Navigating Difference, Connecting Seas

After Ferdinand Verbiest, Kunyu quantu (Complete Map of the World, Eastern hemisphere ) (ca. 1860). The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2003.PR.63).

After Ferdinand Verbiest, Kunyu quantu (Complete Map of the World, Eastern hemisphere ) (ca. 1860). The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2003.PR.63).

The monumental Kunyu quantu (Complete Map of the World), a 19th-century Korean reproduction of a woodcut map designed by the Flemish Jesuit missionary Ferdinand Verbiest in 1674 for the Kangxi emperor of China,1 featured prominently in the recent Getty Research Institute exhibition “Connecting Seas: A Visual History of Discoveries and Encounters.”2 Verbiest’s map of the eastern and western hemispheres drew on almost a century of European–Chinese cartography beginning with Matteo Ricci’s first efforts in 1583, and was augmented with text-filled cartouches and animal motifs borrowed from earlier European prints. A cosmopolitan world of knowledge was brought to bear and depicted on a grand scale: each hemisphere measures approximately five feet in diameter.

The product of European cartographic principles and an Asian worldview, the Kunyu quantu places the hemispheres so that China lies at the center of the world. This work, which effectively demonstrates that the “foreign” is a relative concept, offered a conceptual core to the exhibition, which included more than 150 objects3 produced from the 16th century to the present, and examined the visual, cultural and economic exchanges arising from maritime exploration and the motivations that underlay them. Prints, transportable and mass-produced, were particularly critical to the encapsulation and popularization of images about distant lands. They transmitted knowledge—or fantastic, word-of-mouth accounts masquerading as knowledge—to curious publics.

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  1. Impressions of Verbiest’s 1674 map are held in the Library of Congress, Washington D.C., and the Hunterian Museum. The woodblocks for the Korean version still exist. On the Kunyu quantu, see Gang Song and Paola Demattè, “Mapping an Acentric World: Ferdinand Verbiest’s Kunyu Quantu,” in China on Paper: European and Chinese Works from the Late Sixteenth to the Early Nineteenth Century, ed. Marcia Reed and Paola Demattè (Los Angeles: The Getty Research Institute, 2007), 71–87. []
  2. Curated by Peter Bonfitto, David Brafman, Louis Marchesano, Isotta Poggi, Kim Richter and Frances Terpak, the exhibition ran from 7 Dec 2013–13 April 2014. []
  3. The exhibition featured illustrated books, loose prints and photographs, navigational instruments, optical devices, and blue-and-white porcelain. []