Island almanacs from the past: Giorgos Tolias charts visual record

Nothing in modern geography follows on the island studies known in Latin as insularium. Beginning in the Renaissance and continuing for the next few centuries, fine artists, cartographers and travelers all used to compose beautiful representations, the purpose of which was to «narrate» the physiognomy of the islands. For their time, they were maps, but in the sense of a primitive atlas, which included details that were not strictly geographical. Like a cartographic encyclopaedia, a rudimentary but ambitious almanac, they supply today’s researcher with information about geography, history, aesthetics, human geography, and politics. Competition The historian Giorgos Tolias, fascinated by the complex science of cartography, has conducted methodical research into the nature and peculiarities of island studies. This led him to write an extended analysis of the history behind island studies, including a discussion of the competition for control of the seas in the eastern Mediterranean. Tolias’s book, «Ta Nisologia. I monaxia kai i syntrofia ton nision» [Island studies. The lonliness and company of islands], was published this year by Olkos and edited by Spyros Asdrachos. His selection of 10 island studies by the leading craftsmen of their day is a pure pleasure even for the most uninformed reader. The Greek islands of the Ionian and Aegean seas, Crete and Cyprus (which have been chosen for this book) were the field in which the competition between the Venetians and the Ottomans took place. They were mapped by both, resulting in different approaches, as we see from the island studies presented by Giorgos Tolias. They are subjective (according to the priorities of each author) and, for this reason, incredibly exciting. With an ancient origin «in the epics of Homer and Virgil and in the geographical literature which arose from these,» the island studies of the 16th and 17th centuries (the high point) shine a light on the microcosms of the Greek islands, yet in a way that is encyclopaedic and not geographical. They note the crops, military campaigns, fortifications and placenames. Emphasis was given in accordance with the importance attached by the artist-cartographer and his aims. The varying representations in the island studies inevitably lead to analogous interpretations, each one focusing on a different function. Giorgos Tolias touches upon some of these: atlases, travel writing, Turkish-Venetian competition, Renaissance eccentricity and primitive travel guides. However one chooses to see these island studies, one will certainly find it difficult to isolate any one of these aspects in particular. Island studies were all these things, and more – a synthesis of all these elements in a true and historically informed typology of creative expression with a practical application. Florence and Venice cultivated this form with a passion. The island studies which they produced functioned, beyond their artistic value, as extensions of the paradoxical world of the antiquarian, with its roots in the Middle Ages. By both broadening and strengthening the use of quotations and fragments, upon which knowledge was based in the pre-Renaissance era, the island studies hint at an attempt at systematization and, by extension, a move toward modernity. This is the art and the knowledge of the intermediary period, and this is why it grew and spread during the centuries which saw the birth of curiosity (often with giant leaps). With Giorgos Tolias as our guide through the mysteries of this art/science, we learn that the early Florentine humanism of the 15th century combined the older geographical tradition (which saw the islands as distinct units) with the modernist climate of the new era. Great artists, such as Buondelmonti, produced wonderful examples of island studies, as did the Ottoman Piri Reis, Bartolomeo dalli Sonetti, and Antonio Milo a little later – all of whom were sailors. This book can be read either as an academic study or just out of general interest. It fits in perfectly with the publisher Olkos’s tradition of travel studies. A few years ago they published the classic volume «Maps and Cartographers of the Aegean.» In a sense, this was the origin of the island studies that followed.