The symbol of the fool or joker, or the court jester, inspired the figure of the Joker in the card decks, but also many other images. One in particular, called Fool’s Cap Map of the World, arouses curiosity, because it remains a mystery to historians and cartographers: we do not know where, why and by whom it was made.
In fact, who created the map is still a mystery. One of the names on this cartouche may be the illustrator’s, however, the identity of the mapmaker is another unsolved mystery. In the left-hand corner, the name Orontius Fineus is inscribed, which is Latinized for Oronce Finé, a French mathematician and cartographer. Some claim Finé to be the illustrator, but he died at the age of 50 in 1555, before the map has been estimated to be published.
Many scholars believe that the mapmaker was Epicthonius Cosmopolites, whose name is mentioned in the left-hand cartouche: “Democritus laughed at it, Heraclitus wept over it and Epicthonius Cosmopolites portrayed it.” Still, very little concrete information has been found.
The only detail that can be understood with some confidence is that it dates back to around 1580/1590. The map shows the world dressed with the traditional dress of a court jester, the face is hidden (or replaced) by the map, a detail that makes the image vaguely disturbing, even if anachronistically modern.
The archetype of the Fool, in his incarnation as a court buffoon, is the first indicator of the deeper meaning of the map.
In earlier times, the king’s jesters were the only people allowed to mock “his Grace”, and tell the truth about established power, a kind of correction to the absolutism of the monarchy. But criticisms of this kind were accepted only if balanced by the grotesque figure of the Fool, preferably a hunchback, or a dwarf, that is to say someone who could not be taken too seriously by the inhabitants of the court.
Toward the end of the 16th century, everyone who saw this map knew very well the kind of mechanism that allowed the Fool to tell his truth. In this case it is the map that tells an uncomfortable truth: the world is a dark, irrational and dangerous place; life on it is unpleasant, brutal and short. So…the world is literally a senseless place.
To underline these concepts there are the maxims of classical and biblical origin, scattered throughout the map, which complain about the vanity of the world and the folly of those who love it. The shoulder belt’s medallions include various proverbs, including “Oh, the worries of the world.” The staff, or bauble, says “Vanitas, vanitatum et omina vanitas,” which is Latin for “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”, and one of the medallions of the shoulder belt says “oh, the worries of the world.” The quote on the bottom of the map, from Ecclesiastes, sums up the message of the map: “The number of fools is infinite.”
For some researchers, the complex of these maxims, as well as their presentation in a cartographic environment, suggests a little known Christian sect called “the Love Family”, which included (it seems) among its followers also the Flemish cartographer Ortelius. If we consider the quotations on the map, the Family of Love must have embraced a rather gloomy and pessimistic view of the world, and the role of humanity in it.
Another theory interprets the map as a criticism, always impersonated by the figure of the Fool, to the inaccuracies of the geographical maps of the time, which at that time were also altered for political ends.
“One way of reading the image would suggest that all seemingly universal truths, all apparently trustworthy knowledge or authoritative maps, are partial and untrustworthy in that they conceal a hidden social ordering,” writes David Turnbull in the book Masons, Tricksters and Cartographers.