All Roads Lead to Canberra For Mapping Our World

30 November 2013
Read Time: 3.5 mins

According to Nat Williams, co-curator of a significant cartographic exhibition in Canberra, the maps on display tell us a great deal about the way adventurers travelled in past eras.

 Mar Pacifico

“If we take the Mar Pacifico is an example – it’s extraordinary, it’s one of the iconic maps of European history. This map was made by the Dutchman Hessel Gerritsz in 1622 and was loaned to us by the Bibliotheque Nationale De France. It shows the emptiness of the Pacific Ocean. In general, mapping shows the presence of things not the absence. You can say there’s Asia, there’s New Holland, there’s the Americas and there’s this open body of water, which is depicted as a beautiful painting. The map shows the immensity of the Pacific and they certainly didn’t know how big Australia was,” said Nat.

“It shows the enormity of the bodies of water that people had to grapple with. It took time to get anywhere. These days you get on a plane or train and it’s fast, safe and cheap. In the past there was danger; you were sailing into the unknown. There was an element of risk. You had mutiny, piracy, hurricanes, and bad food. Modern travel is comparatively very easy.”

 Claudius Ptolemy, World Map in Cosmographia. Image courtesy of The British Library Board

Before the Gregory’s Street Directory, Google Maps and tourism brochures, artists hand drew visually-stunning charts that guided curious explorers on their intrepid expeditions. These historic treasures are prized for their artistic merits and the insights we can gain. Gathered from the great galleries of Europe, various maps, atlases, globes and scientific instruments have been brought together for Mapping Our World: Terra Incognita to Australia. This exhibition is timed to coincide with the national capital’s centenary year and the bicentenary of Matthew Flinders’ map of Australia in 2014. With all the artefacts in one place, enthusiasts can plot the exploration of lands over time - from the ancient Babylonians, Greeks and Romans through to the Age of Discovery and the Dutch Golden Age and onto James Cook and Matthew Flinders.

As the former Director of Exhibitions where he curated over 50 exhibitions and now the James and Bettison Treasures Curator, Nat co-curated the exhibition with Dr Martin Woods and Dr Susannah Helman. Nat tells Flight Centre that Mapping has been in development for more than a decade.

“In 2001/2002 we did Treasures from the World’s Great Libraries. It was enormously popular - we had to keep the exhibition open night and day to handle the interest. Numerous lenders from Europe and around the world were involved in this exhibition. I maintained contact with those lenders such as the British Library and the Vatican Library in Rome. The idea to do a major map show had been kicking around for more than 10 years – to show how Australia was put on the map. In the past year we became more active and together with my colleagues we cooked up the plans to borrow significant maps from major lenders in Europe. This has taken some time but it’s worth it,” said Nat.

 Fra Mauro

The centrepiece of the exhibition is a remarkable two-metre circular map of the world that was hand-painted on parchment and mounted on wood between 1448 and 1453 by Fra Mauro, a Camaldolese monk who lived in Venice. The disc, which is known as the Fra Mauro Map, has never left Italy – until now.

“I really thought it would be the centrepiece of the show - if we could get it out of Venice. It’s very large and in extraordinary condition. It’s just superb. People are stopped in their tracks when they see it,” said Nat.

“I was in Venice several years ago and I went to see the Fra Mauro. However when I arrived it wasn’t there. I thought I’d come all this way and I’d missed it. The team at the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana told me that it was being restored in Rome. So it had left the building. I went back to Venice again on a family holiday and met with the new director, Maurizio Messina and he committed to the idea for our exhibition.”

Nat tells Flight Centre that representatives from another European gallery were having a look through the collection prior to the opening and questioned the authenticity of the Fra Mauro. They couldn’t believe that the original had been allowed to travel from Italy – especially considering that they had requested its presence for an exhibition at their gallery and were denied. Nat curiously asked Maurizio his reasons for agreeing to allow the precious map’s release to go on display in Canberra – potentially the furthest point on the globe from Venice.

“Maurizio told me that in Europe anyone can fly for around an hour to Venice and admire the artefact. It’s very accessible. In Australia you can't do that. So he wanted to share this magnificent piece and give Australians the opportunity to see it,” said Nat.

 General Chart of Terra Australis or Australia by Matthew Flinders

With the advent of digital technology, the question has to be asked whether we will be looking at Google Maps with the same interest as we admire these artefacts that were produced centuries ago.

“I think the difference is that these great maps were hand drawn or printed. They are artefacts that have lasted hundreds of years and with proper care will last hundreds more. They were made on good paper or animals skins and have lasted because of their significance. The digital environment is more present in our lives. A lot has happened in the 500 years since the Fra Mauro map was created. The world has changed. But its beauty and its fascination has guaranteed that it remains an extraordinary artefact. These pieces will always be valued for their rarity and beauty,” said Nat.

“Unless Google archives every version of their maps, all we will see is the latest version. What will happen to all those previous versions that will be created over the next 500 years? The other point is the format for archiving digital material. If you can’t view it, then we’ll lose it.”


Mapping Our World: Terra Incognita to Australia runs until March 10 2014 at the National Library of Australia, Canberra.

Lyndon Barnett

Guided by curiosity and a sense of adventure, Lyndon travelled independently to 69 countries on six continents. As such, travel is Lyndon's only addiction. He enjoys with equal measure - scaling the peaks of a South American mountain at altitude, attending opera in a European Opera House or hunting for a bargain in an Asian market.