Review: Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps

Chet Van Duzer’s Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps does what it says on the tin: you really will find out more than you ever wanted to about the sea monsters that appeared on medieval and renaissance maps. (Van Duzer defines them as anything that a contemporary reader would consider exotic, whether it was real or imaginary, so walruses appear along with krakens.) It’s a dizzying catalogue of them, all kinds of them, from medieval mappaemundi (actually, there’s a Roman map in there too) all the way to Ortelius and the late sixteenth century. By the seventeenth century sea monsters were giving way to sailing vessels, and to a loss of ornamentation and illustration in general.

But: sea monsters. What was up with them? For the most part this book gets lost in the weeds, focusing in detail on monster after monster, but Van Duzer does sketch out an argument in the introduction:

First, they may serve as graphic records of literature about sea monsters, indications of possible dangers to sailors — and datapoints in the geography of the marvellous. Second, they may function as decorative elements which enliven the image of the world, suggesting in a general way that the sea can be dangerous, but more emphatically indicating and drawing attention to the vitality of the oceans and the variety of creatures in the world, and to the cartographer’s artistic talents. Of course these two roles are compatible, and sea monsters can play both at the same time. (p. 11)

Van Duzer goes beyond the map in his discussion of sea monsters. For one thing, he points out the non-cartographic sources of sea monsters, such as works of natural history, and compares them to the monsters on the map. He also looks at the economics of sea monsters, which were embellishments that cost extra and may have required a specialist artist: “if the client commissioning the chart did not pay for sea monsters, he or she did not receive them” (p. 10).

For my part, it seems to me that sea monsters in renaissance maps are also holdovers of medieval iconography, sort of a cartographic appendix. Being a big-picture sort, I glazed over a bit at all the detail, but this sort of detail is exactly the sort of thing that illuminates the subject. Between this book and The Art of the Map (reviewed here), I’ve learned quite a bit about the margins and empty spaces of old maps lately.

Previously: Here Be Sea Monsters.

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Review: Here Be Dragons

Stefan Ekman’s Here Be Dragons (Wesleyan University Press, February 2013) is a book-length examination of the use of maps and settings in fantasy literature. Maps and settings. Which is to say that maps are not the sole focus of this work: mark that. There are four main chapters, only one of which deals with maps; the remaining three deal with the issue of borders and territories, the relationship between nature and culture in fantasy cities, and the relationship between ruler and realm. Taken as a whole, this book discusses the role of place in fantasy.

But I won’t be discussing that whole here: I am no literary scholar, and can’t say much of value about the chapters that do not discuss maps—nothing that would rise above the level of a last-minute undergraduate paper, anyway. But maps are something I can say something about, especially fantasy maps, since I myself have been paying attention to them over the past decade, first during my time blogging at The Map Room (see the [old] Imaginary Places category) and since then more sporadically, but with more focus, for my fantasy maps project.

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Review: The Art of the Map

In The Art of the Map: An Illustrated History of Map Elements and Embellishments, 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.

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Review: On the Map

On the Map (U.S. edition)Simon Garfield’s On the Map is the third book of its kind that I’ve encountered, akin to Mike Parker’s Map Addict (review) or Ken Jennings’s Maphead (review): Maps 101—an introductory book for people who are interested in maps but don’t necessarily know a lot about them, written by an enthusiastic generalist. But Garfield’s book is more peripatetic and less focused than the others.

On the Map covers a huge amount of ground in its 400-plus pages, from the Library of Alexandria to Apple Maps (but only the announcement; the subsequent fracas came too late). There is no narrative thread tying the chapters together, and some chapters, arranged by theme, span centuries; they’re interspersed with sidebars called “pocket maps” that deal with a smaller subject in a bit more depth. It’s an excellent survey of what’s been happening with maps over the past decade; you’d be better served by reading this book than by plowing through eight years and 4,055 posts of my former map blog, though you’d arrive at the same point in the end.

Because of that blog, I am the worst audience for this book: nothing really surprised me. Those who have been paying close attention to this subject will not find much new material: this is a survey. In fact, there were several instances where I knew that Garfield was telling the story too briefly, and leaving stuff out. In his rush to cover everything, he glosses over a lot of detail. Prodigious in scope but limited in depth, this book is a view from a height. There are chapters, even paragraphs, whose topics have been addressed with entire books. On the Map is only the start of your trip into maps; it will only whet your appetite for more.

Previously: On the Map: A New Book from Simon Garfield.

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Map of a Nation

When Rachel Hewitt’s Map of a Nation was published in the U.K. in 2010, I despaired of ever being able to lay hands on a copy easily. A book documenting the first century or so of the history of the Ordnance Survey, Britain’s national map-making body, is not likely to have much commercial potential outside Britain: no surprise that a U.S. edition has not come out. [Update: A paperback edition became available in the U.S. in 2013, after this review was posted.] But I recently discovered that, like at least one other book otherwise unavailable on this continent, it is available to North Americans as an ebook (and has been for a year: see how observant I am). So spent the $10, downloaded it to my Kindle, and settled in to read a book I’d heard about for years but didn’t imagine I’d be able to lay hands on without some effort.

Inasmuch as a history of field surveying and copper-plate engraving can be made anything other than dull, Hewitt has managed to produce a narrative that fairly crackles with interest. She starts at the bloody Battle of Culloden, not only as a way of setting the stage for the Military Survey of Scotland, a predecessor to the OS, but also as a rationale for mapping the whole of Britain’s territory in the first place. From there we’re led through the Scottish Highlands, joint French-British observations to measure the distance between their observatories, the triangulation of Britain and the survey of Ireland. The narrative closes with the publication of the last maps of the First Series and the expansion of the OS’s works into city maps. Along the way we get glimpses into the equipment used in the survey, such as the theodolite, and the mapmaking process; there’s a lovely section on how the OS dealt with Irish placenames, and digressions into art and poetry.

It does read a bit traditionally, in the sense that it is an institutional history seen through the lens of those in charge. It’s a history of those making the maps; the impact of those maps is less thoroughly covered. And if you ask me, it ends too soon — just as the OS is getting started. A lot more could still be written, I think.

Previously: Forthcoming History of the Ordnance Survey; Map of a Nation: Hewitt’s History of the Ordnance Survey Is Now Available.

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Atlas of the Galilean Satellites

Paul Schenk’s Atlas of the Galilean Satellites (Cambridge University Press, 2010) collects all the imagery gathered by the Voyager and Galileo missions of the four major moons of Jupiter (Callisto, Ganymede, Europa and Io, all discovered by Galileo in 1610) and assembles them into global, quadrangle and area maps. But this heavy, 400-page tome begins with a confession. “This Atlas is not what it should be.” The failure of the high-gain antenna on the Galileo spacecraft meant that far less data could be transmitted back to Earth during its nearly eight-year mission than had been planned. Large tracts of the moons are mapped in low resolution; the fuzzy images yield little detail. But until another mission is sent—the Juno probe now en route to Jupiter will not be studying the moons—this is all there will be for the foreseeable future. For decades, in fact.

The Atlas of the Galilean Satellites therefore represents a treasure trove of all available imagery of these four moons. The further out you go, the less imagery there is: outermost Callisto gets 49 pages of plates, innermost Io, with all its interesting volcanoes, gets 89. Despite the inevitable blurry patches, there are some extraordinarily high-detail images here. One problem, though, is that the global maps are unlabelled; I found it difficult to place features that were labelled on the quadrangle, regional and detail maps in their global context. Also worth noting is that—and I suspect this is the norm for extraterrestrial mapping—these are not maps per se, but spacecraft imagery labelled and put on a map projection.

One issue that has been noted elsewhere—for example, in Emily Lakdawalla’s review last November—is that several copies of this book have been defective, with pages falling out. My own copy is fine, but seems a bit fragile. (UPDATE: Laying it open flat once was enough for several pages to come loose.) The signatures appear to be glued rather than sewn—a textbook example of the badly built British book—which is inexplicable given the size of the book and weight of the glossy paper, to say nothing of its cost. Because, at $165 (£95) list, this book is extremely expensive; ebook versions are just as exorbitant. Cheaper copies can be found elsewhere with a little digging: I got mine via AbeBooks for less than $30, shipping included. Honestly, given the risk of the book falling apart on you, that’s the way to go.

This atlas isn’t really aimed at beginners or people with a casual interest in the solar system. The price reflects that, as does its rather technical nature and organization. Those with a serious jones for the solar system will not be deterred by these or any other reservations.

Previously: Blogs and a Book About Maps of the Solar System’s Moons.

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Personal Geographies

If you’re interested in maps as art, you probably already have copies of books like You Are Here and The Map as Art, excellent collections of map art curated by Katharine Harmon (if you don’t have these books and you’re interested, now you know; off you go). If, on the other hand, you’re a crafty sort and are interested in making art with maps—whether as raw material or as theme—then a new book by Jill K. Berry, Personal Geographies: Explorations in Mixed-Media Mapmaking, may be worth your attention.

Personal Geographies is a short guide to making maps about personal subjects using the techniques of mixed-media artwork. Let me unpack that a bit. Mixed media involves combining several different art forms: paint, pen and ink, photography, collage; different materials and textures. Berry, lists as supplies a number of different kinds of paper and cardstock; pencils, crayons and paints; adhesives; tools; and embellishments like ribbons.

These are the raw materials. Berry chooses as her theme so-called personal geographies, broken up into three chapters: maps of the self, in which the personal is mapped to pictures of the head, the hand, the heart or the body; maps of personal experiences, such as trips; and art pieces made from real and fictional maps. Each lavishly illustrated chapter gives sample projects with step-by-step instructions; each chapter also collects map projects from a number of different artists to show you what else might be possible.

I received an electronic review copy of this book.

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Historical Atlas of Washington and Oregon

Last week I received in the mail a review copy of Derek Hayes’s latest book, the Historical Atlas of Washington and Oregon. Now, except for a day trip to Mount Baker in 1993, I haven’t so much as visited either state, so my review is not as informed as a local’s could be. What I can say is that this is the latest in a series of historical atlases by Hayes, whose previous works include historical atlases of North American railroads, California and the U.S. in general, among others. It’s an attractive and reasonably priced hardcover, densely packed with contemporary maps.

On that point: Hayes uses actual, contemporary maps to describe the period. This differs from what I usually expect from historical atlases, which use modern cartography to display historical information. I’m not entirely convinced of Hayes’s method: contemporary maps may not necessarily be accurate; and they’re frequently reproduced at a scale too small to be of any informative use; and the map needed to tell a story may not always be available. But when considered as a thematically and chronologically organized collection of antique maps, it works very well indeed, though I think several subjects, such as the period before European (or as Hayes puts it, “EuroAmerican”) contact, get short shrift.

Still, I cannot emphasize enough the wealth of cartography on display here (Seattle, Tacoma, Portland and the Pacific Northwest rail lines get particularly lavish treatment); this is the sort of thing that would do well as an iPad app or enhanced ebook, where you could zoom in to a full-scale reproduction of all these maps.

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Maphead

Word first came in early 2009 that Jeopardy whiz Ken Jennings was writing a book “exploring the world of map nuts and geography obsessives.” That book, Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks, came out in September, and now I’ve had a chance to read it.

Maphead isn’t really (or just) a book about maps; rather, it’s a book about the people who obsess about matters geographical, including maps. The subject is pretty broadly defined. He begins straightforwardly enough. After a chapter on spatial awareness, Jennings looks at the scandal that erupted when a University of Miami professor discovered his students couldn’t locate anything on a map, and at map literacy in general. There’s a chapter on borders and placenames. But things really get cooking when Jennings turns to things people do. A chapter on map collecting. On maps of imaginary places. The National Geographic Bee. Roadgeeking. Geocaching. Even the Degree Confluence Project.

In its cheerful enthusiasm for all things map, Maphead reads a lot like Mike Parker’s Map Addict (which I reviewed in 2009). This is a good thing. Like Map Addict, Maphead covers a lot of what for me is very familiar ground: I sometimes felt like I was reading my own blog archives, which is something I felt while reading Map Addict. But then Jennings goes and finds something I didn’t know, like the fact that Borges’s “On Exactitude in Science” was not the only work to play with the idea of a 1:1 scale map: Lewis Carroll and Umberto Eco did it too. Ken Jennings has managed to pull off a minor miracle: a profoundly erudite, well-researched book, written in a breezy, accessible and downright witty manner that is invariably entertaining. A pleasant book that you should look at, if you have any interest in maps.

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