First published in Calafia (March 2020).
Celestial maps are lovely things. From the unalloyed beauty and artistry of Renaissance star atlases and Coronelli’s globes to the precision of Wil Tirion’s modern-day Uranometria, the iconic National Geographic hemispheric map of the moon, and Eleanor Lutz’s indescribable Atlas of Space, maps of constellations and planets are worth the attention of every map enthusiast. So why don’t they get more attention than they do? There was a time when knowing the constellations and paths of the planets was an essential part of navigation, but technological advances have made that a thing of the past.1 Nor have scholars of map history paid celestial maps much attention.2 By and large the people most interested in celestial maps are the people interested in astronomy: professional and amateur astronomers and other space enthusiasts.
Such was the case with me: astronomy and cartography were two interests that found something in common with celestial maps. On my map blog, The Map Room, I share links to them every chance I get, though my website stats show that they’re less popular. And such was the case with Nick Kanas, a retired psychiatry professor, lifelong amateur astronomer, and celestial map collector. His Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography was first published by Springer Praxis in 2007. It’s now in its third edition, which came out last year, for the first time in hardcover, and now with illustrations in color throughout the text.
At first glance Star Maps is thorough. Possibly too thorough. Kanas has not so much written a history of celestial mapping as assembled a compendium. Meticulously catalogued (chapters and sections are numbered, e.g. “10.2.3.1 Norton’s Star Atlas”), Star Maps gives catholic attention to all kinds of celestial maps and related ephemera. While Kanas dedicates a chapter to the “big four” of Renaissance celestial mapmakers—Bayer, Hevelius, Flamsteed and Bode—he does not limit his focus to them, covering their contemporaries, derivatives, antecedents and successors from ancient times to the present day. If it’s a map of the stars, or of the planets, or something even remotely related—a chapter on special topics covers celestial globes, astronomical instruments, lunar and planetary maps and, curiously, book frontispieces—it’s almost certainly included in this book. This is even more true in the third edition, which adds a chapter on pictorial maps (heavily influenced by Hornsby’s Picturing America3) and celestial images in paintings, whose connection to his remit is tangential at best. (It’s like a book about railroad maps that also talks a lot about timetables.) Star Maps bulges and swells as more is added with each new edition: the third edition is 181 pages longer than the first.
It’s important to remember a book’s target audience—its imagined ideal reader. In the case of Star Maps this is Kanas’s younger self, who came to map collecting via his lifelong interest in amateur astronomy. “I was frustrated that there was not a single book on celestial cartography that could inform me about the various aspects of my collecting,” he writes in the preface to the first edition. “What I needed was a book that not only was a primer for the collector but also had sufficient reference detail to allow me to identify and understand my maps. Nothing like this appeared, so I decided to write such a book some day” (p. xxi). In other words, for a compendium this is a surprisingly personal book, one that reflects his own journey into the subject and, presumably, his interests as a collector.
Despite the enthusiasm for maps and amateur astronomy I share with Kanas (mine is a three-telescope household), I have to confess that I’m not his ideal reader. I have a background in the history of science, so I didn’t require the 150-page history of astronomy that begins Star Maps. Other readers will appreciate those opening chapters, though they’re by no means the definitive take on the subject, because it’s important to ground the history of these maps in the observations and discoveries that produced them. Star Maps is written to get the aspiring celestial map enthusiast up to speed from a standing start, with no prior knowledge.
Nor have I fallen into map collecting, whereas Kanas has collected celestial maps for decades. This also affects Star Maps’s gaze, not just in terms of the appendices that discuss aspects of celestial map collecting, but in terms of the text’s close focus on the maps themselves, which are frequently described in terms of their beauty, popularity or rarity—qualities that are of more interest to collectors than to historians. Because my background is in history, my preference is for perspective and context, rather than detail, so my favorite chapter of the book is the one that shows how celestial maps changed from the lavishly illustrated constellations of the Renaissance to the precise, illustration-free star atlases of today.
On the other hand, Kanas’s close focus provides a wealth of detail that my preferred approach would simply have glossed over, and its broad definition of the subject has gathered up a number of interesting edge cases that might otherwise have been omitted. Star Maps’s comprehensiveness, for all its loquacious tendencies, is on balance a virtue. Like a curiosity shop packed to the rafters, it almost certainly has what you’re looking for tucked away somewhere in its pages.
- Elizabeth A. Kessler, “Star Charts,” in The History of Cartography, Volume Six: Cartography in the Twentieth Century, ed. Mark Monmonier (University of Chicago Press, 2015), p. 1459.
- Anna Friedman Herlihy, “Renaissance Star Charts,” in The History of Cartography, Volume Three, Part 1: Cartography in the European Renaissance, ed. David Woodward (University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 99-100.
- Stephen J. Hornsby, Picturing America: The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps (University of Chicago Press, 2016).