China at the Center

Two important seventeenth-century world maps are the focus of a new exhibition opening this Friday at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. China at the Center: Rare Ricci and Verbiest World Maps, which runs from 4 March to 8 May 2016, features Matteo Ricci’s 1602 map and Ferdinand Verbiest’s 1674 map.

Ricci (1552–1610) and Verbiest (1623–1688) were both Jesuit priests, in China to spread Christianity; their maps, produced in collaboration with Chinese calligraphers, artists and printers, produced a fundamental rethinking of China’s place in the world. Not that China wasn’t at the centre of these maps, as the essays in the accompanying catalogue point out, but these maps filled out the rest of the world, which was previously a marginal afterthought in Chinese cartography.

Ricci’s map, A Complete Map of the Ten Thousand Countries of the World or Kun yu wan guo quan tu (坤輿萬國全圖), is the better known of the two. It’s the first map in Chinese to depict the Americas, and has been called the “Impossible Black Tulip” due to its rarity and importance. A synthesis of European and Chinese traditions, it uses a pseudocylindrical map projection and was printed on mulberry paper panels from six large blocks of wood.

Matteo Ricci, A Complete Map of the Ten Thousand Countries of the World, 1602. Ink on paper, six panels, 371.2 × 167.5 cm. Library of Congress scan of a copy held by the James Ford Bell Trust.

The 1602 map was Ricci’s third or fourth world map, made for the Wanli Emperor; only six examples are known to exist today. The copy on display at the Asian Art Museum is on loan from the James Bell Ford Trust, and is famous in its own right: the Trust paid $1 million for it in 2009; though owned by the Trust, it’s normally part of the collection of the University of Minnesota’s James Bell Ford Library. Before arriving in Minnesota it went on display at the Library of Congress, which made the high-resolution scan you see above. (Of the other five, three are in Japanese libraries, one is in a Vatican library, and one is in private hands.)

Ferdinand Verbiest, A Complete Map of the World, 1674. Ink on paper, eight scrolls, 217 × 54 cm. Library of Congress.

On the other hand, the Verbiest map, called A Complete Map of the World or Kun yu quan tu (坤輿全圖)has never been on display before, though the exhibition’s copy has been owned by the Library of Congress since 1930 (see scan above). Based on Blaeu’s then-recent world map (but reversing the hemispheres to put China closer to the centre), the Verbiest map displayed the world in two hemispheres. It was somewhat smaller than the Ricci map, and was mounted on eight scrolls. About half a dozen or so complete examples remain today.

Both maps were produced by Jesuit priests working in China, whose knowledge of the wider world was seen as a wedge: useful knowledge that would go hand in hand with their Christian mission. The catalogue that accompanies this exhibition explains this in some detail. China at the Center: Ricci and Verbiest World Maps is edited by Natasha Reichle and contains three essays: one by Ricci Institute director Antoni Üçerler on the role played by missionaries to China in disseminating knowledge in both directions; one by Theodore N. Foss on the Ricci map; and one by Mark Stephen Mir on the Verbiest map. The first essay provides context; the latter two go into detail about the priests, their background, their time in China, and the maps that today are known by their names.

china-at-the-center-coverAt 64 pages, the book is slim, but the essays are useful and enlightening, and it’s full of lovely illustrations, including close-up details of the two maps, and printed on heavy paper. Most importantly, it has foldout pages with reproductions of the Ricci and Verbiest maps in their entirety. It was published yesterday and is available now for $19.95 (though as usual you can get it for less at Amazon).

I received a review copy of China at the Center from the Museum.

Previously on the Ricci Map: Time on RicciNY Times on Ricci Map Exhibition1602 Ricci Map Now on Display“Impossible Black Tulip” Coming to the University of Minnesota.