I love maps. Ever since Mr. Tew’s 6th-grade class in which he had us draw maps of the world and color and label them, I’ve been fascinated by cartographic representations of the world, especially maps where artistic attention was applied. (I pass over, with a shudder, a practice from the late 1960s onward, by which line-maps are somehow thought to be at all useful or interesting.)
Maps should not just be cold, abstract representations of space and place. After all, they can never just be the ‘objective truth,’ because no map can perfectly convey the full scale, proportions and dimensions of the world it seeks to distill. Interesting maps express passion, interest, and a personality of approach. And it never hurts if they are beautifully made.
So I was wonderfully surprised, having nearly finished the tour of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, to encounter the Map Room, where rich lapis lazuli glows bright blue from the oil-painted seas of the world. Perugian(!) native Ignazio Danti was given the commission in 1563 by Giorgio Vasari to paint the doors of the cabinets in this Guardaroba that held the valuables of the Medicis. Danti’s aunt may have studied under Perugino (a painter we are really beginning to appreciate here; there are dozens of his works here in Perugia).
The 54 maps (30 by Danti) show regions of the world — Italy, of course, but also other parts of Europe as well as the Near East, Africa, and the Americas. They were copied from existing Ptolemaic-system maps by Giacomo Gastaldi and others, and adapted to the revolutionary new rules of Gerardus Mercator. In 1569 Mercator released his new global projection ideal for plotting the constant-bearing courses of ships as straight lines, making his projection ideal for navigators.
The objects within the decorated cabinets may have had a symbolic and geographical relationship to the maps on their doors, according to a recent study. They included natural and cultural curiosities collected from across the globe. And in fact a large painted globe, now barely legible, is at the center of the room. But balancing the edges of the world are reminders of the center: encasing and embracing the international exotica collected by the Medicis are images of the classical past — cabinets carved with moldings such as bead-and-reel, tongue, dentils, and Lesbian leaf. Keyholes set into the frames offered access to those with access.
While I was peering at an Anatolian landscape to see if it located classical sites, I heard a museum guard opening one of the cabinets, and then turned to see her walk through, closing the cabinet behind her. Clearly that one cabinet leads to a secret passage elsewhere in the palazzo. As I examined where the guard passed through, I noticed at least three clues that gave away its location.
So here’s an archaeological quiz for you. I’ve taken seven pictures of the cabinets all around the room; if you’d like to posit which one leads to the secret passage, provide your idea in the comments, along with at least three reasons that back up your claim. I will at some point provide the answer (or confirm yours), also in the comments, so as to prevent spoilers. I’ve numbered the seven photos below.
It should also be noted that yes, this secret door is the one Robert Langdon and Sienna Brooks escape through in Chapter 45 of Dan Brown’s Inferno (which this review pretty much nails, I’m afraid).
Bonus: “Maps and Legends,” by R.E.M., from 1985 in Raleigh:
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