David Rooney introduces a book on early mapping.
Lester’s account concerns the rediscovery of a remarkable world map from 1507, whose makers coined the term ‘America’ in honour of Amerigo Vespucci. That caused an ‘epic fuss’, as Lester explains. But this is about far more than a name. As the map offered a wider view of the world, so Lester’s story covers most of the history of world exploration up to the 16th century.
Lester’s engaging narrative zips along, yet detail is always present. He has laboured over complex historical and technical concerns. The standard longitude account, for instance, holds that maritime navigation was pretty hit-andmiss before 1760, when clockmakers and astronomers introduced precision and accuracy. Not so, demonstrates Lester. With a clutch of complex methods, sailors had a fair grasp of what was needed centuries earlier.
That’s not to say they had it licked. A 15th-century poet exclaimed, ‘I will go bounding over all the seas, more secure aboard my maps than aboard ships.’ The armchair traveller knew it was dangerous out there. The 1507 map offered help to mariners: ‘We have marked with crosses shallow places in the sea where shipwreck may be feared.’ This was two centuries before Admiral Shovell wrecked his fleet off the Scilly Isles, prompting the Longitude Prize. Perhaps Shovell should have looked for the crosses.
We meet an extraordinary cast of philosophers, merchants and astronomers. Lester shows us corpses, cannibals and naked nymphomaniacs. There is looting and pillage, seduction and sedition; this is no dusty tome. We journey from dingy garrets to the farthest spheres of Aristotelian space. But back on Earth, it was all about trade – or, as Pliny the Elder tartly put it, ‘to enable the Roman maiden to flaunt transparent clothing in public.’ Twenty centuries later, nothing has changed. We might as well stay at home.
Profile Books 462pp £25
ISBN 978 1 86197 803 5