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Le MUCEM – here be dragons

Le MUCEM, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations, was opened on January 7, 2013 – the same year Marseille was designated as the European Capital of Culture. The museum contains both permanent and temporary exhibits, a bookstore, a theatre, a film centre, and a beautiful roof top patio with a small café and chairs for sunbathers. Two concrete footbridges connect it with nearby Fort Saint-Jean and Le Panier.

The distinctive architectural feature of the museum is the concrete latticework that covers it.

When we walked by the museum at night and saw it lit up with blue lights, as in the featured image of this post, it made me think of seaweed. I definitely had that impression again as I was going back through the photos I took when we visited.

It also occurred to me that the concrete is an effective windbreak, which is very appropriate as the museum sits facing the open ocean.

It’s fun to walk around the outside of the museum and take pictures of the harbour peeking through the latticework.

Neil and I really enjoyed the temporary exhibition on Seafaring Adventurers. I love old maps, stories of mythical sea creatures, and learning how seafarers met the challenges of world exploration.

The jaw of a prehistoric shark species, the fossil teeth mounted on resin, welcomes you to the exhibit. The carcarodon megalodon (megalodon is Greek for “big tooth”) lived approximately 23 to 2.5 million years ago.

An illustration of “The Vole”, shown below, is excerpted from André Thevet’s The Universal Cosmography, published in Paris, France in 1575.

The rostrum (beak) of a Sawfish was on display. Unlike the image pictured above, which incorporates a similar anatomical feature, a sawfish is smaller than the monster in the depiction, and it is flatter, sort of like a manta ray. This doesn’t make it any less terrifying. I’m with early sea explorers and storytellers – the ocean is full of nightmare fuel.

“Sea Monsters Surrounding a Ship” is attributed to Adriaen Collaert, from Anvers, Belgium, between 1594-1598.

The illustration of “Giant Crabs” below is excerpted from Théodore de Bry’s Small Voyages published in Frankfurt, Germany in 1598.

Below is a copper fish head made in India in the 18th century.

Next up, tools that helped voyagers find their way. I got lost trying to find a laundromat yesterday while I was using Google Maps, so directions are not my forté.

Below is a celestial globe from Iran, dated 1285-1286, made of heavy brass and silver. This is the sixth oldest surviving celestial globe!

A planispheric astrolabe from Yemen, 15th century, made of brass.

Sundial from Munich, Germany, 1582.

How to use a sundial, from a 16th century text.

Portuguese naval commander Dom Afonso of Albuquerque.

Fra Mauro, an Italian cartographer who lived in Venice, created the most detailed and accurate map of the world at that time, a copy of which is displayed below. The Fra Mauro Map is considered “the greatest memorial of medieval cartography.” It is large, measuring 2.4 metres by 2.4 metres. It contains hundreds of illustrations and over 3,000 descriptive texts. It marked the end of Bible-based geography in Europe and the beginning of a science-centred approach toward making maps, favouring accuracy over religious or traditional beliefs.

A nearby plaque reads that the map “was created between 1448 and 1459 at the demand of the King of Portugal. It is the synthesis of medieval cartography, and the knowledge of the world on the eve of major discoveries. At that time the very existence of America was still unknown.”

The map depicts an inverted view (from contemporary maps) of Asia, Africa, and Europe. Southern countries are at the top, northern countries at the bottom, western Europe is on the right, Asia is on the left.

The top left diagram shows a map of the solar system according to the Ptolemaic system. The top right diagram shows the four elements – earth, followed by water, fire and air. The bottom left is the Garden of Eden (more on that below). The bottom right shows the Earth as a globe with the North Pole, South Pole, the equator, and the two tropics.

This 2017 copy is beautiful to look at. I can’t even image how awe-inspiring the original (now sadly lost) would have been to see.

The Mediterranean Sea. Fun fact, Mediterranean is Latin for “Middle Land.” So the Mediterranean Sea is “the sea in the middle of the earth.”

Anglia Scoti, or England and Scotland. Because of the flipped image, England is shown at the top of the island and Scotland at the bottom.

From Norway to Russia.

In the corner is an image of God confronting Adam and Eve. “The terrestial paradise that one still thinks is real,” the plaque at the museum read. Fra Mauro notably placed the Garden of Eden outside of the world, rather than placing it in the far East as was the custom at the time.

The Nautical Planisphere by Andreas Homem, a Portuguese cartographer, created in Antwerp in 1559.

Neil and I loved this map because the American continent makes an appearance, but not much is known about it. The Amazon is shown as being extremely serpentine.

I liked the details of sea monsters and ships on the map.

Here be dragons. It was a medieval practice to put illustrations of sea monsters, dragons, and other mythological creatures on uncharted areas of maps.

I had heard of this practice before. It was really exciting to see it in person!

Below is a map of Venice in 1670 made by Piri Reis. It is excerpted from The Book of Navigation by Kitab-i bahriyye.

Le MUCEM was definitely a fun way to spend the afternoon, and really helped us connect with the history and culture of Marseille as a port city.

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2 Replies to “Le MUCEM – here be dragons”

  1. Don Grey says:

    Another gem, Leah. A fun and interesting read. If you keep this up through your wanders, we will all be way better educated about Europe, and owe you a word or two of thanks.

  2. Leah says:

    Thanks for reading, Don! I’m glad you are enjoying the posts. 🙂

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