I’ve always been fascinated by maps. Not maps like Google Maps. They tend to be encyclopedic. They say to you, “here is a spaghetti tangle of all the roads in the known universe” or “here is how the Apennines spread over Italy” or even, “here is the exact location at which two hot babes decided to sun bathe naked on a particularly clear day while the satellite camera happened to be clicking away merrily overhead.”
With the exception of the last example, these maps, even with the electronic push-pins we put in them to mark important places, are just too detailed to be interesting.
What we want is a map like a treasure map. It is concise. It tells us only what we need to know—the landmarks we can’t help seeing, the turns we’ll actually take, and maybe even a big “X” that marks a prized destination.
It’s better, of course, if the map is old. The edges of the map should be frayed and burnt, as if it were rescued from the inquisitor’s fire. That way you know you hold a special knowledge in your hand that has eluded religious elites (who are, for some reason, always on the lookout for ways to limit public knowledge).
One of the world’s most interesting of these kinds of maps has got to be the Tabula Peutingeriana, which the public doesn’t get to see very often, although it was just displayed in its Vienna home on November 26. It is a scroll, almost 7 meters long and 34 centimeters wide, which shows Roman roads stretching from Spain to India.
The Tabula Peutingeriana is a medieval copy of a 5th century map. We know that because Rome sits at the center of the Tabula Peutingeriana, and by the medieval times to which the map was dated, Jeruselem was generally chosen to be the center.
The map isn’t geographically accurate, but highly useful. Yes, details have been crammed into the scroll format, but the roads, the places to stop, and the pictographs of the spas and inns would have been highly useful to the traveler who didn’t have to know the true lay of the land, only that he needed to continue on a specific road for a day and that the next place to stop would arrive in his sight before nightfall, as indicated on the map.
All highly useful. Far more useful to the Roman traveler or pilgrim than a series of encyclopedic Michelin maps or the pixilated goodness of a Google map. Of course, in those days the roads were few and the dangers plentiful…
But here is where the Internet is truly useful: you can see copies of the Tabula Peutingeriana on the web. Here are some sites with map scans as recommended by a member of the Via Francigena Yahoo group:
And finally, here is the BBC coverage of the recent exhibit of the Tabula Peutingeriana in Vienna