As I’ve said before, the subject of empty spaces on maps is of considerable interest to my own research on fantasy maps: fantasy maps tend to be full of empty spaces not germane to the story, whereas real-world maps were covered in cartouches, sea monsters, and ribbons of text. As a result I’m very interested in what Van Duzer has to say about the subject, and have been looking for something exactly like this recorded talk for some time.
I wasn’t disappointed. Van Duzer lays out, with some particularly over the top examples, how empty spaces on maps were consumed (his term) by text, ships, sea monsters and other embellishments that were designed for that very purpose. Some of those embellishments were absolutely enormous, others curiously redundant: a single map does not need four identical scales or a dozen or more compass roses, for example. “Everything we’re seeing here was a choice on the part of the cartographer,” he says at one point; “all this information could be disposed differently.”
In an article I published in 2013, I argued that one key difference between fantasy maps and the real-world medieval and early modern maps they purport to imitate is blank spaces: fantasy maps are full of blank spaces (that which is not in the story is not on the map), whereas real-world maps were covered in cartouches, sea monsters, inset illustrations and other embellishments. One of my sources for that article was a book by Chet Van Duzer: Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps (reviewed here).
Historians of cartography occasionally refer to cartographers’ horror vacui, that is, their fear or hesitancy to leave spaces blank on maps that might be filled with decorations. Some scholars have denied that this impulse was a factor in the design of maps, but the question has never been examined carefully. In this talk I will undertake such an examination, showing that horror vacui was indeed an important factor in the design of maps, at least for some cartographers, from the sixteenth to the early eighteenth century. Some of the factors that motivated cartographers’ concern about empty spaces will also be examined, as will maps by cartographers who evidently did not experience this fear. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries maps began to be thought of as more purely scientific instruments, cartographic decoration declined generally, and cartographers managed to restrain their concern about spaces lacking decoration in the interest of presenting their work as modern and professional.
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.