Friday, May 21, 2010


Waldseemüller’s 1507 Map of the World. This map by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller (ca. 1470–ca. 1522) is accompanied by text explaining the use of the term America to describe the New World. Waldseemüller named the continent after the Italian-born explorer Amerigo Vespucci, whose geography identified the Americas as separate from Asia.

In the Middle Ages, few people in Christendom could ever have seen a map. Only those concerned with navigation or scholarship were in a position to come across one. Then, what they cast their eyes over were what historians have suggested were essentially two very different kinds of maps: area maps known as portolan charts, especially of southern European waters, as attempts to illustrate an itinerary or sailing instructions in diagrammatic form; secondly, and until the thirteenth century, European world maps, which had been devotional objects, intended to evoke God’s harmonious design in a schematic form, appropriate, for instance, for an altarpiece.

These would appear very strange objects to today’s public, encyclopedias of Christian lore and legend that were primarily symbolic reflections of the world and that tried to tailor what was genuinely known about the world to what could be gleaned from biblical scripture. The European cartographic revolution of the Renaissance took on many forms, embodied by great technological strides both in dissemination (printing) and production (the nautical revolution, mathematical innovations in how the world could be measured). But it was primarily a change in the way the world was pictured in people’s minds, and here the cool, measured rationality of Euclidean geometry slowly came to replace the colorful mental projections of inherited belief.

The arrival of printing in the fifteenth century de-professionalized and democratized geographical knowledge. It did not fully supplant manuscript charts, which flourished in the cultures of secrecy in Iberian absolutist regimes, or the decorative maps that decked Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio or the Vatican’s Hall of Maps. The greater possibilities for divulgence, as well as the accompanying steps forward in literacy among European populations, meant that cartography could keep better pace with the geographical discoveries as they were being unveiled and break men of learning’s enduring reluctance to accept that knowledge could be outdated.

Mapmaking capitalized on the nautical revolution of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, which saw the widespread adoption of the magnetic lodestone from the late twelfth century; the invention of Jacob’s staff from 1300 for checking the heavens; and innovations in ship design, of which the most important was perhaps the sternpost rudder. Maritime navigation was given the tools to move on from coast-hugging to sailing boldly the open seas though, as the Seville pilot Pedro de Medina (1493–1567) expressed in print as late as 1555, it remained a mystery that ‘‘a man with a compass and rhumb lines can encompass and navigate the entire world.’’ Maps, then, were an integral part of the nautical revolution.

 It would be wrong, however, to see cartographic science as a set of progressive steps toward enlightenment. The illuminated medieval Arab worldview of geographers like ash-Sharif al-Idrisi (1100–1165), for example, as shown on a silver plate presented to King Roger II (1095–1154) of Sicily, was not necessarily passed on to mainland Europe. Secondly, second-century geographer Ptolemy’s mistaken legacy of the impossibility to circumnavigate the southern tip of Africa—a corollary of the antique belief in the orbis terrarum, a planet constituted primarily of land in which the seas were little more than giant lakes—was only strengthened with the wave of Latin language editions following the reintroduction into Europe of Ptolemy’s Geography from Constantinople. It was a mistake only gradually set right with the Portuguese voyages around the African shoreline from 1418 and which culminated with Bartolomeu Dias’s (ca. 1450–1500) rounding of the Cape of Good Hope in 1496, faithfully reproduced in the world map of Henricus Martellus.

At the same time, it is easy to understand why Ptolemy’s map, and particularly the geometric projection printed from 1477, served as the world map of Renaissance times, against all contemporary maps. The crucial concept is that of ordered space. Even the latest and most sophisticated of the circular mappae mundi, the Fra Mauro world map of 1459, appears to have an element of chance, guesswork, almost disorder in its structure. The circular framework was known to be illogical, the sources for its place-names were literary and anecdotal, even legendary, and their location was often arbitrary. Other maps, such as the Genoese map of 1457 drew from a store of graphic images, which by the late fifteenth century were largely rhetorical.

By contrast Ptolemy appeared to have cast a transparent net over the earth’s surface, every strand of which was precisely measured and placed. Moreover, Ptolemy’s work was a map not a visual encyclopedia, so that a dispassionate sense of geographic reality prevails. This sense of ordered space was precisely the ideal toward what the artists of fifteenth-century Italy were striving, and where one can read Renaissance paintings like one reads a map, with a new emphasis on the spatial dimension.

The historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto has suggested that the undoing of the mythical Atlantic was perhaps cartography’s greatest triumph in the fifteenth century. Islands named Brendan, St. Ursula, and Brazil had previously littered depictions and accounts of the medieval Atlantic, reflecting classical and early Christian legend. Over the course of the fifteenth century, Atlantic space was increasingly discovered and appreciated as a body of water in its own right and not just a section of the ‘‘all-encircling ocean,’’ and the real mid-Atlantic archipelagos were plotted into it, initially using rhumb lines, but increasingly according to the grid-line geometrics of longitude and latitude. It took a long time, however, both before the full dimensions of the Atlantic were appreciated and before all fictitious islands were removed from the Atlantic. As late as the nineteenth century, concessions were being made to presupposed rocks and islets.

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