Winter 2021
All images courtesy University of Minnesota Libraries

World view

Nine things to know about Matteo Ricci’s map of the world

In June, the James Ford Bell Trust gave a rare Matteo Ricci map to the University of Minnesota Libraries. Printed in 1602 at China’s imperial court, the world map is one of only six known copies. “It makes such a statement about East-West collaboration at the time,” says Marguerite Ragnow, curator of the James Ford Bell Library, home to the map. “It was a true joint effort on the part of European Jesuits and Ming scholars and artisans.”

The map will be on display in the Bell Library’s new space at the Elmer L. Andersen Library starting in late 2021.

Here are nine interesting facts about this rare map:

1. It goes by several names. Although it’s referred to as the Matteo Ricci map because of Ricci’s role as director of the project, its formal name is Kunyu wanguo quantu 坤輿萬國全圖(Complete Geographical Map of Ten Thousand Countries) or The Map of the Ten Thousand Countries of the Earth. It is sometimes referred to as the “Impossible Black Tulip of Cartography” because it is so rare.

2. It’s not your average wall map. The map is a wood block print, and the paper is likely made from mulberry or bamboo fiber and rice water glue. It has six panels, each of which was printed from six hand-carved wood blocks.  The panels measure 2 by 5.25 feet, and are laid out from right to left, following Chinese tradition (see image gallery below).

3. It shows China near the center of the world. At the time, China was trading with the Spanish, and the map illustrated that partnership and others. “It showed the Chinese their relationship to the New World,” Ragnow says. 

Who was Matteo Ricci?

Matteo Ricci was the first Jesuit priest allowed to set up a mission on mainland China. “That was a big deal,” says Marguerite Ragnow, curator of the James Ford Bell Library. “Most of the Europeans were kept on the island of Macau and only allowed on the mainland twice a year.”

With the goal of converting the Chinese to Christianity, Ricci quickly learned he needed to establish a rapport with the scholars. He studied Chinese customs, mastered the Chinese language and script, and impressed them with his knowledge of mathematics and astronomy, among other things.

Ricci made his first map with the aid of Chinese craftsmen in 1584—two years  after arriving in China from Italy. It was based on a map of the world that hung in Ricci’s mission in Zhaoqing, and which is believed to have been a copy of the 1570 world map of Dutch cartographer Abraham Ortelius.

In recognition of his scientific proficiency and, specifically, his ability to predict solar eclipses, Ricci was invited to become an adviser to the Ming Court in 1601. He was the first Jesuit—and one of the first Westerners—to enter the Forbidden City in Beijing.  

 Once at the Ming court, Ricci set about making the extraordinary map that was printed in 1602. “Everything he had done up to this point culminated in this cooperative project,” Ragnow says.

4. Some panels may have been printed clandestinely. When the map was first displayed on campus in 2010, it attracted people attending an international printing conference in the Twin Cities. Some of them noticed places where the ink was applied too heavily. “Official copies would not have been allowed to be distributed with such a mistake,” Ragnow says. “According to Ricci’s diary,  the printers had a duplicate set of woodblocks and printed copies to sell under the table. This was probably done at night, so sloppy inking would not have been a surprise.” Ragnow says it’s possible the U of M’s map includes both official and clandestinely printed panels.

The Waldseemüller globe gores

5. It shows the Americas. The Ricci Map is believed to be the oldest surviving map in Chinese to show the Americas. The Bell Library also is home to one of three surviving copies of the Waldseemüller globe gores, published in 1507 and thought to be the first map that names America.

6. It describes Florida as the “land of flowers.” The map includes numerous annotations. It describes Africa has having the highest mountains and the longest river, and it calls North America home to “humped oxen” (bison) and feral horses. The text also accurately describes a cape of feathers most likely worn by native Brazilian royalty.

7. It mixes geography with mythology. The map tells of people in Scandinavia being a foot high and living in caves so the cranes and hawks can’t swoop down and snatch them. Ragnow says this is consistent with tales of dwarves in Scandinavian mythology. Adding to the evidence of the presence of hawks is a 1539 map of Scandinavia owned by the library that shows an illustration of a giant hawk with a rabbit in its talons.

8. It has a Vatican connection. Although some parts of the map have been translated into English, the Vatican, which owns another copy of the 1602 map, is working on a full translation that will be published and made available for study.

9. It's the largest-value gift to the U of M Libraries. Currently valued at around $3.5 million, the map was purchased by the James Ford Bell Trust in 2009. It was given to the University Libraries in memory of Trustee Diane Neimann, who was instrumental in purchasing the map from a consortium of book dealers.

Kim Kiser is editor of Legacy magazine.

Following Chinese tradition, the six panels of the Ricci map are laid out right to left. Panel 1, the sixth image from the left, includes the title of the map.