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Giovanni De Agostini JrWhen he was six-years-old, Italian cartographer Giovanni De Agostini Jr.’s birthday wish was neither for a miniature car or any sort of toy. Instead, he asked for a book about geography, history and science.
Every child has his or her right to be enthusiastic about the where’s and why’s of the world. But De Agostini’s birthday wish made even greater sense when placed in the context of his family.
The name De Agostini has established itself in the art of cartography and geography since the early 20th century thanks to the senior Giovanni De Agostini, who contributed greatly to the development of mapmaking in Italy.
At a time when the country was mostly still dependent on foreign-made maps, after graduating from a university in Turin, Northern Italy, De Agostini Sr. went to Germany to learn German cartographic techniques. He worked as an intern in a geography institution called de Kieppert, which is known for its mapping of Asia Minor and the
He proceeded to find the first private Geographic Institute, Istituto Geografico De Agostini, in Rome in 1901. In 1904, Calendario Atlante De Agostini, which combined a pocket calendar with a geographical overview of the world, was published.
De Agostini Sr. died in 1941.
His brother, Alberto Maria De Agostini, had been an explorer and missionary of the Salesian order. According to the tourism website patagonia-argentina.com, Father De Agostini served as a missionary in Tierra Del Fuego — the archipelago in the southernmost part of South America.
The father was also keen on photography and filmmaking, and he was said to produce two documentaries: Tierra del Fuego and Tierras Magallanicas, in his lifetime. He died in 1960.
The multi-talented grand uncle, who would tell his adventures in Patagonia when he returned to Italy, became De Agostini Jr’s childhood idol.
De Agostini Sr.’s son and De Agostini Jr.’s father, Federico De Agostini, began working in the family’s company in 1927. He worked in various places, such as Central America and Arab countries, and among his achievements were the encyclopedias Imago Mundi, which tell of the world’s nations.
De Agostini Jr. remembers his childhood fondly, which was imbued with maps and knowledge. His memories include that of professors coming to his family’s house to have discussions with his father, and him being available to witness the discussions because his other siblings were too small.
Speaking through a translator, he told the Post during his recent visit to Jakarta of a game involving maps he used to play with his father. One of them would mention the name of a region, and the other would have to point out the location of that region on the map.
The game, he said, was one of the reasons why he took up the family tradition, despite the task not being an obligatory one.
One of his younger siblings, for example, delved into the world of cartography for around five years before deciding to do something else. De Agostini Jr. himself was at first interested in various subjects including paleontology, before eventually settling on geography, cartography, history and geology.
His visit to Jakarta had been mainly for the purpose of his exhibition on a series of maps, telling the history of Islam. The maps, which follow the spread of the religion from the time of the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century, were displayed in the National Museum, Central Jakarta, until last weekend.
According to him, the making of that project had been itself a long and adventurous journey, beginning in 1965.
“For 14 years I looked in all universities in Arab countries. In Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, Kuwait, also in universities in Europe, Bonn, Paris, London and Madrid. To look at as many documents as possible to understand this fascinating world,” De Agostini Jr. said.
In fact, it was such an enduring journey that it saw his skill in speaking Arabic decrease to the point that he is now only capable of reading the numbers.
To those who are curious about the reasons why he, a non-Muslim Italian, decided to take up the project, De Agostini Jr. cited the value of the science and knowledge given by the Islamic civilization to the world.
He added that human beings should look back and find similarities in history instead of their differences.
History of Islam is merely one area of De Agostini Jr.’s work. His other projects include a map of Zambia, which required him to stay in the region for five years. His plan for the upcoming year is to hold an exhibition on the history of cartography.
The world of maps has certainly changed since the days of his grandfather, whose production of intricate and artistic maps involved equipment such as copper and stone. Recent developments include the widespread usage Google Maps and Global Positioning System (GPS) equipment.
Despite using both, De Agostini Jr. has his own opinions about their value. His usage of Google Maps, for example, is usually limited to “first aid” purposes, thus he considers the device as more as a photograph.
As for GPS equipment, he said that he prefers usual maps, because at times he feels he knows the area better than the equipment, despite it telling him to take a certain direction to arrive at his destination quicker.
Developments in the science of cartography fail to please De Agostini Jr. at times. He cited a map of Siracusa, Italy, as an example.
“There was an old railway that was not used anymore, but the satellite photo captured it. The person making the map did not make a newer [depiction of the area], but focused on the old one because that was what was seen in the satellite photos. The person mapped the old [railway] because he or she did not understand cartography,” he said through a translator.
The science has developed immensely in terms of techniques yet has regressed in terms of professionalism, he said.
Nevertheless, De Agostini Jr.’s passion for the science remains. True evidence can be found in his reply when asked whether there was a secret mapmaking skill that his family kept to itself.
“The secret is the love for geography,” he said.