Friday, May 21, 2010


Quadrant. Simple quadrants allowed early cartographers, as well as sailors and explorers, to accurately measure altitude and determine latitude

That the world was a sphere was known throughout the Middle Ages and there is even some evidence that the question of map projection had been perceived as a theoretical problem, by Roger Bacon (1220–1292) for example in the Opus Major of circa 1270. But it had little practical importance, since the known world scarcely exceeded the bounds of Europe. It was only when new knowledge enlarged the world that cartography began to acknowledge the sphericity of the world in the elements of rough spectroscopy implicit in the Catalan Atlas of 1375 and the final settlement for the oval world map as we find in Francesco Rosselli’s (1448–1513) world map of 1508, or from the early seventeenth century spate of twin-hemisphere maps issuing from England and the Netherlands.

Globe-making, however, only really came into being following Nicholas de Oresma’s (1320 or 1325–1382) De sphaera. Part of the project sought to illustrate the cosmographic scheme implicit in Ptolemy’s Geography, which as we have suggested was widely disseminated once it had been translated into Latin in the fifteenth century. No medieval globe of the world has, however, survived from before Martin Behaim’s (1436–1507) of 1492, now in the National Museum of Nuremberg.

Cartography, of course, specialized into many other branches. Some of the earliest maps we possess are medieval road maps, often for helping pilgrims find their way. The maritime variant was the rutter, which was of great service to pilots. The mid-sixteenth century governor of Portuguese possessions in the East, João de Castro (1500–1548), has left us some of the finest exemplars of this genre. One of the great cartographic particularities of the Age of Discovery, however, was the isolario, an atlas exclusively given over to charting the islands of the world, and for which the prototype was provided by Christopher Buondelmonti at the beginning of the fifteenth century, to be followed up by Benedetto Bordone (1460–1531) and Tommaso Porcacchi da Castiglione (1530–1585), as well as the French geographer André Thevet (1502–1590). It corresponded, as the Florentine scholar Leo Olschki has tried to show, to what he came to label insulamania, a passing social craze for islands.

Increasingly, maps catered to a variety of different professions. Landowners, particularly in England and the Low Countries, began commissioning estate plans to help them manage their holdings. It was not by chance, so historian David Buisseret argues, that it was precisely in these regions that the first signs of the Agricultural Revolution began to appear.

Governments were another patron of an increased outpouring of printed maps from the sixteenth century; they were typically required for the task of fortifying the frontiers, planning campaigns, acquainting heads of state with ill-known parts of their lands, and mounting overseas expeditions. Both in the lagoon and hinterland of the Venetian Republic, water management showed itself to be an important state activity delegated to the Rural Land Office and the Water Management Board for the Lagoon. Some monarchs, such as Philip II (1527–1598), who commissioned the Relaciones Geográficas, or Henry IV (1553–1610) of France, had access to maps that showed even small villages in the whole of their lands, while others such as the Habsburg Maximilian I (1493–1519), rather than commissioning maps of the empire as a whole, preferred to delineate only such separate constituents as Tyrol or Lower Austria. In the territories of eastern Europe, such as Poland, where magnates enjoyed ‘‘golden freedoms’’ and vast powers, particularly after the Law of Entail (1589), it was they, rather than the state, that commissioned maps.

Perhaps the most thorough of the state-sponsored exercises was the 1791 completion of the Ordinance Survey of Great Britain, as its name suggests, for military ends. Even before then, surveyors like James Rennell (1742–1830) had undertaken extensive surveys of British colonial possessions such as Bengal (culminating in his ‘‘Bengal Atlas’’ of 1779) on sophisticated graticules of meridians and parallels, and which illustrated the progression in imperial thinking toward large-scale territorial domination in the East issuant from a period of intense rivalry between French and British interests for control of the lands of the Mughal empire. Rennell’s maps of India produced between 1783 and 1788 illustrated the limits of British dominion and depicted the subcontinent as a coherent geographic entity for the first time. Other European imperial powers, such as France, rapidly followed suit. Napoléon Bonaparte’s (1769– 1821) survey of Egypt following invasion in 1798 was an explicit emulation, motivated by a desire to gain territorial compensation for France’s loss of overseas colonies.

Cartography was also deployed as an accompaniment to the mania for travel guides and illustrated gazetteers of cities that engulfed Europe from the middle of the sixteenth century. Originally inspired by the ancients like Strabo and moderns like Flavio Biondo (1392–1463), early antiquarian compendia such as Leandro Alberti’s (1479–1553) 1550 Descrittione di tutta Italia or Hartmann Schedel’s (1440–1514) Liber cronicarum of 1492 commissioned bird’s-eye views of towns, circular area maps, and illustrated maps to aid travelers.

It was in this manner that the uses of cartography, and also the readership of Renaissance maps, spread rapidly. Although maps still tended to be the preserve of the literate upper classes, they were not the preserve of kings only. Merchants, government officials, churchmen, and even sailors and artisans could obtain at least the simpler printed editions, though the maps of state-owned concerns such as the Dutch East India Company (from 1602), the Dutch West India Company (founded 1621), and the Hudson’s Bay Company (1670) were still jealously protected as economic and state secrets. In this way, the cartographic way of seeing the world spread through the same sectors of early modern European society that purchased books and became literate. Maps became indispensable to Europeans’ sense of space, and thus, Buisseret hints, to the process of modernization that began in the West in the Renaissance.

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