The Case of the Missing Map

In 1548, Nicolo Bascarini published the world’s first ‘pocket atlas,’ La Geografia, in Venice. At 10.5 cm x 16.5 cm (approximately 4 inches x 6 inches), it could indeed fit inside a medium-sized pocket. In addition to being the first edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia translated into Italian (by Pietro Andrea Mattioli), it also contained sixty beautiful, copper-engraved maps by Giacomo Gastaldi. There was only one edition. 


In 1994, nearly 500 years after it was printed, I came across a copy of this atlas in a bookstore in St. Paul, Minnesota. James & Mary Laurie Booksellers (now located in downtown Minneapolis) was a favorite destination of mine because it was everything a collector dreams a bookstore should be. It had a large selection of interesting and unusual books, an eccentric proprietor, and, most importantly, a dimly-lit basement filled with musty old books. 

This subterranean world was a chaos of crooked bookshelves that ran in all directions, winding through a labyrinth of secret passages and creaky old staircases. The atmosphere was the result of a conspiracy between the building itself, with its incomprehensible pillars and uneven walls, and the treasures it harbored. Everywhere I looked there were brown paper packages covered with old stamps and forgotten books that had been accidentally kicked under old desks and tables. Each trip was an adventure. 

Title page of La Geografia, 1548.

One day, I came across the atlas. I fell in love with it immediately. I have collected antique maps for many years, but I had never thought about atlases. I don’t think it had ever occurred to me that complete atlases existed. But there it was, and I had to have it. 

The atlas had belonged to the late Roman Vishniac, a noted scientist and obviously an avid collector of old books. Jim Laurie was handling the sale of certain items from his library, and the atlas was one of the most beautiful among them. I went to look at it three times, staring at the shipwrecks and sea monsters, the technical drawings of circles divided into latitude and longitude, lost in thought about who might have originally owned it. Finally I sat down with Jim to discuss acquiring it. 

There was only one problem. When I counted the maps, there were only fifty-nine. One map was missing. 

When we collated the atlas against another copy, we discovered that the forty-fifth map, Arabia Felix Nova Tabula, was the map in question. And an important map it was, for it is considered to be the first modern map of Arabia ever printed. 

The missing map: Arabia Felix Nova Tabula

Having no experience with atlases, I took one of the biggest gambles of my collecting career. I bought the atlas on the chance I could find the missing map and complete it. Even when I look back now, I wonder what on Earth I thought I was doing. 

Nevertheless, I started contacting the map dealers I knew and asked them to keep a lookout for the Arabia Felix. I talked to dealers in the United States, Canada, and even a dealer in Saudi Arabia whose name I had been given by a reference in England. Months went by and not a word, but then a call from Lahaina Printsellers in Hawaii. I had bought several pieces from them over the years, including a miniature world map by Abraham Ortelius and Willem Blaeu’s map of Iceland. No, they didn’t actually have the map, but they knew who did: Thomas Suarez, an early map expert and dealer in the New York area. A quick call to Tom and I had it, closing the book, so to speak, on The Case of the Missing Map. 

Because the atlas was not in its original binding and was in poor condition, I had it newly bound in vellum. Now it lives in its little box, restored and complete, ready for the next 500 years. 







This article first appeared in Mercator’s World Magazine, Vol 1, No 4, July/August 1996.


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