The science of cartography, alleges the ancient Greek philosopher Strabo in his passionate defence of poetic licence against the rigid logic of geometry, must seek to portray to human eyes the unknown world hidden under “the vault of heaven.” Mapping is a skill governed by the principles of fact collection and data manipulation, a condensation of physical reality into the vaporous realm of narration. No map is a territory, but neither can a place become a well-defined territory without first having been written down on a chart. Still maps, like poems and fiction writing, are hard to translate, for their measured pace is charged with possibilities. Charts drafted for one purpose may be used for another, and reading them is always a balancing act between reason and imagination. Strabo saw the art of geography (or the description of the Earth) to be a link between terrestial matters and their celestial readings, with maps being a kind of narrative passage that moves from the realm of fiction into the province of human knowledge. Maps are stories, extensions of our mind into the universe shaped by forces of mythological proportions. By drawing maps, believes Strabo, cartographers lay out the work of gods. At the same time, by testing the limits of imagination, cartographical narratives illuminate the potentials of the creative mind. In the end, concludes the philosopher, literature and cartography are different sides of the same coin, both involving “the theory which lies in the fields of history and myths.” Following this rationale, Strabo anoints Homer as the supreme commander and patron saint of mapmaking. Hence, with the voice and wisdom of Homer, the utility of geography, with its regards to the knowledge “both of the heavens and of things on land and sea,” presupposes the mapmaker to be same as the poet who busies himself “with the investigation of the art of life, that is, of happiness.” Sung as myths, Homer’s maps are reflections of the inner – poetic – rendition of the world, and the wisest heros are always the ones who “have seen the cities and known the minds of many men.” In the same belief that all the world is but a playground to imagination, William Shakespeare called his theater The Globe. Correspondingly, Abraham Ortelius, in 1570, titled his atlas of the world, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, or Theater of the World. Centuries later, Milan Kundera sums up the task of writer as as that of a clairvoyant mind reader, drawing up the map of existence by discovering unrealized possibilities of the world.
The literature of Vilnius is extremely diffused, both linguistically and spatially, which creates a fractured and fragmented sense of the place. This narrative segmentation echoes the geo-cultural dispersal and national divisions of the city, making reading (and writing) Vilnius a perpetual act of translation. Putting Vilnius literature on the map is another form of translation; but while linguistic translations require breaking cultural codes and crossing boundaries, mapping, potentially, makes entering into separate and unique narrative worlds an experiment in building a cohesive yet kaleidoscopic picture-world of the place. Our project is an attempt to explore not only questions of the interaction between spatial imagination and literary narratives, but also seeks to validate geography and, especially, the visual principles of cartography, as an invaluable technique – the art of science – in rendering literature into the life of the city. Strabo compares Homer’s gift in drawing fiction out of geographical facts to the skill of a jeweller who “overlays gold upon silver.” The literary cartography of Vilnius follows suit by placing make believe worlds of the place onto the schematic chart of its changing physical reality.
Joan Blaeu, the illustrious Dutch mapmaker of the magisterial Baroque era atlas of the world, asks his readers to “set eyes on far-off places without so much leaving home.” Our goal is different, for we see literature mapping not as armchair journey through a fictitious geography of Vilnius but as an invitation to walk the city with the eyes of a stranger. Still, we appeal to the sympathy of the spectator with a concluding remark made by Blaeu: “Benevolent Reader, take pleasure in our labors and whenever something is lacking in either map or description, bear in mind that a mistake is easily made when describing a place one has never seen and that forgiveness is nowhere more appropriate than here. It would be wonderful indeed if any man knew everything about humanity. Farewell.”