Review: This Earthly Globe: A Venetian Geographer and the Quest to Map the World

With This Earthly Globe: A Venetian Geographer and the Quest to Map the World, Andrea di Robilant takes a convoluted but purposeful journey through history as well as geography to follow a remarkable achievement: the publication in the 1500s of an unprecedented three-volume collection. Navigationi et Viaggi, or Navigations and Journeys, was the life work of Giovambattista Ramusio, a career civil servant in Venice, but his name was not at first attached to "this remarkable collection of travel narratives, journals, private letters and classified government reports." Humble and hardworking, Ramusio spent a lifetime compiling documents and notes from an impressive assortment of travelers. He found an early version of Marco Polo's travel writings, corresponded with contemporary European explorers, and nurtured sources for long-secret documents; he was a dedicated editor, translator, and collector responsible for "one of the great publishing feats of the sixteenth century. It played a vital role in the final emancipation from a vision of the world still anchored to antiquity and became an indispensable source for the great cartographers of the second half of the sixteenth century."

The world travelers whose notes, journals, drawings, and maps informed Ramusio's work provide most of the color for di Robilant's lively history. Ramusio's own life is described, but it is Marco Polo, al-Hasan ibn Mohammad al-Wazzan, Antonio Pigafetta, Andrea Navagero, and many others whose adventures brighten these pages. Di Robilant (A Venetian Affair, Chasing the Rose, Face to Face) recounts their stories in vibrant detail. Marco Polo, in the region of present-day Afghanistan, saw "the landscape... stark against the deep blue sky: steep barren mountains, silvery green poplars along the banks of the river, the occasional mud village, and always a few flocks of sheep here and there nibbling at the rocky terrain." Al-Wazzan, a "careful observer and diligent note taker... amassed a wealth of information on everything from the price of grains to particular weaving techniques to the quality of local wines in the places he visited." He and Ramusio shared a "notion of what geography should be: not just maps and place-names but a more encompassing description of territory that might include observations on local crops, on manufacture, on trade patterns, on systems of transportation, irrigation and communication, on the social and political organizations of villages and towns, on religious practices."

Di Robilant unfolds centuries of history, a dizzying array of characters, and a wide world of geography and culture in an easy storytelling style without falling into a dry recitation of facts and dates. This Earthly Globe offers a broad, accessible narrative about a publication that changed the world as it helped define it. Obviously for fans of history and geography, this sparkling story will also please general readers. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia

Shelf Talker: This romp through history relates the lives and adventures of many travelers whose stories were compiled by a self-effacing Venetian civil servant in an extraordinary publishing feat.

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