Friday, May 21, 2010


Portrait of Amerigo Vespucci, 1510.
To what degree Christopher Columbus’s (1451–1506) landfall of October 12, 1492, on an island in the Bahamas was predicted by Western cartographic science is a lively point of discussion between historians. It is well known how the Florentine cosmographer Paolo Toscanelli dal Pozzo (1397–1482) suggested in a famous letter of June 1474 addressed to the Portuguese king that the distance from the Canaries to Cathay might be around 5,000 nautical miles, a journey possibly broken at Antilla and Japan—a chronic misguidance then. Columbus himself is thought to have had some doubts as to the Aristotelian model of the earth, as contested in 1483 and 1484 before Spanish royal cosmographers, natural philosophers who specialized in the relation of cosmic and terrestrial spheres and who based their claims on celestial observations. The fact that Ptolemy reduced the earth’s circumference probably encouraged Columbus to ‘‘sail the parallel’’ to cross the Atlantic in 1492. In any case, only after some years of doubts and confusions was Columbus’s discovery recognized by cosmographers and mapmakers for its novelty, rewarded with the epithet Mundus Novus, the title of a tract based on a letter of Amerigo Vespucci (1454–1512). It fell to the German geographer Martin Waldseemüller (1470–1518 or 1521) to put the suggestion into action on the large woodcut world map, printed in 1507 in one thousand copies, in which he showed North and South America as continents, designated by name. The implications of this New World scheme for shibboleths, such as the idea that all men were descended from Adam and that the apostles had preached throughout the world, was profound. Columbus, then, created the problem of the Western Hemisphere, though right down to his death he refused to admit to his delusion and only at the beginning of the eighteenth century was it shown conclusively through the expeditions of the Danish navigator, Vitus Jonassen Bering (1681–1741), that Asia was not connected to North America.

If the discovery of the Western Hemisphere was one problem Western mapmaking was confronted with, then the acknowledgement of the Antipodes was another. The ideas of the Greek cosmographer Strabo (64 or 63 BCE–23 CE)—in print in translation by Guarino da Verona (1370 or 1374–1460) from 1469—had fomented this idea, though he probably envisaged the Antipodes as lying to the west in the temperate sphere, rather than underneath, and an impediment to Eratosthenes’s (276–194 BCE) view that sailing from Iberia directly to India was theoretically possible if the immensity of the Atlantic did not prevent it. The notion of a southern continent nevertheless persisted until Captain James Cook’s (1728–1779) successive voyages in the 1760s and 1770s across the South Pacific explicitly sought to engage this last of the great classical cosmographical conundrums.

How maps reflected people’s assumptions and beliefs is an engaging and fruitful line of recent scholarship. Maps in medieval times had been chiefly symbolic constructs reflecting the Holy Trinity in the three pars of which the world was constituted (Europe, Asia, Africa), suitably depicted around the form of a cross, Christ’s cross. These have been called by historians T-O maps, where the ‘‘T’’ within the ‘‘O’’ is formed by the rivers Don and Nile flowing into the Mediterranean, these waters forming the boundaries of the three continents known to the ancient world. In deference to the Holy Land, not only churches but also maps were commonly oriented toward the east, at the head of which Christ was often depicted enthroned at the Last Judgment, as is the case in the Hereford mappamundi of circa 1300. Also at the top, but located within the bounds of this world, is the Garden of Eden. Jerusalem had previously been considered the center of the world; this is a reflection of Christian belief and the enduring concept of Christendom.

T-O maps continued to be produced well into Renaissance times, as in the Rudimentum Novitiorum published in Lübeck in 1475. However, the first printed editions of Ptolemy to be published north of the Alps launched a profound onslaught on the last T-O maps, whereas the decline of the Christian commonwealth and the corresponding emergence of notions of Europe saw to it that Europe as a whole, rather than Jerusalem, came to be placed in the center of maps of the world. There were other changes, perhaps deeper motivational changes, casting aside the traditional T-O schema. By the fifteenth century, mapmakers were motivated by geographic realism, most probably because they wanted to emphasize the practical utility of their work as navigational aids, but they may also have been influenced by the same current of thought as the naturalism that influenced Renaissance artists. It no longer became perfunctory to see empty cartographic space as space to fill with all kinds of flourishes and emblems, as if fearing the emptiness of white sections of parchment. In any case, maps were no longer simply devotional objects, but came to record the progress in that European project which has become known as the Discoveries.

Maps had other strategic uses. The crusading propaganda of Marino Sanudo (1466–1536), for example, was illustrated with maps of uncanny accuracy, drawn by Pietro Vesconte, while the territorial rivalries of European states saw to it that from 1482 the first maps made with explicit attention to national boundaries started to be produced. Maps were of crucial importance in the protracted negotiations for the series of international treaties (Alcaçovas-Toledo, 1479; Tordesillas, 1494; Saragossa, 1529) that decided upon meridian lines establishing spheres of colonial influence between Portuguese and Spanish crowns. But at the same time we have to be aware that these strategic functions could impinge upon the mapmaker’s task of reflecting reality as faithfully as possible. The French royal mathematician Oronce Fine (1494–1555), for example, devised a cordiform (heart-shaped) projection on a central meridian around 1536 in order to emphasize France’s proximity to the new world and her colonial possibilities there. J. B. Harley has unearthed the coded relations of power in outwardly realistic Renaissance maps, showing how they concealed information for political or economic reasons, and used allegorical decoration to further hidden agendas. For example, blank spaces in early maps of the Americas presented those territories as available for European conquest. In some cases, what was reality was entirely relative. Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), the Italian Jesuit missionary to China, presented a world map to the governor of Chao-K’ing in 1584 titled ‘‘Great Map of Ten Thousand Countries,’’ but had to spend the next nineteen years redesigning it, primarily to accommodate his host’s desire for China to appear as the center of the world and not Europe.

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