Preface: In a world that seems like we all just took a giant step backward it’s even more important to celebrate the freedom of our minds. No one can halt our quest for personal enlightenment.
A wise man once said, “I do not live alone, but in the bosom of what made me.” More than just defending the study of history I believe this statement points to the ashes of our ancestors daring us to be greater than them, or, to at least to rise to the heights of their knowledge, to understand life and the world as well as they did. While we wonder at the accomplishments of great human beings who populate our history books, occasionally, rarely, we discover someone new, someone worth emulating whom no one has heard of before. Such is a man named Fra Mauro, the wise man quoted above.
Fra Mauro spent his entire life cloistered in an island monastery just outside Venice. He was a 16th Century cartographer who devoted decades to creating a definite map of the known world. Not a map that just showed boundaries, shorelines, mountains, rivers and capitol cities, his map was to include knowledge, customs and beliefs of the people who inhabited the world. He made notations in every margin and open space, documenting all that he learned. Acknowledging his own fear of it, he never traveled, yet many thought his knowledge of the world was unsurpassed.
Explorers, merchants, sailors, missionaries and visionaries from far and wide, learning of Fra Mauro’s inquisitive mind and vast knowledge, found their way to Venice to share their discoveries and to impart bits of wisdom and insight they picked up along the way. Mauro listened with an open mind, interpreted what he heard, and tried to represent it on his ever-expanding map. While his masterpiece, the map he worked on for decades, has never been found, an Australian writer named James Cowan
discovered his journal. From it Cowan distilled Fra Mauro’s quest for the known, unknown and unknowable into a 1996 book titled A Mapmaker’s Dream.
Fra Mauro’s life was a contradiction. Hungry for truth, much of what he learned was heretical to the the Catholic Church. Yet, without his priestly vows he would not have had the support of the church, the time and resources to learn languages, read books and spend his life mastering cartography. He wrote: “True philosophers are those who embark upon a voyage into the unknown, unsure of their destination or whether they might even return. Such men are more intent on transforming themselves. It is this that radiates from their person, not any set of dogmatic beliefs.”
He learned of the ‘Bird People’, head hunters who listened to birds, living their lives entirely by what the birds told them, including which heads to take. A Dutch sailor brought him news Borneo people who used their bodies as maps, starting with the location of their conception.
World travelers brought him news of devil worshipers, of the legendary Prester John, the Christian prince of the East who lived in a land described as paradise, of the fierce-living, danger-loving Tartars who ‘drank in the cosmos’ imbibing a hallucinogenic version of fermented mare’s milk, of the extinct tribe called Garamantes who were so in touch with Mother Nature that they did not fear death, of the Nestorians who believed Jesus was simply the perfect embodiment of man. His own accounts describe him as being in openmouthed wonder at the things he learned. He let it all run through him, challenge him, until he could distill each marvelous reality into a symbol or a note that fit onto his map. But, in the end, Fra Mauro realized a much larger truth.
He realized that he had “inadvertently contributed to the creation of my own illusion.” Just as the tales reflected the sensibilities of the teller he had filtered everything into his version of truth. “It follows that wise men contemplate the world, knowing full well that they are contemplating themselves.”
Growing weaker, realizing his end was near, he said, “I know that something in me is beginning to shift. I am sailing, at last, as if absorbed into the margins of my map, a ship embarking upon its maiden voyage.” And he realized that his fear of traveling derived from his fear of setting off into the unknown. He felt liberated by his impending death, knowing that he was embarking on “the most mysterious principality of them all – that of the kingdom of ‘no-knowledge.’”