The Italians

In 1746 Domenico Vandelli produced a ‘contour’ map for building a new road from Modena to Massa that was to be as level as possible, I know he did because Wikipedia told me so.

The British Library have a copy, the name and date is right so I order it (with help from a librarian). The train journey – day return from my mum’s – an ordeal of waiting. Picking up the map from the issue desk it is on four separate sheets, each folded in two. I take them to my favourite desk savouring the moment of revelation: how would someone first thinking this notion draw those first lines? I settle in my seat, stand again, adjust reading glasses on nose, then unfold the first sheet: bewilderment. Modena close

The date is right, the name is there and it is a beautiful map with ‘Lettore’ bottom left and ‘Stati’ top right, plus words aplenty I have yet to translate; there is Modena and Massa and spidery paths link them through gently hummocking mountain chains drawn in light relief – as was the style – there are rivers and dotted lines for district boundaries – another abstract – but no contours.

I stare and make notes; I go for coffee and cake (my lunch). I speak to the librarian; there is another book in Boston Spa two days away (by their ordering facility). And the book I really need is not yet written; volumes 1 to 3 of the History of Cartography take up more than half a shelf but stop 50 years shy of what I need, Volume 4 will be written, but when? Everything is either ‘unborn’ or too late. Randomly picking books from shelves, all this history of mapping, 100s of books, no one has written the one I want. I stumble between covers, another Italian: Count Luigi Marsigli makes a brief (submarine) appearance.Vandelli 3rd sheetThe notion to use a river, a road and a mountain is now fraying, but more than that, I’d wanted to see those first drawn lines and they are not there. It’s 4.50 and the map room is closing. I go home to mum for whom the mind map of her own house has been strangely rewritten; a journey up the stairs often beginning with a perplexed exploration of the cupboard under them.

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