A ‘Byzantine’ Map in Context: ‘Since You can See the Earth as a Whole, you Should Believe you are in the Sky’

By Dr Chiara D’Agostini, Centre for Medieval Literature, University of Southern Denmark

When I became involved in the NetMAR project and I started getting familiar with its innovative and interdisciplinary methodologies, I began thinking of possible connections between this exciting twinning project and my own work on the Byzantine reception of Ptolemy’s Geography. The Geography is a second-century treatise of cartography written in Alexandria by Claudius Ptolemy. It is, however, preserved in much later manuscripts dating from the late thirteenth century onwards. In eight books, the Geography provides detailed theoretical instructions and coordinates for more than 8000 toponyms, representing the world in accurate small-scale maps. Admittedly, the connections between arts, rituals, and this specific geographical treatise are not visible at first glance. One might even wonder whether such connections exist. Even though Byzantine society is largely recognized as highly ceremonial and artistic, any interrelations between rituals and arts have never been considered in the field of geography. By taking as a case study the reception of Ptolemy’s Geography in thirteenth-century Byzantium, I will show how the holistic approach advocated by NetMAR can be fruitfully applied to the study of geography, too.

As already mentioned, the Geography is preserved in manuscripts which are dated about a millennium later than the time of the original work’s composition. The manuscript Urbinas Graecus 82 (Urb. gr. 82), which is kept in the Vatican Library, is one of the oldest manuscripts – probably the oldest – and apart from Ptolemy’s work, it contains some impressive maps including a world map and 26 regional maps including Europe, Africa, and Asia. Together with other manuscripts of the same period, the Urb. gr. 82 is closely connected with the work of Maximos Planudes, a thirteenth-century Byzantine polymath deeply interested, among other things, in science, who is considered the discoverer of the Geography. Interestingly enough, not only did Planudes prepare a new edition of the Geography, but he also penned five epigrams to celebrate his enterprise (for the edition of the epigrams, which are numbered from 5 to 9, see now Taxidis 2017: 48–55).

In spite of their different length and content, these epigrams share a core element: they have a particular focus on the world map discussed in the Geography; a case in point is the map of the Urb. gr. 82, which is included in two consecutive folia. The emphasis on the world map is so strong that in some cases (i.e. ep. 6 to 8) the map itself is personified. In the epigrams in question, the map speaks in the first person addressing the epigrams’ readers and urging them to appreciate its beauty and novelty. Altogether, the five epigrams provide different ways to approach, regard, and appreciate this world map.

Figure 1: Vatican Library, ms. Urbinas Graecus 82, ff. 60v-61
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ptolemy-World_Vat_Urb_82.jpg

What is more, the epigrams provide directions about how one should read and perform them within what appears to be a ceremonial context. The first epigram (ep. 5, ll. 1-8) reads as follows:

It is a great miracle how Ptolemy through his skill has brought under our eyes

the entire round curve of the earthly world,

as if he were depicting on a drawing tablet one single village.

I have never seen such a robe of Athena,

carrying in order all the finely wrought and coloured patterns,

in the way I have observed this lovely Geography,

well arranged, well ordered, and true according to many witnesses,

who have seen the cities and known the mind of many men.

(trans. Pontani 2010, 199)

The map’s description is just one part of this short poem, which also concerns how the viewer is expected to see and perceive the map. The emphasis on the viewer’s sight becomes even stronger in the following epigram (ep. 7, ll. 1–3):

If you look from the earth to the sky, you view all things together in one glance,

but if you went to the sky and you looked down to the earth, you would see it as a whole.

So, now, since you can see the earth as a whole, you should believe you are in the sky.

(trans. by the author)

The emphasis on sight can be detected in all five epigrams. The reader is continuously engaged and encouraged to contemplate the map. In so doing, Planudes creates its persistent and powerful visual presence in and through the epigrams. The entire Geography and especially its world map are brought under the readers’ eyes to be observed and admired. The very name of Geography, furthermore, is regularly accompanied by the adjective ‘this’, pointing to the work’s physical presence which becomes somewhat material and tangible. Such a reference refers also to a specific moment in time, which becomes explicit with the meaningful use of the word ‘now’ that appears in the epigram’s last verse.

All these clues point to the Planudean epigrams’ performative dimension. They were probably designed to be performed before an audience. The most likely scenario for such a performance seems to be the imperial theatron, a physical and social space where – to put it in Niels Gaul’s words – ‘a circle of learned men gathered around a patron either to listen or to perform a written composition’ (Gaul 2018, 215). Planudes most probably celebrated his cultural enterprise by reading or having these epigrams read viva voce in front of the emperor and his court.

The epigrams’ continuous reference to visuality, moreover, gives us a further clue about the actual staging of their performance. The epigrams urge their readers or listeners to focus their gaze and concentrate their attention on the world map accompanying Ptolemy’s text. This might have been the actual highlight of the performance. We might as well assume that a depiction of the earth was offered to the audience during the performance. While listening to the epigrams, the audience is invited to simultaneously look at the map. The listener becomes a beholder who, thanks to the poems’ words, watches the world taking shape under their very eyes, as suggested by the epigram cited above: ‘since you can see the earth as a whole, you should believe you are in the sky’.

The world map offers a perspective from above and, by enabling everyone to look down onto the world, thanks to an aerial view of sorts, the map ultimately turns the audience’s surroundings into the heaven’s vault. In short, the map and the epigrams appear as a unity. As mutual visual and auditory props, both map and epigrams facilitate the simultaneous comprehension of text and image. The eyes of the thirteenth-century audience were expected to be caught by the book, which was likely exhibited in the middle of the gathering functioning as the apex of the performance. By displaying both text and image, the manuscript turns out to be the material site creating multiple sensory experiences. As an inscribed and tangible object, the illuminated book becomes an integral part of the performance.

The importance of visuality is a recurring feature in Byzantine cultural products. This is particularly true with regard to Byzantine book culture. In different contexts, the book does not only acquire a central role, but it is also celebrated, even venerated, as a visual and material object. And yet, by paying attention to the Geography’s world map, our epigrams suggest that exhibition is not an end in itself, but it rather functions as a means to create an interaction between object and audience within the framework of the courtly rituals of theatra. The map, being visually and materially present in front of the audience, grants a vision of the earth from above. It accordingly creates an understanding of the geographical message: the book that is illuminated with huge images might facilitate even further the audience in their attempt to grasp the broader meaning of the work during ritual performances at the imperial court.

Furthermore, if we take into account the dimensions of the manuscripts preserving the Geography, this possibility seems even more realistic: a single folio of the Urb. Gr.82 measures 575 by 418 mm that is more than twice an A4 format. Two consecutive pages measure roughly 830 x 575 mm and they would easily enable a small group of people, who are gathered around the manuscript, to see the world map from above. Be that as it may, our epigrams point to a performative setting that is essential for understanding the function of the Geography and its maps.

Approaching the Geography through the Planudean epigrams and their ritual performativity, brings to the fore important aspects of the geographical work’s reception in thirteenth-century Byzantium. The orality, visuality, and even materiality, to which the epigrams point operate together to provide geographical teaching along with an aesthetic experience for the Byzantine audience of the time.

This blog post draws on some results of my PhD dissertation entitled ‘Mapping Empires: Reappropriations of Ptolemy’s Geography from the 12th to the 15th century’ which was defended in June 2021 at the Centre for Medieval Literature of the University of Southern Denmark.

References:

The full manuscript is digitized and accessible here:

https://digi.vatlib.it/view/MSS_Urb.gr.82

Gaul, Niels, ‘Performative Reading in the Late Byzantine Theatron’, Reading in the Byzantine Empire and Beyond, ed. by Teresa Shawcross and Ida Toth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 215–234.

Pontani, Filippomaria, ‘The World on a Fingernail: An Unknown Byzantine Map, Planudes, and Ptolemy’, Traditio 65 (2010), 177–200 (with a translation of epigram 5 at 199-200).

Taxidis, Ilias, Les Épigrammes de Maxime Planude: Introduction, édition critique, traduction française et annotation (Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2017).

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