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Journeying into Insulae Indiae Orientalis

Exploring maps can be an adventure, complete with its own discoveries.

Dealing with maps has become such a staple of contemporary digital life. We don’t even think twice anymore about loading up Google Maps to find the latest trendy speakeasy or beach escape du jour. But the appreciation of antique cartography, well, that’s an entirely different affair.

Perusing maps older than Philippine independence, studying prints that portray as much about the cultural and artistic mindset of their times as they do about the lands they detail—there’s a sense of discovery there that is greater than simply noting the distance between point A and point B. That spirit of exploration into the past and into culture is what drives cartography enthusiasts, and that same spirit was what I and close to a hundred other people from all over the world glimpsed at the Ayala Museum in Makati last October 2018.

“There are people interested in geography, in cartography, in prints, in maps, because they see the same thing that caught me up in the map world: namely, the multiple sciences that you have in one print,” explains Rudolf J. H. Lietz, the organizer and curator of Indiae Insulae Orientalis: a special map collection and appreciation symposium with an emphasis on the Philippines, presented by the Ayala Museum and Lietz’s Gallery of Prints, with support from the International Map Collectors’ Society (IMCoS)and the Philippine Map Collectors Society (PHIMCOS)

While Insulae Indiae Orientalis was the 36th official IMCoS symposium, it also was the first of its kind in two important ways. “Normally what would happen [at an IMCoS symposium] is that speakers would project images of what they’re talking about on the wall, usually they are either from private collections somewhere or museums or libraries worldwide. So, in order to see the originals, you would still have to travel,” Lietz points out. “This time, no need to travel, everything was right here. This is what I felt was needed to familiarize those who were not familiar with Philippine cartography.”

Lietz was right: there was an undeniable sense of awe and wonder in the exhibit rooms where the antique maps and prints were on display. You could see every detail up close, delivering an emotional impact that no high-resolution scan could ever hope to achieve. All the maps that the eleven speakers of Insulae Indiae Orientalis spoke about in their lectures were showcased, including the famous Murillo Velarde maps, three of which were together in one location for the first time in centuries.

Fortunately, for the curious-and-unable-to-attend, Lietz and his Gallery of Prints have you covered: they’ve compiled all the speakers’ lectures and their relevant visuals into the symposium’s own eponymous commemorative catalog that’s available for sale to the public. While some content had to be abridged due to space constraints, all the core ideas have been preserved: not only a generous gesture for anyone who would have loved to attend the symposium in its entirety, but also a brilliant one in terms of documentation, accessibility, and style.

The catalog’s introduction features a quote from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, one that sums up the passion and optimism that Lietz and other cartography enthusiasts share: “I am told that there are people who do not care for maps and I find it hard to believe.” After having seen the maps of Insulae Indiae Orientalis personally, I’m inclined to agree as well.