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Journal Archives

The travel guides that charted our world

Checking a navigation mobile app to quickly establish how to get from point A to point B has become second nature to us. Measured in megabytes, the world now fits in our pockets. It is quite astonishing, then, to see first-hand that only a few centuries ago geographical knowledge was yet to be fully charted, and how religious beliefs and fear of the unknown co-existed with burgeoning scientific know-how.

“Look here,” said Mattea Gazzola as her gloved hand pointed to the 570-year-old planisfero (a planisphere, or spherical world map) in front of us. “To the east is the Biblical Paradise depicted as a walled town dotted with towers. To the south is an unbearably hot impassable desert, and to the north lies another desert uninhabited due to extreme cold. In the centre of the world is Jerusalem.”

This world map, which dates to 1448 and was authored on parchment by Venetian cartographer Giovanni Leardo, is both beautiful and intriguing. Combining Ptolemy’s geocentric model (the idea that the Earth is at the centre of the Solar System), Christian beliefs, pagan symbols, Arabic geographical theories and scientific formulas, it represents the continents as they were then-known by Europeans, surrounded by a big ocean. Six concentric circles drawn around the world and filled in with tiny, neat numbers and letters allow the user to calculate when Easter takes place, the months of the year and the phases of the moon.

The Italian word ‘planisfero’ comes from the Latin planus (flat) and sphaera (sphere), and there are only three known of these world maps hand drawn and signed by Leardo. The oldest one (1442) is held at the Biblioteca Comunale in Verona; the newest (1452) is kept by the American Geographical Society Library; and the middle one (1448) takes pride of place in the collection of the Biblioteca Civica Bertoliana in Vicenza, a smaller Italian city sandwiched between Venice and Verona.

Recommended reading - Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe
by Laurence Bergreen. This book contains detailed research about Magellan's voyage including portions of Antonio Pigafetta firsthand account.

Tinkerbell got his wings adjusted

Airline bosses today renewed calls for a two-drink limit at airports after a drunken passenger dressed as Tinkerbell was removed from a Ryanair flight by armed police.

The traveller - and a companion dressed as Bob the Builder - were removed from a plane due to take off from Stansted airport to Krakow in Poland on Friday.

Dan May, who was a passenger on the flight, claims "one officer has adjusted the man's wings" before arresting him, whilst "Bob the Builder has been exceptionally well behaved."


Mr May also wrote on Twitter: "Our flight to Krakow hasn't taken off yet because a man dressed as Tinkerbell has threatened to cut everyone up.

Aircraft sales to hit $6.3tn on China trade

China will pass the US as the biggest air travel market within 10-15 years, driving a big rise in aircraft sales, the world's largest jet maker says.

Boeing's latest global industry report predicts airlines will need 42,700 aircraft over the next 20 years, up 3% on last year's forecast.

Boeing valued the sales at $6.3 trillion (£4.8tn) at today's prices.

The closely-watched report was unveiled on day two of the Farnborough Airshow, where more orders were announced.

Why your next flight may go via China

Booking a flight from London to Sydney can paint a telling picture of the big change in global air travel in recent years.

It is the same if you are looking to fly from Bangkok to Los Angeles. Or from Singapore to New York.

In all three cases, the cheapest tickets these days are often offered by a Chinese airline.

Take the London to Sydney route. Using one of the best-known flight-finder websites to search for a ticket to fly out and back on two dates picked at random - 30 October and 12 November - the cheapest available, at the time of writing, was quoted by China Southern Airlines.

Putin set to attend Austrian foreign minister's wedding

Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday - but not before attending nuptials in Austria first.

A Kremlin spokesman confirmed earlier this week that that Mr Putin would be a surprise guest at the wedding of the Austrian foreign minister.

Karin Kneissl is said to marrying businessman Wolfgang Meilinger at a vineyard in Austria's Styria state.

Mr Putin was invited during a visit to Austria earlier this year.

The people on Trump's list aren't enemies, they are witnesses


You want to know what these people have in common? With the sole exception of Bruce Ohr, they’ve all been questioned by either the House or Senate Intelligence committees, and most of them have testified before the grand jury in Washington D.C. empaneled by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. In other words, they are all witnesses in the investigation of the Trump campaign’s contacts with elements of the Russian government during and after the election of 2016.

Austrian allies are freezing out their intelligence service

VIENNA — The raids came without warning, surprising even the intelligence operatives whose job is to never be caught off guard.

On the morning of Feb. 28, police stormed offices of Austria’s main domestic intelligence agency and carted off some of the nation’s most sensitive secrets in open crates and plastic bags. Top spy service officials working from home that day were greeted by officers threatening to break down their doors.

The extraordinary decision to target the agency responsible for defending the country from a multitude of threats, including right-wing extremism, had been made by the service’s new bosses: members of the far-right Freedom Party.


The Freedom Party came to power in Austria at the end of last year as the junior partner in a coalition with the center-right. The party was founded by former SS officers in the 1950s, and has ridden anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric to new heights of popularity in recent years. Some of its members have been revealed to share a nostalgia for Hitler’s Third Reich.

How the First Foreign-Born First Lady Tackled Her Critics

When John Quincy Adams fell for the woman who would become his wife, his mother worried about the effect it might have on his political dreams, while the future bride’s American ex-pat father worried that Yankees made poor husbands. Louisa Catherine Johnson, as she was then known, was young, charming and a wonderful hostess—but she was also British-born, to a British mother.

Despite the warnings, the two were married in the United Kingdom, and the American papers made their position clear—as the Boston Independent Chronicle declared on September 14, 1797, “Young John Adams’ Negotiations have terminated in a Marriage Treaty with an English lady…”

As Adams’ mother had foreseen, Louisa Adams was forced to spend much of her husband’s time in office defending not just their union, but also her loyalty to the Union. She and Adams lived overseas for years before returning to the United States in 1801, after the birth of her first son. Louisa Adams did not step foot on American soil before her 26th birthday—the same age as the second foreign-born first lady, Melania Trump, when she came to the United States nearly 200 years later.

Louisa Adams was sophisticated and urbane, and spoke French as though it were her mother tongue. At first, Adams struggled to adjust to her new home, finding the Adams family home in Massachusetts provincial and boorish: eventually, however, she grew to love the United States.

Lumpy, 3,000-Year-Old Cheese Recovered From Egyptian Tomb

For almost as long as people have kept cows, sheep or goats, they’ve made cheese out of their milk. The ancient Egyptians were no exception, making solid cheese to supplement their already hearty diet of beer, bread, onions and lentils. Archaeologists working on the ancient tomb of Ptahmes, dated to the 13th century BC, recently came face to face with a sample of Egyptian cheese, which they claim could be the oldest sample of solid cheese ever found.

In a study published in the journal Analytical Chemistry, scientists described their discovery from the vast tomb, which was first unearthed many decades earlier, in 1885. After most of its treasures were looted by European excavators, eventually finding their way into museums many thousands of miles away, the tomb itself was lost beneath drifting desert sands. No one had recorded its location, perhaps fearing competition—so its rediscovery in 2010 shocked and delighted the archaeological world.

A few years later, researchers came across broken jars at the site. Among these shards of pottery, they found a solidified, lumpy whitish mass alongside canvas fabric. But it wasn’t entirely clear what they’d come across before chemists, including Enrico Greco, who authored the study, began to analyze the substance. After dissolving a sample and extracting the protein constituents, they realized they had found the rudimentary remains of a hunk of cheese, once wrapped in canvas fabric and preserved in the earthenware jar.

At 3,300 years old, whether this is actually the world’s oldest cheese depends a little on your definition of cheese. In 2014, researchers found “cheese” buried with female mummies in Xinjiang, China, dating to 3,800 years old. Unlike this sample, however, it was kefir cheese—a liquid dairy product that is traditionally drunk, rather than eaten.

The rare blue Mayans invented

In 17th Century Europe, when Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and Peter Paul Rubens painted their famous masterworks, ultramarine blue pigment made from the semi-precious lapis lazuli stone was mined far away in Afghanistan and cost more than its weight in gold. Only the most illustrious painters were allowed to use the costly material, while lesser artists were forced to use duller colours that faded under the sun. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution in the 19th Century that a synthetic alternative was invented, and true ultramarine blue finally became widely available.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, colonial Baroque works created by artists like José Juárez, Baltasar de Echave Ibia and Cristóbal de Villalpando in early 17th Century Mexico – New Spain – were full of this beautiful blue. How could this be? Lapis lazuli was even rarer in the New World. It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th Century that archaeologists discovered the Maya had invented a resilient and brilliant blue, centuries before their land was colonised and their resources exploited.

The ultramarine blue procured from lapis lazuli in Europe was not only incredibly expensive, but also extremely laborious to make. In Europe, blue was reserved for the most important subject matter. Rubens' Adoration of the Magi – the version that hangs in the Museo del Prado in Madrid and which he worked on for over 20 years – is an example. The colour was primarily used to paint the robes of the Virgin Mary, and later extended to include other royalty and holy figures. In Mexico, on the other hand, blue was used to paint altogether less holy and everyday subjects.

Archaeologists studying pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican ruins were surprised by the discovery of blue murals in the Maya Riviera, modern day Mexico and Guatemala, from as early as 300 AD, perhaps the most famous being the murals at the temple of Chichén Itzá (created around 450 AD). The colour had a special ceremonial significance for the Maya. They covered sacrificial victims and the altars on which they were offered in a brilliant blue paint, writes Diego de Landa Calderón, a bishop in colonial Mexico during the 16th Century, in his first-hand account.
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