A few months ago, I developed a big-time crush on a sailor. We’re very different, he and I. Language, an ocean, spouses, and six centuries separate us.
His name is Michalli da Ruodo, or Michael of Rhodes. He sailed for Venice in the days when her merchants controlled a commercial empire envied from London to Constantinople. My mind’s eye has conjured a man who looks like Federico Castelluccio, complete with the ponytail and sideburns he sported in The Sopranos, and I imagine he behaves like Russell Crowe’s Jack Aubrey in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.
After reading Michael’s service record, I’ve decided that he’s brave, strong, and loyal. He’s definitely clever and ambitious. He wrote a book about mathematics and shipbuilding, no subjects for slouches. And his wit is mordant. Mind you, my only evidence for Michael’s sense of humor is an amateurish coat of arms he drew in his book. It shows two crowned turnips flanking a rat holding a bloodied cat. Now, I wonder, does the rat represent him, and is the cat a stand-in for the Venetians he served, possibly with resentment?
I met my centuries-old flame in The Book of Michael of Rhodes: A Fifteenth-Century Maritime Manuscript, a three-volume work released recently by MIT Press. It is the culmination of work begun in 2002 when Michael’s manuscript, which is privately held, was made available for study to the now dissolved Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology. MIT has meticulously recreated Michael’s manuscript in one volume; the second and third volumes include a transcription of the medieval Venetian, a translation, and a collection of essays put together by an international team of experts in Venetian history, shipbuilding and design, navigation, mathematics, medieval astrology and medicine, art history, and paleography.
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