Mapping Paradise:

A History of Heaven on Earth

By Alessandro Scafi

(University of Chicago Press, 398 pp.,


In 1498, Columbus reached the coast of South America. As he enteredthe estuary of the Orinoco, wonders multiplied. He felt that he andhis men were sailing upward, not horizontally, and wondered if theworld might possibly be shaped like a pear rather than a sphere.The water itself changed as he sailed, from salt to fresh. Theclimate was mild, and the people he encountered struck him ashandsome, intelligent, and brave. The discoverer of a new route toAsia-- Columbus still saw himself in this light, though he wascoming to realize that he had actually struck a continent unknownto Europeans--leaped to a characteristically bold conclusion:"There are great indications of the earthly paradise, for thesituation agrees with the opinion of those holy and wisetheologians, and also the signs are very much in accord with thisidea, for I have never read or heard of so great a quantity offresh water coming into and near the salt. And the very mildclimate also supports this view." As Columbus's own situationbecame more difficult--when he reached Hispaniola, he would findthe population decimated and the settlement in ruins, and he wouldbe shipped home in chains--this bold, pragmatic, and sometimesviolent adventurer began to use a new language, an apocalypticlanguage. Some historians have thought him insincere in thisregard, others desperate. Even those who took Columbus at his wordhave found it hard to repress a smile at his naivete.

Alessandro Scafi disagrees with many of his scholarly predecessors,on this as on many other counts. In a revisionist book that rangesthe centuries, deploys vast learning to splendid effect, and makesas deft use of visual evidence as it does of textual evidence,Scafi shows that Columbus interpreted his startling experiences ina highly reasonable way. For centuries, Western thinkers had donetheir best to place the earthly paradise on maps of the world.Columbus was following them, both in imagining that Eden waselevated and in envisioning it as a great source of freshwater--and in admitting, as modern scholars who saw his claim asfoolish have not always noted, that he had no hope of actuallyentering paradise. Columbus, Scafi teaches us, still lived in amental world that would have been recognizable to Dante--who hadportrayed Ulysses as persuading the members of his crew, with amagnificent speech, to sail to their own destruction in an attemptto reach the lofty mountain of paradise--and to hundreds ofEuropean thinkers before and after him.

In Mapping Paradise, Scafi re-creates the mental cosmos inhabited bytheologians and cartographers, scribes and scholars, priests andadmirals. In his hands, their colorful and varied visions of theGarden of Eden become a lens through which we can view what used tobe called "the medieval world picture"--which was in fact somethingmore like a vast and magnificent mechanism, as splendid as one hadalways thought, but intricately in motion as well, in ways thatthis remarkable book clarifies for the first time.

The book starts with a puzzle. In 1442, a Venetian cartographernamed Giovanni Leardo finished and dated a strikingly complex roundmap of the world, about ten inches in diameter, which is nowpreserved in Verona. Embedded in a set of disks containingcalendrical material, the map depicts the three continents thenknown to Europeans--Asia, Africa, and Europe itself. The level ofdetail is striking: Leardo used a wide range of cartographic symbolsto indicate everything from mountain ranges to cities. So is theaccuracy with which he depicted the Mediterranean Sea and thecoasts of Europe. Evidently this inhabitant of a maritime city tooktechniques and data from the charts that Western sailors had usedfor the last century and more--practical maps, known as portolans,which embodied the sailor's vision of the universe, all coastlineand no hinterland, and on which a system of lines that indicatedbearings made it possible to plot courses from one port to another.

Yet Leardo's map was anything but realistic in the sense in which weuse the term. While a modern map would be oriented toward thenorth, it was oriented toward the east, placing the far easterncoast of India at 11:30, just to the left of the top of the circle.On this coast Leardo put one of his normal city icons--a smalloblong image with towers at its corners and crenellations--andlabeled it "the earthly paradise." To make sure that no one mistookEden for an ordinary place, he drew four rivers flowing from it, ina clear reference to Genesis 2:10 ("And a river went out of Eden towater the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became intofour heads"). More learned readers would also notice that Leardocorrelated Eden with the zodiacal signs of Pisces and Aries--thepoints on the zodiac where the sun would have been when the worldwas created, as tradition held, at the beginning of the spring.Space, in Leardo's vision, was tightly connected to time--a pointto which we will return.

Leardo wielded a wide range of cartographical signs to indicate thepresence of communities, spices, and cannibals. But it seems thatthe location of Eden-- and of Jerusalem, which appears at thecenter of the map, and the world, at the junction of the threeknown continents--formed his core concern, and governed the way inwhich he laid out his map. For Leardo, mapping involved, as itstill does, devising a two-dimensional image of thethree-dimensional world that embeds signs for real places in a gridof spatial relations. But evidently it involved something more aswell: locating the places on the surface of the earth where thecentral events of sacred history had taken place, and establishingtheir relation to one another.

To explain Leardo's imaginary cartography, as well as Columbus'sresponse to strange rivers, Scafi takes his cue from Dante, whom heclearly loves. The historian becomes a sort of erudite Virgil,leading the reader on an extraordinary journey through thousands oftexts and maps--a journey that ends up teaching many lessons notonly about visions of the world, but also about tradition and howit operates. The story begins with Genesis itself, the strangelydouble story of the Creation, in the second chapter of which Godcreates man, and then provides him with a first home: a garden,planted with all sorts of trees, including two special ones, theTree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, andfour rivers flowing from it.

Every word of the biblical story swarms with problems even now--andconfronted earlier readers, most of whom had access to only oneversion of it (the Hebrew, or one of the Greek or Latin orvernacular translations), with even more of them. The Hebrewtext--which itself took its final shape only in the sixth centuryand after, when the Masoretes of Tiberias redacted it--says thatGod planted "gan-beEden miqedem." But what did this mean? Did heplant it "from the beginning," as in the Vulgate, the Latin versionof Saint Jerome, or "eastward," as in the Septuagint, the ancientGreek translation of the Old Testament, and also in the King JamesVersion? The second, more literal interpretation is supported by asymmetrical phrase that appears at the end of the Eden story. HereGod, after expelling Adam and Eve from paradise, places cherubimwith a flaming sword miqedem legan-Eden, "east of Eden." But thefirst seems clearer in context. Which is correct? And why?

Larger questions of interpretation also haunted everyone who triedto understand this story. Some Jewish and Christian readers--Philoof Alexandria, for example, and Origen--took the story as exactlythe sort of biblical material, implausible on the face of it, thatharbored deeper meanings. Schooled in the spiritual disciplines ofNeo-Platonism, they refused to imagine God in material form, as afarmer planting trees or a magician making woman out of man's rib.Such apparently primitive and implausible sections of the textactually offered clues to its concealed higher meanings. In fact,they insisted, the story referred to man's decisions about thecultivation of his soul, and the ways in which the physical senses,symbolized by Eve, could lead to his downfall.

But the majority of Christian readers rejected this effort to smoothaway the difficulties. The ancestors of the human race, Epiphaniusand Chrysostom insisted, had not been some sort of ghosts, but anactual man and an actual woman who had really lived in a specialpart of the earth's surface, far to the east. Augustine agreed thatAdam and Eve had lived in paradise, in the flesh--a special kind offlesh, which was incorrupt and responded to their incorrupt will.Adam, he argued, could even have made his penis reach erection, andhave generated children with Eve, without feeling lust orcommitting a sin. (Augustine buttressed this conclusion bydescribing, in a famous analogy, the gifted individuals he had seenwho could fart musically.) But the actual location of Paradise, forAugustine, was impossible to fix. In any case, it mattered less tohim than what had happened there: an existence in the flesh thatwas at once absolutely real and radically different from life incontemporary time and space.

Gradually, as Scafi shows in crisp, concrete detail, Christianimaginations equipped the garden that God created at the beginningof history with attributes of many kinds. It had not only trees andrivers, but also inhabitants--Adam's son Seth, for example, and theprophets Enoch and Elijah, whom God had allowed not to die. Itappeared, a flickering but irresistible beacon, outside the bordersof Europe--in the ocean that Saint Brendan, according to popularlegend, managed to cross with a crew of holy men, or in the farEast about which the Crusaders swapped stories as they passedthrough Egypt and the Holy Land. Eventually its physical situationtook on a new and striking form. The "Ordinary Gloss," the Latinbiblical commentary that took shape in the twelfth-century schoolsand that came to form a standard part of the Latin Bible, explainedthat Eden had escaped the Flood because it formed the summit of amountain so high that it touched the sphere of the moon.

Moreover, the place where history began in sin developed aneschatological dimension--one foreshadowed in Jewish thought of thelast centuries before the Common Era. The earthly paradise, manybelieved, was or would become heaven-- the place where the saintswould find rest and repose at the end of history, after the returnof the Messiah and the time of tribulation. Find out where paradisewas--so any informed Christian might well think--and you would knowwhere time itself had had its start and would find itsconsummation.

This was the larger context in which, for centuries, mapmakers suchas Leardo did their work. Their enterprise--which Scafi analyseswith a striking mixture of lucid analysis and intellectualempathy--was difficult: "The challenge for the compilers of themaps in question was to render visible a place that wasgeographically inaccessible--yet linked to the inhabited earth bythe four rivers--and remote in time--yet still relevant as the sceneof an essential episode of salvation history." The exegetesencouraged mapmakers to carry out this challenging task. But theycould not explain--or, in Augustine's influential case, had refusedto explain--how to do it, in anything like the detail that acartographer needed.

The toolbox of the medieval mapmakers looks primitive now, but itwould have looked primitive also to their professional ancestors inHellenistic Alexandria. They lacked the formal systems ofprojection that Greek geographers had developed for reproducing intwo dimensions the actual geometrical relations between places onthe three-dimensional surface of the Earth--to say nothing ofsatellite surveys, global positioning systems, and Google Maps. Buttwo vital sets of implements, both largely forgotten now, enabledthem to set to work.

Medieval mapmakers inherited from the historians and theencyclopedists of late antiquity--writers driven by the need topreserve as much knowledge as they could in capsule form and tomake it available to new, less educated elites in state andchurch--a powerful schematic image of the known world: theso-called T-O map, which represented the three known continents,Asia, Europe, and Africa, as inscribed within a great circle. Asia,the largest of the three, filled the top half of the circle, abovethe bar of the T (which represented the Don and the Nile). Europeand Africa, the smaller continents, filled the left and rightbottom quadrants, separated by the vertical line of the T (whichrepresented the Mediterranean). Oriented to the east--which took theplace of the north in a modern map--these figures offered not arepresentation of the world but an icon, a general scheme thatdefined the parts of the world, for readers of texts that mentionedrivers or continents. (This is the sort of explanation thatWikipedia classifies as a "stub article.")

Before the end of the first millennium, mapmakers began to fill inthe outlines of the T-O map with attractive details. They insertedparadise-- sometimes marked only with a legend, sometimesrepresented as a spring, the source of four rivers--at the very topof the map, on the far eastern border of Asia. And they placedJerusalem on many of the maps as well--not on the border but at thecenter, where continents, rivers, and oceans met, as a kind ofcosmic omphalos. Across Europe, the illuminators of bibles,encyclopedias, and histories used these graphic means to show thatspace--the space of the world-- had a spiritual meaning as well asa physical form. It included not only the known place where Christhad sacrificed himself, but also the unknown but equally real placewhere Adam had fallen, sin had entered the cosmos, and the ultimatesacrifice of God's son had been made necessary.

Late antiquity also bequeathed a second vital tool to the medievalcartographers. Every society, the sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel hasshown, devises what Zerubavel calls "time maps": imaginary patternsof movement upward or downward, forward or backward, with which weimpose sense on the past and the future. Most of the metaphors thatcarry out this work are spatial; many of them are strikinglymaterial. If we doubt that progress is possible, we may envisiontime as a cycle; but if we believe in it, we may represent it as anarrow moving rapidly forward.

The world historians and encyclopedists of late antiquity, men wholived through the transformation of the Roman world, worked hard tomap the times that were changing around them. They explicated thebiblical books--above all Daniel and Revelations--that offeredvivid charts of the future. They divided the past into six ages tomatch the six days of Creation; or into four or seven ages, whichcorresponded to the ages of human life. Most ambitiously of all,they mapped time. They mapped it literally and vividly. Around 300C.E., Eusebius of Caesarea drew up a Christian chronicle in whichhe laid out all of history from the time of Abraham to his own day.In nineteen columns, meticulously coordinated to show which rulersand events had existed or taken place at the same time, using twocolors and multiple hierarchies of names and numbers, Eusebiusrecorded the history of the nations: Assyrians, Egyptians, Jews,Athenians, Romans. Over time the columns disappeared as one nationwas conquered by another, until only the Jews and the Romansremained. The history of the world, captured in this new graphicform, showed a clear progress from multiplicity to unity--a stateachieved by the Roman conquest of Israel just in time to allow thenew Christian religion to reach all of mankind. Eusebian worldhistory, which became the model world history of the ChristianMiddle Ages, revealed the work of Providence through time by itsvery form.

Medieval mappaemundi--as Scafi shows, displaying them by the dozens,in all the profusion and the splendor of their multiple graphiccodes and unforgettably vivid colors--superimposed these twovisions of the universe, one spatial and one temporal, to producesomething new: a stunning Christian vision of time and space. Attheir most ambitious and elaborate--as in the enormous, magnificentEbstorf and Hereford world maps, created in the thirteenthcentury-- they plotted the salvation history of the world in asmuch detail as the contours of its surface. These maps provided notonly the locations of Creation and Incarnation, but also the fulllong trail of biblical history that stretched between the two: theArk, the Tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, and Joseph'sstorehouses all figured on them.

Above all, these maps made clear to the informed reader that sacredtime imparted meaning to sacred space. And that, in turn, explainswhy Giovanni Leardo and many other cartographers embedded maps inthe instruments and the tables of the Christian calendar. Scafi'spatient and scrupulous exegeses tease out the meanings of icons andsymbols, and record the immensely varied visual and verbalconventions that the mapmakers devised, and make clear theextraordinary conceptual richness and density of the maps ofparadise. Mapping Paradise is itself a masterly map of concepts andimages whose logic has been lost with time.

Equally fascinating is Scafi's account of how this elaborate pictureof the world, which functioned so well for hundreds of years,finally collapsed. As he shows, the thirteenth-century synthesisrepresented by majestic and apparently coherent creations such asthe Hereford map bore within it some of the seeds of its owndissolution. The late antique heritage included more ways than oneto lay out the surface of the earth. The zonal maps that dividedthe world into frigid, temperate, and torrid regions were hard toreconcile formally with the T-O map, and some of them seemed torepresent land masses outside the three known continents. Timeraised further problems. As Western Europeans learned, from theArabs and from experience, that the equatorial zone was not so hotas to be lethal, imaginations began to move in new ways. Was are-formed map of the zones, rather than a sketch of the continents,the proper way to chart sacred space and time? Could paradise benot at the far east, but in the temperate middle of the world? Andif so, what did the new vision have to do with the traditional onethat hewed more closely to the biblical narrative?

New ways of mapping, which spread through the Mediterranean from thethirteenth century on, also challenged the older ways ofrepresenting space. Late medieval cartographers did their best toreconcile the new pragmatic maps with older systems ofrepresentation. But their work showed evident strain: the maps thatnow came into being seemed to offer not only an account of thesacred and distant past, but a practical way to navigate to theunreachable paradise at the world's end. Did paradise really existin a special, separate place? No wonder that some influentialthinkers, such as Duns Scotus, began to question whether one couldlocate the earthly paradise at all.

The final blows to the old system came when the great Alexandrianatlas of Ptolemy, the Geography, came back to light infifteenth-century Italy, and when the Portuguese rounded Africa.Ptolemy's magnificent work showed readers how to map the world inaccordance with a range of projection systems. Each had itsadvantages--and none had space for paradise, in which Ptolemy, apagan, had no interest. At the same time, the discoveries of thePortuguese (and, later, of Columbus and others) began to bring alltraditional maps into discredit. Even printed editions of Ptolemybegan to include sections of "new maps" that showed, as his didnot, the open bottom of the Indian Ocean. Like his ancient maps,these included no place for Eden.

Yet even as paradise fell off the world map, new maps of Edensprouted like mushrooms in the illustrated bibles that MartinLuther and the other warring theologians of the Reformation broughtout to underpin their religious ideas. They are not the heroes ofScafi's tale. His deepest sympathies seem reserved for theconstructive cartographers of the Middle Ages, and he shows apronounced sense of irony as he charts the minutely detailed effortsof Luther, Calvin, Steucho, and a host of less famous polymaths towork out, from close scrutiny of the biblical text, which rivershad watered paradise and whether its site still existed or hadbeen--as Luther thought-- expunged by the universal Flood. Scafiand his reader know in advance, thanks to his excellentintroductory section on Genesis, that these efforts were doomed tofailure.

Yet here, too, Scafi's exposition rests on deep research, and heexplicates the new sacred geography and antiquarianism of theseventeenth and eighteenth centuries--and even the newarchaeological geography and biblical tourism of more recenttimes--with impeccable erudition and patience. Above all, he makesclear that the new methods of early modern scholars--who insisted onfinding Eden somewhere in the larger Near East, as the biblicaltext seemed to require, and no longer necessarily believed thatthey could map providential time on ordered space--are what standbetween us and the mappaemundi. The medieval map of paradise cameto seem funny not in the age of Bouvard and Pecuchet, thepositivist world that produced the first studies of the history ofgeography, but in the Renaissance; and it can be understood only byabandoning the condescension of the humanists.

Scafi's immensely learned and minutely accurate book--which beganlife as a dissertation at the Warburg Institute, that great centerfor the study of forgotten traditions--opens a treasury of lostlearning. Historians and art historians, students of literature andreligion, and specialists in exegesis and its crooked historieswill all have much to learn from him. Historians of cartography maybe just a little less impressed. Throughout his work, Scafi takespains to insist on the rationality of the medieval maps. Again andagain, he assures the reader that modern maps are just asconventional in their divisions and visual language as medievalones: that no map, as readers of Borges and Jonathan Smith know,can ever be identical to the territory it portrays. And here, inthe end, he seems to be knocking on an open door.

It is true that earlier students of the mappaemundi often treatedthe effort to locate paradise as silly and futile, a characteristicmedieval error. Scafi himself came to the subject as a student whenhe bought, by chance, a cheap copy of one of the classicnineteenth-century accounts, Arturo Graf's The Myth of the EarthlyParadise, and his desire to set the larger record straight perhapsderives, like his passion for the subject, from that firstencounter. But in recent decades we have witnessed a revolution inthe history of maps. The great collaborative history of cartographyorganized by J.B. Harley and the late David Woodward, and studiesby Harley, Woodward, Matthew Edney, D. Graham Burnett, and manyothers, have taught us over and over again to see that maps areinevitably conventional. We know that the maps that replaced themappaemundi--for example, the great, weird world maps of the earlysixteenth century, which Christian Jacob brilliantly explicated inThe Sovereign Map, just translated into English but first publishedin French in 1992--employed as wildly varied visual languages andemplotted as widely varied information as their medievalpredecessors. True, they depicted wild flora, fauna, and humansocieties on the new, western edge of the known world in place ofman, woman, and tree--or four rivers--to the east; but they wereevery bit as selective, and as imaginative, as the mappaemundi.Scafi's polemics against anachronism, though perfectly justified,are the one part of this splendid book that could have beenabridged.

But Mapping Paradise is a truly superb work. Scafi's precision,clarity, and range of reference compel admiration. So does hismastery of a vast range of technical systems. A classic Warburgianin his ability to find paths through the labyrinth of tradition,his love and understanding of commentary, and his sympathy foralien systems of belief, Scafi also brings to his work animpressive mastery of pre-modern cartography and its sources, and adeep understanding of the late antique crisis in understanding timeand space. Again and again he demonstrates his command of thesenewer traditions of scholarship and their potential to preserve andto enrich older ones. Mapping Paradise does honor to its author andhis teachers, as well as to the generations of scribes andminiaturists, exegetes and theologians, whose colorful world itcharts with such lucidity and insight.

By Anthony Grafton