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.