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Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Cosmographer Who Stole Lucifer´s Dreams (on Venice)

Location: San Marco (Piazza San Marco), Venice, Italy

The title of this photo is People are satisfied with words, which means that they live of words, and is from my photo blog The Visual Pilgrim. The text to the photo goes: 

St paul writes in his second letter to the communion in Corinth, that: ”the letter kills, but the spirit makes alive”.

Through centuries mankind has got descriptions in with spoons by their teachers, their authorities, their books, their saints.

Mankind say: ”Tell us everything – what is there beyond the hills and the mountains and the earth?”, and they are satisfied with their descriptions, what means that they live of words, the word is their foundation of life, and therefore their existence is superficial and empty.

They are the living dead.

They have lived in what has been told them, either guided to it by their inclinations and their desire, or forced to accept it by circumstances and environment.

They are a result of all kinds of influences and there is nothing new in them, nothing, which they themselves have discovered, nothing original, innocent, clear.

It is the eternal recurrence of the same.

Venice is  a wonderful place for a Flâneur.

Each of the cities described by Italo Calvino’s exquisite Invisible Cities ('Le Città Invisibili,' 1972) is a description of a different facet of this one city. Marco Polo sits on cushions in the Kublai Khan's garden telling the aged Emperor about the cities he has visited, calling upon memory and imagination to dazzle and perplex us with their messages and identities. Each city evokes aspects of Venice without ever having places in them which share either the name or appearance of places in Venice. It is about Venice inasmuch as all the cities described reflect Marco's experience and knowledge of the city of his birth. So, not a book directly about Venice, but a book central to my idea of cities as things of the mind and heart, as well as of stone and water.

If you should narrow these different kinds of facets down to only two facets, you could say that there is a factual Venice and a fictional Venice.

D.H. Lawrence visited, but did not fall in love with the city. In Lady Chatterley's Lover, he described it as the "holiday-place of all holiday-places." Today there are fewer native Venetians than ever (and more tourists than ever!), but the extravagantly beautiful and theatrical architecture is still there (at least for the time being). This is the factual Venice.

But there is also another Venice, the fictional Venice. That´s one of the alternative viewpoints the Flâneur tries to observe. Venice has inspired writers through the ages, and many have been drawn to ‘this most improbable of cities,’ amongst them Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Browning, Ruskin, Proust (in Ruskin’s footsteps) and Thomas Mann to name just a few. 

The essence of fictional Venice is dampness, shadows, and melancholy decay. Characters in novels set in Venice often go there to die, by design or by chance. So picturesque funerals with gondola hearses are far from unusual. Deception and the not-what-it-seemsness of things is another not uncommon theme for stories set a city famous for its Carnevale and masked intrigue. There is a dark Otherness over the city.

In his Venetian Legends and Ghost Stories, the Murano islander, Alberto Toso Fei, tells a legend, which very well illustrates the shadow side of Venice. It is called The Cosmographer Who Stole Lucifer´s Dreams. It is a known fact that Fra Mauro, who died in 1459 at a very old age, worked in a sort of map-making laboratory with his assistants in the convent of San Michele; in addition to the fabulous map of the world, it produced a cosmographic map commissioned directly by King Alfonso V of Portugal, and another magnificent work now conserved in the Apostolic Library of the Vatican.

How this monk could draw his maps without ever having travelled is history shrouded in mystery. The chronicles say that he used information brought to him by Venetian navigators, but popular legend says that he captured his information from dreams, not his own, but the Devil´s dreams. The monk in fact had the extraordinary ability to concentrate Lucifer´s dreams over the island by projecting them onto the clouds when the sky was particular overcast.

The legend tells, that it is well known that throughout time the Devil´s creations have often slipped out of their creator´s control. This was true of his dreams too: they often raged through the skies on medieval nights, terrifying mortals and pointing the way to the sabbath to flocks of witches, larvae and evil spirits. Fra Mauro had discovered how to capture them and use them to learn about the far reaches of the world, which were still mostly uncharted. They represent the turmoil of the vision of the world held in that era, which Lucifer – in his dreams – had unchained.

Captured on paper by the cosmographer monk who read their profiles and bright colors on the clouds, in the moment of fury which preceed every thunderstorm, they may still be seen floating in the distance over the cemetery during the fiercest thunderstorms on summer nights.

James Cowan (born 1942) is an Australian author, who seems to have a sense of this map. In the 1990s Cowan turned to a more global perspective in literature. He became interested in fashioning a new prose – one that is spare, limpid, and devoid of all the old mechanisms of literary realism. This new prose is exploited in his novels A Mapmaker's Dream, A Troubadour's Testament, and more recently in his study of the Persian poet, Rumi's Divan of Shems of Tabriz. Each of these books is an attempt to re-affirm the greatness of the European and Near-Eastern traditions. Though steeped in history and imbued with a continuum between past and present, Cowan's work is thoroughly directed toward the modern.

In the Mapmaker´s Dream he tells the following story:

In sixteenth-century Venice, in an island monastery, a cloistered monk experiences the adventure of a lifetime—all within the confines of his cell. Part historical fiction, part philosophical mystery, A Mapmaker’s Dream tells the story of Fra Mauro and his struggle to realize his life’s work: to make a perfect map—one that represents the full breadth of Creation. News of Mauro’s projects attracts explorers, pilgrims, travelers, and merchants, all eager to contribute their accounts of faraway people and places. As he listens to the tales of the strange and fantastic things they’ve seen, Mauro comes to regard the world as much more than continents and kingdoms: that it is also made up of a vast and equally real interior landscape of beliefs, aspirations, and dreams. Mauro’s map grows and takes shape, becoming both more complete and incomprehensible. In the process, the boundaries of Mauro’s world are pushed to the extreme, raising questions about the relationship between representation, imagination, and the nature of reality itself.

Here are some of the passages where Cowan develops some of these same ideas:

I see the world as a series of clues that somehow explain the universe.  Pachyderms and narwhals, tailpot trees and insect-eating plants, flightless birds and boa constrictors--all are part of some cryptic message that needs to be deciphered if we are to encounter its wholeness.

It led me to the idea of fashioning a map that would defy every category and genre.  It would be a map that would contain them all; a map hard to define, yet because of this lack of definition, a map that would begin to define itself more precisely.  Nor would it be designed to espouse any particular policy or persuasion.  Rather, I wanted my map to show the earth in the sky, and the sky on earth; a map that would act as the prototype for all maps scattered in space and time.  It would be a device by which the world could surrender itself in fragments to the open, inquisitive gaze of everyone.  I fondly hoped that such a map would preside over the birth of another map, and then another.

Mauro is visited by an elderly Jew of Rhodes, who tells him: It is in us all, this desire to experience the kinship that exists between our innermost being and the will that created such a kinship in the first place.  As such a desire is realized, we become preoccupied with strange and uncanny aspects in Nature herself.  We are almost tempted to regard them as our own moods, our own creations.  For my part, I know that the boundary between myself and Nature sometimes wavers and melts away, so that I can no longer be sure whether what I see with my own eyes springs from outward or inner impressions.  An experience such as this is one sure way of discovering how creative we are, and how deeply our soil participates in the perpetual creation of the world.  The same invisible divinity is at work in us as it is in Nature.  If the outside world were perchance to perish, I know that any one of us would be capable of rebuilding it.  I say these things because I believe that mountain and stream, leaf and tree, root and flower, everything that has ever been formed in Nature lies preformed within us and springs from the soul, whose essence is eternity.  Of course, this essence is beyond all our conceivable knowledge, but we can feel it nevertheless.


There are of course several references to compasses in the book. Interesting enough Cowan also refers to my concept of The Compass (Hara Awareness – see my page The Compass):

Focusing on the navel was an early Christian practice devised by the hesychast monks of the Greek Orthodox faith.  According to Saint John Climacus, a hesychast is one who strives to maintain that which is incorporeal (i.e., the mind) within the body.  A technique of prayer integrated with breathing, the monks used to drop their heads in meditation, so gaining for themselves the derisive epithet of omphalopsychoi or "navel gazers" because it was believed by some that they situated man's soul in his navel.

The fictional Venice reaches down into the images of time, from our personal to the collective and universal images, and true spirituality is in the end about going beyond all concepts and ideas, because language and linguistic mappings is the main reason for our distortions of reality, and therefore our suffering.  It is in its nature absolutistic. In order to go beyond all concepts and ideas it must be possible to discriminate between the language and the real, the map and the landscape. It therefore builds on an objective truth-criterium, which is lying in a reality, wholeness, or Otherness, that transcends us.

Venice seems to be one big metaphor on this necessary pilgrimage through our own darkness.


Fictional Cities (a great website about the fictional aspects of Venice, Florence and London).

The Word Travels – Adventures in the Literary Landscape (a website which explores all aspects of literary travel and literary tourism and is created with a passion for books - and for life).

Corto Maltese is a “cult” character of the best of the European graphic novel genre, but also a veritable 20th century literary legend. He’s a traveler, an ironic sailor who combines Mediterranean looks and character traits with Anglo-Saxon culture. Corto is an anti-hero who prefers freedom and imagination to wealth. He’s a modern-day Ulysses who takes us along on his travels to the most fascinating places in the world. But he is also a Venetian.

Corto, which in Spanish means “fast”, was created in 1967 by the great Venetian illustrator Hugo Pratt.

A Venetian Grandmother is an essay about Hugo Pratt´s childhood in Venice.

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