It was made to stand on six folding screens and is covered in Chinese annotations that both honor the emperor and affirm Europe’s and Christianity’s greatness. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski for The New York Times)

When a map of overwhelming dimensions and detail is presented to the ruler of a land, the homage, surely, is a kind of deference. The map is partly meant to be an illustration of the ruler’s powers, the extent of his realm, the range of learning he commands.

And yes, one of the remarkable aspects of the world map on display at the Library of Congress through April 10, is that along with its imposing scale (it is 12.5 feet long and 5.5 feet high) and grand ambitions (it encompasses the known world of the early 17th century), at its very center stands the “Middle Kingdom,” as China called itself, its mountains and rivers commanding attention with dense annotation, all of which is in Chinese.

Created by a visiting Italian-born Jesuit priest, Matteo Ricci, and apparently commissioned by the court of Emperor Wanli in 1602 — the year after Ricci became the first Westerner admitted to Peking and then the Forbidden City— this map is indeed partly a tribute to the land in which Ricci had lived since 1582, and in which he would die in 1610.


Edward Rothstein
New York Times