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‘Fabulous Journeys’: A Peculiar World View

The land of Cockaigne as depicted in Niccolò Nelli’s 1564 etching appears to be a pretty cool place. Open your mouth and in falls freshly roasted fowl. A cinnamon mountain pumps out fresh macaroni and ravioli. Doing work is punishable by imprisonment in a jail with bars made of sausages. And the sea flows with Greek wine, naturally.

Too bad it doesn’t exist.

This mythical utopia, which is among the images included in the National Gallery of Art exhibit “Fabulous Journeys and Faraway Places: Travels on Paper, 1450-1700,” was one of several depicted by medieval and Renaissance-era Europeans in an age when travel was scarce and the world beyond one’s front door was often imagined to be alternately fraught with danger or untold delights. [IMGCAP(1)]

In addition to such fantasies, the exhibit, which opens Sunday, also features a stunning array of works, mainly from the National Gallery’s permanent collection, documenting real travels. For instance, there’s the first known printed road map of Europe (circa 1492) that claims to show the route from Northern Europe to Italy — unfortunately, these early cartographers, who depict Italy as situated above Northern Europe, hadn’t exactly agreed on what constituted the cardinal points yet. Meanwhile, Pieter Coecke van Aelst’s 16-foot-long woodcut depicting his 1533 overland trip from Italy to Constantinople provides valuable insight into European perceptions of the Turkish. In it, the Turks picnic, worship, bury their dead — and even relieve themselves. (It’s mostly accurate, said exhibit curator Virginia Tuttle, with the exception of the artist’s representation of the Turks, who were monotheistic Muslims, paying homage to their gods and idols.)

Finally, you won’t want to miss some of the illustrated maps of the New World and Africa. The Frenchman Henri Abraham Châtelaine’s “Intriguing Map of the Southern Sea, from ‘Atlas Historique’” (1719) provides a particularly inventive rendering of the Americas. Among its eccentricities, California is shown as a peninsula whose alternate name is Carolina, bipedal beavers build a dam near Niagara Falls, and humans are sacrificed at a “Grand Temple of Mexico.” What a land.

“Fabulous Journeys and Faraway Places: Travels on Paper, 1450-1700” is on view in the National Gallery of Art’s West Building from May 6 to Sept. 16. For more information, visit www.nga.gov.

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