One of my favorite things about the Rare & Manuscripts Collection in the basement of Cornell’s Kroch Library is that I can request to look at documents like this one, over four-hundred years old, and nobody comes and says, “Excuse me, but you’re a bit young to be doing that, aren’t you?” Granted, this old map was in a picture frame, so relatively speaking I wasn’t handling as preciously fragile a document as most of our other pieces from the 16th century are (the type that require white cloth gloves), but I still felt a lot of responsibility as I cautiously rotated the frame at my desk to examine the old French essay “Islande” on the other side of the glass.
What with the picture frame and my inexperience at shooting photographs of dimly lit indoor scenes, my photo of the map above isn’t the best quality, so I’m linking you to a 17th century version so you can check out the details like Mount Hekla in the south-east (perpetuis damnata, which doesn’t sound very inviting), polar bears on icebergs in the north-east, and each of the fourteen fantastical monsters in the waters around the island.
Ortelius’ map, along with a 1555 map by Olaus Magnus with similar attractions, became quite popular in Europe as interesting images of exotic Iceland, a remote and extreme land full of strange people and stranger creatures. These rumor-driven depictions of the country became the norm for much of the 17th century, when not too many Europeans were traveling to Iceland and exciting lies sold better than banal truths.
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