaners who had arrived early, the JCB’s rare books curator, and all in all the room was pretty full. Atlases are big!
Susan Danforth, the brilliant and deeply knowledgable maps curator, led a tour that started with a hand-colored 1480s Ptolomy, then quickly showed the shock of discovery in a gorgeous 1511 Italian Portolan chart, that showed how old Mediterranean cartographic habits struggled to make sense out of the strange new vistas of Africa and the West Indies.
A few of my favorites were on display — Dudley’s Arcano del Mare, which some call the most beautiful of all 17c atlases, and the less opulent Altas Maritimus & Commercialis, which was purportedly ghost-written by Daniel Defoe and about which I built a web-interactive site for the Folger show last summer.
These huge, ungainly books show the technical challenge posed by the maritime: the ocean and its coastlines are simply too big and complex to represent simply. I take these atlases to diplay on a very literal level the shock of the transoceanic turn, and the effort of early modern cartographers, sailors, and others to transform watery disorder into something legible, usuable, and even marketable.
A good way to start!