“Did you come to see the map?”
Actually, until the moment he asked us that question, we hadn’t been aware of the existence of this particular map. Truth be told, it hadn’t been all that long that we’d even been aware of the existence of the Hispanic Society of America in New York City, which is where we were.
But when the librarian there asked us that question, Sally and I exchanged a quick glance and then responded, “Yes, please.”
The real reason we had taken the subway up to the Washington Heights neighborhood on the northern end of Manhattan was to see some large-format paintings by the Spanish artist Joaquin Sorolla. Somehow I had stumbled onto the information that the Hispanic Society had commissioned Sorolla to produce these works early in the twentieth century. We like Sorolla’s paintings, so we thought we’d go check them out.
By the way, the Hispanic Society of America was the brainchild, if that’s the word, of a man named Archer Huntington, the heir to a railroad fortune. He had envisioned this project as a museum and reference library devoted to the arts and culture of Spain, Portugal and Latin America.
“All right, if you’ll follow me,” the librarian said, and took us into a reading room. It was occupied by two or three researchers sitting at wooden tables; they were studying historical documents and stealing an occasional glance at us, trying to figure out, I suppose, what the heck these two tourists were doing there.
The librarian indicated where we should stand. He then raised a cloth curtain that was protecting the map. One thing we could tell right away was that the map was very, very old.
In fact, it had been made in 1526 by Juan Vespucci, the nephew of Amerigo Vespucci, and depicted the known world at a time when a lot of the world still wasn’t known. For instance, North America (Amerigo’s namesake), ended at about the Mississippi River, and Vespucci had depicted a giant Spanish galleon in the middle of an imaginary ocean which we now know is the left side of the South American continent.
Still, it was pretty cool to be standing in front of a map that is almost five hundred years old. There’s a vivid splash of red in the map; I leaned in to see what it was. Evidently Vespucci was a cartographer with a sense of humor: the red streak was the Red Sea.
We took our time looking at the map, thanked the librarian, and wandered into other rooms. We found the Sorolla murals that had drawn us here, and all by themselves they would have been worth the trip from midtown up to Broadway and 155th.
But the Hispanic Society of America also has a gallery with paintings by Goya, El Greco, Diego Velázquez, Ribera, Francisco de Zurbarán and other notables. There were literally millions of dollars’ worth of paintings being displayed rather casually, I thought. But they probably aren’t at much risk, since it seems that hardly anyone knows they’re there.
That’s the fun of taking these little off-the-beaten-path adventures. They don’t always reward you, but sometimes — as in this case — you get lucky.