Maps of Paradise by Alessandro Scafi (University of Chicago Press, 11/13). Explores “the diverse ways in which scholars and mapmakers from the eighth to the twenty-first century rose to the challenge of identifying the location of paradise on a map, despite the certain knowledge that it was beyond human reach.” (Amazon)
If somebody who was vaguely interested in maps wanted a book to get them started, I think I might point them toward A History of the World in Twelve Maps, written by Renaissance Studies professor Jerry Brotton. This book first appeared in September 2012 in Great Britain, where it’s now out in paperback. The U.S. edition came out last month in hardcover.
It’s a history of cartography that takes a rather unique approach: instead of providing a straight narrative history, Brotton focuses on twelve maps (or, more precisely, mapmaking endeavours), ranging from Ptolemy’s Geography to Google Earth. But Brotton does a lot more than talk about just twelve maps.
Nearly two meters wide in total, the map’s nine wood-block panels comprise the largest and first realistic portrayal of Northern Europe. But in addition to these important geographic elements, Magnus’s map goes beyond cartography to scenes both domestic and mystic. Close to shore, Magnus shows humans interacting with common sea life—boats struggling to stay afloat, merchants trading, children swimming, and fisherman pulling lines. But from the offshore deeps rise some of the most magical and terrifying sea creatures imaginable at the time or thereafter—like sea swine, whales as large as islands, and the Kraken. In this book, Nigg provides a thorough tour of the map’s cartographic details, as well as a colorful look at its unusual pictorial and imaginative elements. He draws on Magnus’s own text to further describe and illuminate the inventive scenes and to flesh out the stories of the monsters.
The previously-unknown globe, which is about the size of a grapefruit, was made from the lower halves of two ostrich eggs, and dates from the very early 1500s. Until now, it was thought that the oldest globe to show the New World was the “Lenox Globe” at the New York Public Library, but the author presents evidence that this Renaissance ostrich egg globe was actually used to cast the copper Lenox globe, putting its date c. 1504. The globe reflects the knowledge gleaned by Christopher Columbus and other very early European explorers including Amerigo Vespucci after whom America was named.
The Lenox Globe—also known as the Hunt-Lenox Globe—was cast in 1510; interestingly, prior to this announcement, it was the only map or globe to contain the phrase hic sunt dracones—here be dragons. This globe has the phrase as well. In the Washington Post coverage, two map experts—John Hessler and Chet Van Duzer—are quoted expressing a certain amount of skepticism (especially about the purported da Vinci connection). I also suspect caution is warranted here: the history of antique maps contains several examples of groundshaking discoveries that turn out to be dubious at best.
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.
One of the things I’m interested in for my fantasy maps project is the origin of fantasy map design: where does that tell-tale fantasy map look come from?
Look at enough fantasy maps, and it’s hard not to notice certain commonalities in design. As Stefan Ekman demonstrates in Here Be Dragons (yes, I have a review coming—soon!), the maps that accompany fantasy novels tend to be characterized by a number of typical features. “Like much high fantasy,” he writes, “the secondary-world maps follow a pseudomedieval aesthetic according to which dashes of pre-Enlightenment mapping conventions are rather routinely added to a mostly modern creation.”1 Fantasy maps look nothing like medieval maps, and can in many ways be seen as the hybrid descendent of 19th-century amateur mapmaking and early-20th-century children’s book illustrations.
The survival of Schöner’s notes and annotations is unique in the history of cartography; not only do they show his thinking about theoretical and practical geography, but they also reveal the art of mapmaking during his lifetime. John Hessler discusses Schöner’s opinions on the canonical geography of Ptolemy, his reaction to the new discoveries of Columbus and Vespucci, and his involvement in the new astronomy of Copernicus. Schöner’s surviving notebooks, manuscripts, and associations with other scientists of the period offer unprecedented insight into the history of these materials, and into the geographical and astronomical concerns that fuelled the birth of modern science development during this critical period in its development.
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.
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.
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 callsOld 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.