In The Art of the Map: An Illustrated History of Map Elements and Embellishments (Sterling), retired history professor Dennis Reinhartz explores the design elements at the margins of western maps from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. It is both a lavishly illustrated book and a close interrogation of the design elements used by western cartographers during the period in question.
From compass roses to cartouches, to sea monsters in the oceans and people and animals in the margins, these elements were used to fill up the otherwise empty corners of a map (of which there were many in this period), set the tone for the map, or otherwise provide information. Most of these elements are gone today (most: National Geographic still makes use of insets and commentaries). Even most fantasy maps, which ape in many ways the maps of this period, may have little more than a cartouche and a compass rose, and are spare in comparison to their historical kin.
Reinhartz organizes his book by elements: ships, sea monsters, plants, animals and people all get their own chapter. With what seems to be a rather small sample of maps, he often returns to the same, familiar maps to discuss a different element. But because The Art of the Map spans more than 300 years, we are not looking at a specific style or usage: the differences between a 16th-century portolan chart and a 19th-century bird’s-eye map of a city are quite substantial.
This book does not make a specific, scholarly argument about these map elements; it’s an appreciation of them, illuminating their essential character by repetitive example. But its intense examination of antique maps’ marginal elements may well open your eyes to, and appreciate, parts of the map that, as present-day readers with present-day map-reading habits, you may well have glossed over.
Just found out about Chet Van Duzer’s Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps, a new book out this month from British Library Publishing, which explores the monsters drawn on maps from the 10th to the 16th century. From the publisher:
The sea monsters on medieval and Renaissance maps, whether swimming vigorously, gambolling amid the waves, attacking ships, or simply displaying themselves for our appreciation, are one of the most visually engaging elements on these maps, and yet they have never been carefully studied. The subject is important not only in the history of cartography, art, and zoological illustration, but also in the history of the geography of the ‘marvellous’ and of western conceptions of the ocean. Moreover, the sea monsters depicted on maps can supply important insights into the sources, influences, and methods of the cartographers who drew or painted them.
I may have to get this.
During The Map Room’s existence I frequently reported on Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 map of the world, notable because it was the first with the name “America” on it. Dubbed, as a result, “America’s birth certificate,” the last known copy of the large, 12-section map is now on display at the Library of Congress, which paid $10 million for it.
But Waldseemüller also produced small gores, which are used to construct globes; these ones would have been about four inches across. Four of these gores were known to exist, but yesterday Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München announced that they had accidently turned up a fifth copy in their library collection. It differs from the other gores; they believe it to be from a later edition. It can be viewed online here. BBC News coverage. Thanks to Drew for the tip.
If you’re interested in the Waldseemüller map, you’ll want to read The Fourth Part of the World by Toby Lester. I reviewed it in December 2009.
A patch on a 16th-century map may suggest what happened to the lost colony of Roanoke. The map in question is the 1585 Virginea Pars map by John White. Based on the patch, which hides a symbol indicating a fort, researchers argue that the settlers may have moved westward and inland. AP coverage: ArtDaily, CBC, Washington Post. Via io9.
“In the 18th and 19th centuries, children were taught geography by making their own maps, usually copies of maps available to them in books and atlases at their schools or homes,” says a David Rumsey Collection post from January 2010 that is for some reason drawing attention right now. “These old maps made by children were hand drawn and colored, one-of-a-kind productions, and it is amazing that any have survived down to our time. That they have is due to luck and the efforts of families to preserve the history of their children.” Anyone interested in hand-drawn maps will like these; for my part I can’t get over the similarity in style between these maps and later fantasy maps. Via io9 and MetaFilter.
Ars Technica calls Old Maps Online “the world’s single largest online collection of historical maps” but that’s not strictly the case. When I first read that I thought: what, bigger than Rumsey? Rumsey has 30,000 maps; Old Maps Online has 60,000. But Old Maps Online is a portal, not a collection: it has a damn slick timeline-and-map interface that brings up maps from the online collections of five institutions (so far), including the British Library, the National Library of Scotland, and yes, the David Rumsey Map Collection. At first glance it seems like a good place to start if you’re looking for a map of a specific time and place (as I have done on many occasions), and if they add more institutions to their database it will be even more useful.
I’ve encountered plenty of claims for something to be the “world’s oldest map” (most of which depend on how broad or narrow your definition of “map” is). One I wasn’t aware of until recently is this Mesopotamian map on a cuneiform tablet, which dates from between 700 and 500 BC, currently held by the British Museum. “The map is sometimes taken as a serious example of ancient geography, but although the places are shown in their approximately correct positions, the real purpose of the map is to explain the Babylonian view of the mythological world.” More at Visual Complexity. Via Cartophile.
For other claims to the world’s oldest map, see the following Map Room entries: Engraved Rock Is 14,000-Year-Old Map: Researchers; Candidates for the World’s Oldest Map; The Other World’s Oldest Map; The Western World’s Oldest Map.
Update, Feb. 20: John Padula points to this reconstruction.