Showing posts with label ancient history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ancient history. Show all posts

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Heart map, head map

This beautiful heart-shaped map of the world was created in 1536 by a Frenchman with a funny name: Oronce Fine. I hasten to point out that, in Latin, the gentleman's name has a much more distinguished look and feel: Oronteus Finæus.


Master Oronteus was, not only a cartographer (who produced the first-ever printed map of France), but also a mathematician of sorts, author of an opus entitled Protomathesis. Incidentally, most people would agree with me that this title sounds marvelous for a treatise on mathematics… but there's a slight hitch in that nobody seems to know with certainty what the scholarly term "Protomathesis" could possibly mean!

At the bottom of Oronce Fine's heart-shaped globe, admire the vast imaginary continent of Terra Australis… which must not be confused with the island of Australia. Medieval Terra Australis—whose existence was first envisaged by Aristotle—was more like our Antarctica.

As recently as 1981, Oronce Fine came into the spotlight once again when an American academic named Charles Hapgood [1904-1982] published a book in which he hinted that the medieval mapmaker's presentation of the Antarctic coastline was so close to reality (?) that surely the region had been mapped earlier on by mysterious expert cartographers belonging to an advanced society. What can we conclude? Maybe Martian map-makers in Antarctica?

Let's move geographically, indeed cartographically, from the heart to the head. Here's another celebrated masterpiece created by our friend Oronce Fine:

He gave it a lovely lilting title: O caput elleboro dignum, which might be translated roughly as The world in the head of a fool. Scattered throughout this intriguing mixture of art and cartographical technology, there are many little words of wisdom in Latin. For example, on the jester's scepter, we find the famous inscription Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas (Vanity of vanities, all is vanity), inspired by the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes.

I'm convinced that Oronce Fine, in spite of some light-hearted airiness in his creations, was certainly no fool. And I'm sure he had lots of fun doing what he did.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

How did they do it?

Whenever I see an exceptionally spectacular human creation—such as a fortress perched above sheer cliffs, for example, at the tip of a mountain—my spontaneous reaction consists of asking: How did they do it? Even before deciding whether or not the construction impresses me, or even pleases me aesthetically, I'm obsessed by the question of how, in concrete terms, it came into being.

The Parthenon is a special case in that, the more I learn about its structure, the more I ask that same question: How did they do it? Superficially, the great Athenian sanctuary appears to be quite regular from a geometrical viewpoint: nothing but a parallel series of vertical columns supporting a horizontal superstructure. But this is a gigantic illusion. When everything is measured, we learn with astonishment that there are no straight parallel lines whatsoever in the Parthenon. Everything is curved, often enormously. And the raison d'être of this curved design is to create the optical illusion of linearity, straightness and parallelism. In other words, if the stones were really straight, they would look curved. So, they've been deliberately curved by the architect in order to create the impression that they are straight.

Stonehenge, at first sight, is the sort of construction that tempts many folk to wonder whether it might have been built with help from the magical powers of Druids, or maybe even extraterrestrial giants. Finally, however, it's not too difficult to imagine ways in which the giant blocks might have been transported and then raised into their vertical positions.

No doubt the biggest construction mystery of all time has concerned the Great Pyramid of Giza... which happens to be the only one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World that still exists.

Well, a former French architect named Jean-Pierre Houdin, with no specialized training in Egyptology, has just invented a revolutionary theory according to which the construction of the pyramid would have involved an internal ramp whose linear segments would have emerged into an open platform at each edge of the ascending pyramid, enabling a block to be turned and lifted onto the next segment of the ramp.

Houdin performed his calculations and computer modeling using resources supplied by the hi-tech company Dassault Systèmes. The following video gives you a good idea of the construction techniques imagined by Houdin:



As strange as it might seem, we can say retrospectively that, up until this theory was invented, the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza had simply remained a total mystery. One might conclude that humanity seems to get along quite well without having to find answers to the question: How did they do it?

ADDENDUM: I've just finished reading an excellent book on Jean-Pierre Houdin's theory of the construction of the Great Pyramid. Coauthored by the celebrated US Egyptologist Bob Brier, the book is available from Amazon either in English or in French.

I bought the French version, because I wanted to read the preface by the French TV personality and intellectual François de Closets, who actually played a role in publicizing this huge breakthrough in our knowledge of the ancient world.