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Chet Van DuzerAppointment: Kislak Fellow for the Study of the History and Cultures of the Early Americas, 2011-2012

Area of study: Cartography, History of Maps

Affiliation(s): Invited Research Scholar, John Carter Brown Library, 2011 – present

Kluge Center project: Determining the Origins of the Legends on the “Carta Marina” map

Residency: November 2011 – March 2012 and May – June 2012

January 1, 2014

What do maps teach us about how we perceive the world and our perceptions of the unknown?

Map historian Chet Van Duzer, a former Kislak Fellow at The John W. Kluge Center, has spent his career researching the history of maps, map legends, and map creatures—most recently sea monsters.

Van Duzer spent seven months as a scholar-in-residence at The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress from 2011-2012. His project researched the sources of the long legends on Martin Waldseemüller famous world map of 1516, the “Carta Marina.” The research led to his writing the commentary on the “Carta Marina” for a facsimile edition of Waldseemüller’s two large world maps, co-authored with John Hessler and published by the Library of Congress and Levenger Press.

The project also awakened an existing interest in the imagery on maps. “My initial focus was on the text,” Van Duzer says of his Kluge Center project. “Through my research at the Kluge Center I came to realize the importance at looking at the images as well.”

The most telling image on the map, Van Duzer recalls, was an image of King Manuel of Portugal riding a sea monster off the Southern tip of Africa. “The image was designed to proclaim Portugal’s control of the sea route from Europe, around Africa, to the trading centers of India,” he says. “It made me appreciate how sea monsters may seem mere decoration at first, but in actuality they encapsulate important evidence.”

After years of research, in 2013 Van Duzer published his fifth book, titled “Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps.” The book examines the origins of sea monster representations by tracing which books cartographers used as inspiration for their illustrations. “It’s a chapter in the history of art, in the history of the scientific illustrations of animals, and in the history of the marvelous—our perceptions of wonders in the world,” Van Duzer says. 

Van Duzer admits that sea monsters are fun. Whenever he delivers a talk about the topic, he says the audience leaves with a smile. Beyond the novelty, though, the sea monster illustrations, and maps in general, teach us about ourselves. “They show how we perceive others,” Van Duzer says. “It’s often our view of others that sheds the most light on ourselves. Our views of regions that we don’t know shed the most light on our prejudices and the way we extrapolate from the known to the unknown.”

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