Artistic Cartography 1: The Fascinating World of Old Maps

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Cartography is the production of geographical maps and globes and it has existed more or less since forever. It can be considered both a science and an art. Why? Let’s travel between geography and art discovering old beautiful maps.

Maps as Art Objects

Cartography is a science because it precisely reproduces the world and evolved together with its knowledge. We still use cartography nowadays: the GPS is based on maps and drawings of the world! 

Maps have had different aims. Most originally, recording routes and describing territories. Yet, they have become increasingly useful for remembering nautical courses, reporting resources, establishing and recognizing boundaries, and innumerable other purposes. These are the reasons why so many different map types exist, always created according to the contemporary knowledge of the world, and usually limited to a single portion of the world.

In the beginning, cartography did not exist as a profession. Those who drew maps were explorers, artists, or both. Therefore, they not only wanted maps to be useful but also beautiful. That’s why cartography is also an art

So, over the course of centuries maps became just as much art objects as they continued to be reliable and essential tools. In particular, those created before the invention of printing are unique and exclusive products of particular craft seeing as they were handmade. Even after Gutenberg’s revolution, cartography still remains an art because of its major challenge: how to represent a spherical surface on a bi-dimensional plane?

Science and art—working in concert, accurately representing the world and and depicting something beautiful.

Copy of Martin Waldseemüller, Spindle map, 1507, London. Michael Swift, Carte del Mondo.
Copy of Martin Waldseemüller spindle map, 1507, London, UK, Michael Swift, Carte del Mondo.

Ancient times

Simple maps to record paths are likely to have been created since the origin of the human race. Then, in Babylon scientists surely acquired the skills to produce more detailed maps, thanks to their extensive studies.

In ancient Greece the first actual development of cartography took place. Anaximander, a well-known philosopher, was probably also the first cartographer.

Thanks to Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria and his geocentric conception, cartography received another positive push. People wanted to know and describe the marvelous world which was at the center of the universe. Nowadays, we don’t have any original Ptolemaic map, but researchers were able to make some reconstructions basing on the information in his oeuvres.

Reconstruction of a Ptolemaic map, 15th century. Michael Swift, Carte del Mondo.
Reconstruction of a Ptolemaic map, 15th century, Michael Swift, Carte del Mondo.

Middle Ages

Successively, the Christian culture deeply influenced this subject, as it did in many other fields. This influence gave origin to a completely new representation and conception. Jerusalem was one of the favorite subjects alone, and when the whole world was represented, it was often at the center of the map, being considered the center of the world. Artists began to created the so-called “T-O maps”, where Asia was on top, Europe was on bottom left, Africa on bottom right. The Nile, a vertical line, and the Mediterranean Sea, a horizontal trace, divided the territories. They formed a “T”. The ocean, similar to a circular river, surrounded everything – that was the “O”.

Robert the Monk, Crusader map of Jerusalem from the Chronicle of the Crusades, ca. 1099, different copies in European archives.
Robert the Monk, Crusader map of Jerusalem from the Chronicle of the Crusades, ca. 1099, different copies in European archives.
A T-O map from Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, 6th-7th century CE. Copy of the 10th century CE, England. The British Library.
A T-O map from Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, 6th-7th century CE. Copy from the 10th century CE, London, UK. The British Library.

One of the most ancient surviving maps is not an actual map on paper. It is a mosaic in Jericho (Palestine) whose name is Madaba Map. It shows the map of the Middle East during the Byzantine period. Historians think it is the oldest representation of the Holy Land. Madaba Map is currently on the floor in the church of Saint George.

Madaba mosaic map, 6th century CE, Church of Saint George, Jericho, Palestine.
Madaba mosaic map, 6th century CE, Church of Saint George, Madaba, Jordan.

Renaissance Maps

Different factors influenced the definitive development of the cartographic science in the 16th century.

First of all, that century was the age of navigators and explorers. Secondly, the period was coincident with the Renaissance, in the whole of Europe and in Italy in particular. Third, the invention of printing gave the possibility of creating products on a vast scale.

The discovery of America by Europeans played of course a crucial role in this context and from then on a “larger world” should have been represented. Cartographers began creating the planispheres, accepting the abovementioned challenge: how to represent 3D world in a 2D medium?

Martin Waldseemüller, world map, after 1507, First map ever with the name "America". Copy from 1903, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, USA.
Martin Waldseemüller, world map, after 1507, First map ever with the name “America”. Copy from 1903, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, USA.

Speaking about the Renaissance, we can’t ignore Leonardo. He proposed his personal solution to this problem, by dividing into four “triangles” each hemisphere. 

Leonardo Da Vinci, Southern Hemisphere, ca. 1514, Royal Library, Windsor, UK. Michael Swift, Carte del Mondo.
Leonardo Da Vinci, Southern Hemisphere, ca. 1514, Royal Library, Windsor, UK. Michael Swift, Carte del Mondo.

However, the most eminent cartograph was probably Gerard Mercator. He was born in Germany in 1512 and brought a number of innovations to this science. First of all, he invented a particular projection in which meridians and parallels on the maps are straight and perpendicular lines. Then, he baptized a collection of maps as “atlas” and finally, especially during his last years, he produced a world map across 18 papers and published two parts of the comprehensive atlas he had projected.

Gerard Mercator, America in Hondius Atlas, 1595. Copy from 1614, Amsterdam. Michael Swift, Carte del Mondo.
Gerard Mercator, America in Hondius Atlas, 1595. Copy from 1614, Amsterdam, Netherlands. Michael Swift, Carte del Mondo.

Modern Times

From the 17th century on, maps became less artistic objects and more useful tools, but some exceptions exist! Maps can even transform into satirical provocations.

Frederick W. Rose, Serio-Comic War Map For The Year 1877. Revised Edition, 1877, Private Collection. Cornell University Library Digital Collections.
Frederick W. Rose, Serio-Comic War Map for the Year 1877, revised edition, 1877, private collection. Cornell University Library Digital Collections.

Would you like to refresh also other school subjects than geography through art? Try literature and history!

Works referenced:


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Artistic Cartography 1: The Fascinating World of Old Maps was first posted on March 26, 2021 at 5:00 pm.
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