How One Fourteenth-Century Venetian Remembered the Crusades: The Maps and Memories of Marino Sanuto

How One Fourteenth-Century Venetian Remembered the Crusades: The Maps and Memories of Marino Sanuto

By Julia Harte

Penn History Review, Vol. 15, no. 2 (2008)

Introduction: Geographic information acquired over the course of the crusades indisputably altered how most Europeans envisioned the world, yet how that information was acquired and popularized is less certain. No official cartographers accompanied the crusading armies, whose official purpose was to cleanse the Holy Land by reclaiming it for Christendom, not to study neighboring lands or the cultures that tainted it. Curious individuals whom the larger activity of the crusades had fortuitously positioned in exotic places— ambassadors, missionaries, or inhabitants of the crusader states—therefore made most geographic discoveries of the time.

Their findings revised many European conceptions of the world in two profound ways. First, a better understanding of the scale of Asian and African civilizations made it vividly clear how diminutive the European Christian community was. Second, the (often fictive) discovery of faraway Christian kingdoms sparked hopes of potential allies for the crusaders.

Crusade revivalists in the fourteenth century, such as the Venetian merchant Marino Sanuto and his cartographer, Pietro Vesconte, employed these popular sentiments to stir up support for another crusade after the fall of Acre in 1291. But their maps and plans displayed an overarching pragmatism, a preference for accurate information and reliable military strategy over traditional knowledge and utter piety, that signaled a new attitude toward cartography as well as past and future crusades.

Aside from the purely practical maps used by merchants, pilgrims, and soldiers, the majority of world maps, or mappaemundi, produced in medieval Europe, were partly imaginary and symbolic rather than totally descriptive. They hung alongside other works of art in the homes of the wealthy, reminders of—and means of reinforcing—cosmogonic legends from Scripture and antiquity. Alternative sources of world geography were virtually nonexistent in Europe. European merchants were rarely allowed to travel beyond port cities into Arab territory, where they might have found more accurate geographies of Eurasia. And though an increasing number of Christians made their way from Europe to the Holy Land in the tenth and eleventh centuries, few recorded their experiences. According to Catherine Delano-Smith, an editor of the cartographic history journal Imago Mundi, “for those unable to travel, the journey to Jerusalem had to be made ‘in the heart, not with the feet’, aided—for those with access to a mappamundi – by contemplation of the site of Jerusalem on the map.” In a very literal sense, mappaemundi were most useful to those who could not go abroad.

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