Friday, February 8, 2013

Directions in critical cartography

Abraham Ortelius's Theatrum Orbis Terrarum of 1570.

Critical study of cartography can proceed from two directions: either through study of the finished map - judging its function, technique, aesthetics and semiotics; or through a study of mapping processes, conventionally grouped under the headings of survey, compilation and design. From the first perspective we might consider Abraham Ortelius's Theatrum Orbis Terrarum of 1570. Functionally, this well-known historical map provided what is considered the first modern atlas with an opening image of the terraqueous globe according to the most recent information available at the time of its making.  The search for empirical truth is apparent from the second edition of the map, made a mere decade later when, among other changes, the shape of South America is more accurately portrayed. Ortelius's selection of individual colours for the continents anticipates their representation on succeeding continental maps, and the ordered summary of geographical knowledge that constitutes the atlas. Technically, the world map uses Ptolemy's second projection, extending the meridians to show the whole southern hemisphere. The map is thus centred on the Equator, with a prime meridian running through the Azores, curving the longitudes towards the poles. Like any projection of the sphere, this has distorting effects on shape and direction. The oval planisphere is framed with clouds that represent the element of air, but otherwise it is relatively free of decoration, apart from the title cartouche and a lower banner containing a Latin sentence attributed to Cicero. The map offers a memorable and uncluttered image of the globe's lands and seas to which subsequent maps in the atlas can be related. Yet in ways that are not immediately apparent on the map's surface, aesthetics could be said to trump scientific knowledge in the balancing landmasses north and south of the known continents: remnants of philosophical and religious belief in a harmonious distribution of lands over the earth's surface. The semiotics of the map are as significant as its scientific, technical and aesthetic aspects. The text at the base of the map, for example (which in the second edition is reinforced by four other passages from Cicero and Seneca), reads `For what can seem of moment in human affairs for him who keeps all eternity before his eyes and knows the scale of the universal world?' It reminds us that in the sixteenth century the world map played a role beyond that of scientific instrument and artistic image; it was a moral text reminding the viewer of the insignificance of human life compared to the vastness of creation.  In presenting the mapped `theatre of the world' (the title of Ortelius's atlas) as a moral space, the map itself gains an emblematic quality.  This aspect of mapping can be traced in the West back to the medieval Christian mappae mundi, and is a common feature of non-Western cartography too.  Indeed it has never disappeared from cartographic culture.

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