The Globe Museum, Vienna: One place, many worlds

If there's something the compulsive traveller has to love, it's maps.

I'm not talking about those pixelated maps on your smartphone, either. Useful as they are, they have nothing of the romance of crinkly old dog-eared paper maps, with their hint of secrets to be decoded. 

Just as thrilling are globes, representations of our planet which can be touched and spun, while daydreaming of placing a random pin and travelling to wherever it might land.

So my new cartographic hero is Vincenzo Coronelli. The work of this 17th century Venetian map-making superstar is the first thing you see upon entering Vienna's Globe Museum, a boutique institution owned by Austria's National Library.

First up is a pair created by Coronelli in 1693. In those days globes were made by hand, and always in twos – one a terrestrial globe, the other a celestial globe depicting the heavens. 

They functioned not only as practical objects but as art, lavishly illustrated with people and animals as well as coastlines.

Where Coronelli was short of hard scientific facts, he let his imagination run wild. According to the captions, the terrestrial globe of this set includes fanciful images of natives eating human flesh in the Americas.

Coronelli went on to create ever-bigger globes in a kind of arms race of cartographic prestige: a pair each 1.75 metres in diameter for the Duke of Parma was followed by a gigantic pair each 3.75 metres in diameter for the Sun King himself, Louis XIV.

But size isn't everything here in the museum: its glass cases are filled with globes of all dimensions. A beautiful 68-centimetre celestial globe by a 1645 Dutch cartographer sits within a four-poster timber frame. On its surface I can see the Great Bear, a loping dog and the lion Leo marching toward plump Gemini twins.

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There's something intriguing about the celestial globes. Less useful than terrestrial globes and more given to flights of artistic fancy involving constellations, they have the sense of a bestiary about them: something alchemical or magical.

By the 20th century, however, globes could be manufactured on a mass scale for middle-class homes, and the use of celestial globes fell away.

From here I step through a hall whose ceiling is decorated with lavish paintings of classical scenes – this is Vienna, after all – to examine equipment once used for scientific purposes. 

There are armillary spheres and orreries in brass, as well as something new to me: the tellurium, a model lit by a central candle which demonstrated the Earth's passage around the Sun. 

Further on, past novelty globes which were intended to be inflated or hung on Christmas trees, are those which only became practical in the era of space travel: representations of the Moon and Mars. 

According to the captions, lunar globes are seldom manufactured nowadays – but I remember owning one as a kid, when Moon missions were still a recent memory.

Given the excitement caused by the recent fly-by of Pluto by the New Horizons probe, perhaps there will soon be a new globe added to the collection. Though that's a destination I'm unlikely ever to visit, no matter how many frequent flyer points I earn.

The Globe Museum is open 10am-6pm daily at the Palais Mollard, Herrengasse 9, Vienna, www.onb.ac.at. Admission €4 (includes Globe, Esperanto and Papyrus Museums).

The writer was a guest of the Austrian National Tourist Office.

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