The Fool’s Cap Map of the World.

Cartographic Comedy in the 16th century: The Fool’s Cap Map of the World

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The Fool’s Cap Map of the World is an engraving of a map of the world, and is thought to have been made towards the end of the 16th century. This map is peculiar as it is framed within the hood / fool’s cap of a jester. One source mentions that the Fool’s Cap Map of the World is considered to be the earliest known use of the world map in a visual joke. Another source, however, points out that a previous Fool’s Cap Map was made in 1575 by a French mapmaker named Jean de Gourmont.

The Cap Map’s Origins

Little is known for certain about the Fool’s Cap Map of the World. The only thing that may be said with a certain degree of confidence is that it was made around the last decade of the 16th century. This is because the map resembles ones made by Abraham Ortelius, a Flemish / Netherlandish cartographer and geographer, which were published during the 1580s. On the panel on the left of the map is a legend in Latin which translates as “Democritus of Abdera laughed at [the world], Heraclitus of Ephesus wept over it, Epichtonius Cosmopolites portrayed it”. This legend indicates that a certain Epichtonius Cosmopolites made this map. The name, however, means ‘Everyman’ and is most likely a pseudonym used to hide the mapmaker’s real identity.

The cartographer Abraham Ortelius by Rubens.

The cartographer Abraham Ortelius by Rubens. ( Public Domain )

On the other hand, there is the name Orontius Fineus inscribed on the left-hand corner of the top of the map. This is the Latin version of Oronce Finé, a French mathematician and cartographer. This has led to some claims that Finé was the mapmaker. There is one slight problem, however, with this interpretation. Finé died at the age of 50 in 1555. Since the map is thought to have been made in around 1590, it is unlikely that Finé was responsible for its production.

Possible maker of the Map, Oronce Finé (1494-1555), French cartographer.

Possible maker of the Map, Oronce Finé (1494-1555), French cartographer. ( Public Domain )

The Fool’s Cap Map Message

Whilst other questions, such as why and where the map was produced, have been left unresolved, it is quite clear that the Fool’s Cap Map of the World is very rich in symbolism, which would have been easily understood by those living in the era it was produced. To begin with, the map of the world is ‘dressed’ in the traditional garb of a court jester, i.e. a double-peak, bell-tipped cap, and a jester’s staff. The cap was supposed to represent the ears of a donkey, and hence its association with this beast’s stupidity, whilst the staff was meant to be a parody of the royal staff, which was a symbol of authority. The association of the world with this comic figure may be interpreted as a representation of the world as an irrational, dangerous, and foolish place to be living in.

A Jester showing hat with donkey-like ears and staff. ‘The Laughing Jester’ 15th Century. Art museum of Sweden, Stockholm

A Jester showing hat with donkey-like ears and staff. ‘The Laughing Jester’ 15th Century. Art museum of Sweden, Stockholm ( Public Domain )

Next, one may consider the numerous inscriptions in Latin that are found on the map. For example, on the top of the map is the inscription ‘Nosce te ipsum’, which is the Latin form of the Greek ‘gnothi seauton’. This adage may be translated as ‘know thyself’, which, according to the ancient Greek author Pausanias, was one of the inscriptions carved into the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Another inscription can be found on the jester’s staff, and reads ‘vanitas, vanitatum et omina vanitas’, which translates as ‘vanity of vanities, all is vanity’. This famous saying comes from the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes. Yet another Biblical reference is the saying ‘stultorum infinitus est numerus’, which can be found towards the bottom of the map.

This quote is also from the book of Ecclesiastes, and may be translated as ‘the number of fools is infinite’. These, as well as the rest of the quotes serve to enhance the map’s message that earthly life is a ridiculous joke, as first espoused by the attire of the jester surrounding the map of the world.

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