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Mapping Paradise: A History of Heaven on Earth.

Alessandro Scafi. Mapping Paradise: A History of Heaven on Earth.

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. 398 pp. + 16 color pls. index. illus. map. bibl. $55. ISBN: 0-226-73559-1.

In a commentary on Genesis, Martin Luther claims that trying to locate Paradise was a fool's errand: "Why waste words? The opinions are numberless. My answer is briefly this: it is an idle question about something no longer in existence." This "idle question," however, has stimulated heated debate throughout the history of the Church, and is now covered in the first book-length work fully dedicated to charting the historical, theological, and visual traditions that have shaped conceptions of Paradise over the entirety of Christian history. Although there have been studies of the iconography of Paradise in individual mappae mundi over the course of the Middle Ages--most skillfully exemplified by David Woodward's excellent chapter in the first volume of The University of Chicago's The History of Cartography series (1987)--Mapping Paradise has a much more ambitious and far-reaching agenda, covering not only the medieval period but the many recurrences of the theme up to the present day. Despite the book's cartographically focused title, Alessandro Scafi justifiably pursues the theme as a subject of intellectual history first and foremost, with maps forming the background rather than the central apparatus of his treatment.

The book's strangely shallow prologue--parsing present-day advertising hawking vacations to Paradise as a way of accessing past conceptions of an irretrievable Eden--does not represent Scafi's talents or methodological rigor well. Fortunately, he moves on quickly from this misstep. The first four chapters, treating the recent historiography of the subject, the early Christian textual commentary concerning the location of Paradise, and the earliest known discussions of how and where Paradise should be situated on ostensibly real-world maps, are where Scafi truly sets up the rigorous framework through which the rest of this thorough book operates, showing how subtle matters of early Christian exegesis eventually led to great epistemological differences on the subject.

In the beginning, there was a linguistic conundrum that influenced the first 1,400 years or so of commentary and illustration concerning where Paradise could be found. In Scafi's insightful reading, the double meaning of the Hebrew miqedem--a word modifying "Garden of Eden" in Genesis 2.8--formed the essential, though problematic, dialectic in any medieval discussion of the location of Paradise. The word could be translated spatially ("away to the east") or temporally ("from before the beginning"), which gave rise to what Scafi fittingly calls the "event/place" (125) status of Paradise. As an event, Eden witnessed the beginning of life and human history; as a place, it was a physical location with an imprecise contiguity with the known world, perhaps somewhere out at its little-explored eastern fringes. Augustine's insistence upon Eden as a literal and not merely metaphorical or vanished territory led many of his theological commentators to follow the latter interpretation. As a result, Paradise often appeared at the top of east-oriented mappae mundi or schematic T-O maps, barely incorporated within, gently touching, or slightly separated from the circular sphere of the earth. Even medieval scribes who knew the texts well were faced with further difficulties: was Paradise destroyed in the Flood and therefore no longer extant? Should Eden be pictured as a garden or instead have its location denoted with a word (Paradisus)? How peacefully did Paradise coexist with the monstrous races usually consigned to the fringes of a mappa mundi? All are discussed here at length, with the visual evidence serving partly to illustrate bigger theological or exegetical concerns.

The great surprise of Scafi's book lies beyond its erudite handling of the many textual and visual traditions manifested in the Middle Ages. Rather than viewing the subject as one inextricably related to the medieval world map, Scafi invests great, rewarding energy in pursuing the topic through the Ptolemaic revival, the Age of Exploration, and into the Enlightenment and beyond. Half of the book deals with the (until now) rarely explored topics of locating Paradise in an age of print, reformation, and rationalism. A fruitful exploration of John Calvin's 1553 Commentary on Genesis (which includes a map placing Eden at the source of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers) serves to frame a lengthy discussion of the inevitable clash between theology and archaeology that began in the late sixteenth century and simmered in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Even though it does not seem necessary, Scafi follows the speculative trail up to the most recent crackpot websites, but in the later chapters the book wisely maintains a critical distance from its increasingly eccentric subjects.

Mapping Paradise is a far-reaching book that gracefully fulfills its ambitious agenda. The University of Chicago Press also deserves credit for the fine production of this volume. Many of the illustrated world maps include an accompanying schematic version labeling relevant areas, and alongside every map is a compass rose to give a quick sense of orientation.


Medici Archive Project, Florence
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Author:Rosen, Mark
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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