Thursday, 2 February 2017

Map Stories by Francisca Mattéoli

Book review: Map Stories by Francisca Mattéoli · Lisa Hjalt

Remember your first world atlas, your very own? Apart from images of the globe, the cover of mine was black with white letters. I was ten or eleven years old and devoured it. Maps have a strange attraction and seem to offer a possibility of great adventures. I have always had a soft spot for vintage maps, especially the illustrated ones that are far-off geographically. Throw in sea monsters and sailing ships and they become even more enchanting. You can only imagine my excitement when a few months ago I received the latest book by travel writer Francisca Mattéoli, Map Stories: The Art of Discovery, published by Octopus (Ilex). Through a wonderful collection of historical maps and twenty-three stories, Mattéoli takes us on an adventure all over the globe where we meet cartographers, geographers, explorers and dreamers. For me it sometimes felt as if entering a dimension where Bilbo Baggins meets Indiana Jones.

Map of the Nile Valley drawn up by Nicolas de Fer and published in 1720, pp. 44-45

Mattéoli isn't a scholar in the field of geography and her book shouldn't be read as a textbook. In the preface she writes: 'It is a book that invites the reader on a journey from map to map, to let their imagination run free' (p. 7). That's indeed the book's charm.

Mattéoli's journey starts with the rediscovery of the lost city of Petra and ends in China via the Silk Road. In between we find ourselves on the Inca trail, on the mysterious site of Machu Picchu; racing to the South Pole; on Route 66; searching for the source of the Nile River; on board the Orient Express; perhaps wondering if Nessie the monster is hiding somewhere in Loch Ness. These are only some of the destinations.

Map Stories by Francisca Mattéoli · Lisa Hjalt
Planisphere by the Venetian monk Fra Mauro, c. 1449, pp. 100-101

Depending on your interests and historical knowledge, some of the twenty-three stories will be more familiar than others and some might teach you something new. I was intrigued by the one about the search for the source of the Nile River - the expedition of Richard Burton and John Speke - that reads somewhat like a mystery with a dramatic ending. The following is a description (from a photo) of the Map Room of the Royal Geographical Society:
[It] is plunged in a dusty half-light and decorated with maps, as one might expect. An enormous terrestrial globe fills one corner. On the upper floor, dark wood shelves are stacked with carefully arranged documents and books. On the ground floor, two large display cabinets protect the most precious objects and on a long table standing in the center of the room, pages lie spread out as if waiting to be consulted by some very serious gentleman. This was the setting that would soon be at the heart of the scandal. It was here, or at least in a similar room of this distinguished institution founded in 1830 that, around a hundred years ago, a disagreement broke out regarding the source of this fabled river, which would soon turn into a downright controversy and then a brutal confrontation. (p. 42)

Map of the South Pole, 1912, pp. 120-121

Some of the adventurers we meet on Mattéoli's journey are Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer who was the first to reach the South Pole, and Peter Fleming (brother of Ian Fleming), who in 1932 joined an Amazon expedition after seeing an advertisement in The Times (his book Brazilian Adventure, first published in 1933, is still in print).

Map Stories enables us to admire the work of famous cartographers like Fra Mauro (see my 2nd image above), Fernão (Fernando) Vaz Dourado, Nicolas de Fer (see Nile Valley map above), Willem Blaeu and his son Joan, Martin Behaim, Pedro Reinel and Lopo Homem, Jodocus Hondius, Guillaume Le Testu, and John Speed, just to name a few.

This book has something for everyone. And if you find yourself online looking up old travel trunks, or other vintage travel paraphernalia, I completely understand.

Map of Chile, 1884, p. 157

I am particularly fond of the design of the book that is a beautiful addition to my coffee table. The map on the cover is embossed and the endpapers are an old world map with illustrations of principal mountains and basins of rivers (see map). The layout of the text is clear and at the top of the left pages are the coordinates for the place being discussed. The maps are either on a single page or spread across two. I wanted to cut some of them out and frame them, which, unfortunately, would have ruined the book.

Travel writer Francisca Mattéoli
Travel writer Francisca Mattéoli is the author of many books, which have been translated into many languages. She has also written travel pieces for magazines, including National Geographic, Condé Nast Traveller, and Air France Magazine. Her personal blog is written in both French and English. She resides in Paris but was actually brought up in South America with Chilean nationality (Scottish mother). She is already working on her next book.

Map Stories: The Art of Discovery
By Francisca Mattéoli
Hardcover, 176 pages, illustrated

Map Stories by Francisca Mattéoli · Lisa Hjalt
Part of a map of Europe for use in primary education, dating from 1880, p. 143

images by me | except for No. 2, 4-6, courtesy of Octopus Publishing Group (No. 5 edited by me) | maps - credit: No. 1 (cover) © akg-images/North Wind Picture Archives; No. 2, 4-5, 7 © Bibliothèque Nationale de France; No. 3 © akg-images/British Library

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