"A World of Foreign Lands," a new exhibit at the Walters Art Gallery, celebrates 1492 by capturing the spirit of what we now call the age of discovery. In it, curator Elizabeth Burin brings together 30 examples of illustrated books, maps and charts to show how, from the late middle ages through the 17th century, geography changed from what she calls a "philosophical discipline" into an "experimental science."
At the same time, she shows that conjectures persisted about the nature of unknown lands and peoples. The show is enlightening and fun, and exemplifies the creative use of a permanent collection (in this case with the addition of a few loans from Hopkins libraries).
In the first of its five sections are medieval views of the world, some of which tried to walk a line between ancient knowledge of the world as round and the church's teaching that it was a flat disc with Jerusalem at the center. One of these, Gossouin de Metz's "Image of the World," presents the earth as round but with a magnetic core that keeps people from falling off -- well, gravity is a sort of magnet.
The rediscovery of the works of the ancient geographer Claudius Ptolemy enabled geography to become more of a science in the Renaissance; nevertheless, observation often coexisted with superstition and conjecture. Hartmann Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) is open to a map of Europe, Asia and Africa based on Ptolemy but altered by recently discovered knowledge about Africa. This is accompanied by depictions that would suit a circus sideshow of some of the creatures thought to exist elsewhere in the world, including a man with four eyes, another with six arms and another with the head of a crane.
Columbus' voyages resulted in the gradual discovery of America. A 1532 map depicts North America as a little blob sitting above a relatively accurate South America, but a 1625 map of Virginia includes a Chesapeake Bay that we can all recognize.
A section on discoveries in Asia and Africa includes Abraham Ortelius' "Theater of the Lands of the World," first published in 1570 and called the first modern atlas; but also Sebastian Munster's "Universal Cosmography" (1559) showing the "races" of India including a person with no head but a face on his chest and another with ears that hang down to the ground.
As cartography became more sophisticated in the 17th century, map-makers began to leave blank those areas as yet unexplored; Melchisidech Thevenot's map of New Holland (Australia) shows the north, west and part of the south coast but does not speculate on the rest. As late as 1700, however, Edward Wells' "New Map of the Terraqueous Globe" still showed California as an island.
Do we now know every inch of the world? Probably not, but even if so we surely still harbor some misconceptions about one another, which makes us the heirs of those delineators of four-eyed and crane-headed people. Knowledge moves forward, but the defeat of ignorance is long and slow.
Where: Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.
When: Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., through Oct. 4.
Admission: $4; $3 seniors; students and 18 and younger admitted free.
Call: (410) 547-9000.