A Nostalgic Filter: A University of Pittsburgh Exhibition

Catalan Atlas

Paris, Bibliothèque national de France, Espagnol 30

Created by the renowned Jewish cartographer Abraham Cresques and representing a long tradition of sophisticated mapmaking on the island of Majorca, this medieval world map represents many regions with remarkable detail. Its original six leaves could fold and unfold vertically in an accordion-style portfolio rather than a codex; it was designed to be laid out horizontally and viewed from multiple perspectives. Unlike the Beatus world maps, however, the Catalan Atlas is primarily oriented with North at the top of the page; the first known compass rose on a medieval map appears on its left-hand edge and underscores this fact.

The Catalan Atlas has received increased attention in recent years for its powerful depiction of Mansa Musa of Mali crowned and enthroned, gazing at a golden ball held in his fingertips. A text nearby describes him as the “richest and noblest of all these lands due to the abundance of gold” that could be found in the mines of Islamic West Africa. While the image conforms in many ways to European notions of ideal kingship, it is also careful to emphasize the Blackness of its subject. The map was in the collection of the French king Charles V by 1380; whether it was a commission or a gift, its movement from Palma to Paris reflects patterns of mobility and exchange across vast religious, geographic, and linguistic divides. Pitt’s facsimile was highlighted in the Travelers Along the Silk Roads exhibition in Hillman Library in 2018 and remains an invaluable resource for the study of this extraordinary object.

This manuscript has been fully digitized and is available at the website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

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