Sea Monsters: The Lore and Legacy of Olaus Magnus's Marine Map by Joseph Nigg

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Sea Monsters: The Lore and Legacy of Olaus Magnus's Marine Map by Joseph Nigg

Category: Popular Science
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A deliriously inventive map from 1539 with all its sea monsters gets a full-colour, charmingly designed, authoritative coffee-table treatment, in this surprising pleasure.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 160 Date: August 2013
Publisher: Ivy Press
ISBN: 9781782400431

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A confession. When reading hardbacks I take the paper cover, if there is one, off, to keep it pristine. Sometimes there's a second benefit, with Longbourn by Jo Baker as an example of having an embossed illustration underneath, or suchlike. But with this book I won't be alone, for the cover folds out into an amazing artwork, such as has only two extant original copies. It's a coloured replica of a large map of the northern seas and Scandinavia, dating from 1539, and is in a category of three major artful scientific papers from where the whole 'here be dragons' cliché about maps comes from. Its creator, Olaus Magnus, followed it up years later with a commentary of all the sea creatures he drew on it, but Magnus has waited centuries for this delicious volume to commentate on both together, in such a lovely fashion.

What we get is a scholarly version of a coffee-table book, or a lump of detail that can only honour its subject by bursting out into full, vivid colour, depending on your point of view. Our author is definitely one for filing things into two- and four-page chapters, and he starts by devoting several to background, and the other two maps with fantastical sea monsters littering their design. He then devotes a chapter to every item of note in the waters of Magnus's magnum opus, with all following a strict pattern. We see the secondary copy of the artwork taken from the commentary, Magnus' History, many quotes from that book's writings to provide the mapmaker's own descriptions, then a one- and then a two-page blow-up of the featured creature, before Nigg kicks in properly with his own writing. For every animal he traces its history back through relevant natural history texts, where it is at all possible to work out what the beast is actually supposed to be, and shows us how the contemporary works cribbed the design and fantastical ideas.

As such this book is a real eye-opener about the history of science, for while the Greeks and Romans knew they should be writing books detailing wildlife, many weren't exactly accurate until much more recently. Magnus' scholarly work, claiming to be derived from folklore and testimony alike, is a true snapshot of the scientific thinking of the sixteenth century. Plus of course it looks gorgeous. The creators of this book have filled every page with colour, although it's a small pity that when the main chapter on giant sea serpents makes reference to one famous image from elsewhere the researchers fail to include it. Elsewhere they pass without fault, although one does sometimes wonder whether having two reproductions of every beast is worthwhile, especially when, despite this book's oversized pages, the dreaded truth of disappearing into the maelstrom of the centre-fold comes into play.

I might mention that the writing could have been a little more friendly, possibly, in keeping with the coffee-table element of the book. It does seem a little regimented, with the routine of the short chapters, and the fashion in which everything is introduced at the beginning. Snapping into a commentary of a voyage up the map is a touch awkward, but this is a minor criticism – didn't you see me write the book looks gorgeous?

This book is a special one. It succeeds completely in bringing to attention a work on the cusp of science, legend and art, that no lay reader would in the right mind expect to be so truly fascinating. I've seen alternatives for sale that cover all three maps together, including one from the British Library, but I can't rate this based on competition I've not read. I can only rate it on how much I enjoyed it. Ducks being born from trees, a monk-fish that isn't anything like a monkfish but more like a horrid '80s Doctor Who enemy, and so much more are scattered through the lovely pages, and this is something to relish in that it shines a light on a completely unknown subject with unforeseen pleasure.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

On The Map by Simon Garfield takes the reader around several odd worlds. In fact the subject does make for some great books, such as The Fourth Part of the World: The Epic Story of History's Greatest Map by Toby Lester.

Buy Sea Monsters: The Lore and Legacy of Olaus Magnus's Marine Map by Joseph Nigg at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Sea Monsters: The Lore and Legacy of Olaus Magnus's Marine Map by Joseph Nigg at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Sea Monsters: The Lore and Legacy of Olaus Magnus's Marine Map by Joseph Nigg at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Sea Monsters: The Lore and Legacy of Olaus Magnus's Marine Map by Joseph Nigg at Amazon.com.


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