Monthly Archives: January 2013

Meditating on Europe’s Map: Napoleon in Saint Helena, according to Vincenzo Vela

Even though one can barely detect the differentiation between land and sea from the capital letters labelling the Atlantic Ocean [OCEANO] or Mediterranean [MARE MEDITERRANEO] in the folded map resting across a seated Napoleon Bonaparte’s knees, it’s clear he looks at the topographic map with melancholy.  The look seems a way of looking back on the expansive remapping of Europe in the Age of Empire Napoleon had inaugurated, if also an image that recalls the Emperor’s famed strategic brilliance on the battlefield it is filled with despair, slipping across his legs at his final moment in life.  Does the close attention to the lettering on the map suggest a melancholy relation to the map as territory, and the map as emblem of a lost dynastic dreams?  Leaving the map in a moment of reverie seems a way of saying goodbye to the world that Bonaparte had created.

Napoleon is not looking at a map that marks the advance of troops across Europe.  Rather, this sculpted figure is somewhat lost in a reverie over a map, or finds the map slipping from his command and easy consultation.  Bonaparte’s often imposing figure slouched is hardly studying the map unfolded on his knees, which he holds beneath a clenched fist; as the map almost slips off of his legs, as if to fall to the floor, is he saying goodbye to the transiency of worldly empire?  Or is he contemplate the tiresome set of battles that he once waged across Europe, expanding and defending an now-faded empire?

Napoleon as a young soldier or commander of the Italian Army was often shown with his hands on a colored map, as if tracing his battles and a token of military strategic genius, who planned his attack on detailed maps of terrain where he would engage the enemy–






The iconic value of the map served as a reminder of the European map he had redefined.





In his marble sculpture of the moment of Napoleon’s death, the sculptor Vincenzo Vela captured the melancholy of consciousness of death in Bonaparte’s turning of attention from the map.  His stare out to the viewer, as if ignoring the map lying in his lap, foregrounded his relation to the detailed legibility of the surface of the printed unfolded map of Europe at the moment of death.  The map, in this moment, was less the tool of strategic engagement, but almost slipped off of the knees of a pensively abstracted, slouching Napoleon Bonaparte, as he stared abstractedly and with intensity into space, as if he had already left the earth after being defeated after his surprising return from exile.




Vela dedicated himself to rendering the map as something like a veil for the psychology of the aging Bonaparte.  Although Napoleon’s eyes are not clearly visible for its viewers, the sculpture captures the distance between the Emperor and the map, and the aging Emperor’s relation to European stage through his meditative reflection on the intent reading of maps in a monumental memorial statue of bronze, cast in Paris, which created a strong sense of the Emperor’s relation to the map and tools of surveying that were prized by the French–long after the cult of the Emperor had passed.

The figure of Napoleon reading a map of Europe was based on a larger marble statue first shown in the Universal Exposition of 1867.  Maps are the only media able to illustrate the sweep of Napoleon’s ambitions and his massive military campaigns:  the famous statistical map of the progress and retreat of the Napoleonic army’s voyage to Moscow lies at the end of a long tradition to process the scope of forces, men, materiel, and logistics in the Empire.  From the massive ambitions for land surveying, epitomized by the project of mapping during the Egyptian campaign, wonderfully studied by Anne Goldlewska, to administer his empire, to the many maps on which he charted military victories and battles, maps were screens for imperial claims in Bonaparte’s empire.  But it also recalls Napoleon’s unique military employment of maps, if it is retrospectively melancholy in its reading of the maps on which his battles were sketched–or the celebratory tricolor maps that, for Joseph Roth, he distributed as Emperor to his soldiers, marked the sites of military victories across half of Europe and the Mediterranean, extending to Egypt.

Maps were, in part, Romantic visions of the new relation of empire to space:  not only was Napoleon well-known to study maps assiduously on the eve of military engagements as tactical aids, noting sites of battles, but purposefully collected a wide range of them in his personal library, which he studied the maps in their specifics.  He made pinpricks in his personal engraved map of the Empire of 1812, lined with silk.


Napoleon's personalMap of French EmpirePierre-Jean Chalencon


The relation of the Emperor to the map is particularly melancholy, and, in a sense, a memory of the imperial title that he lost.  The use of maps that the General Napoleon had repeatedly made to vanquish enemies was a recurrent motif in the legend of the emperor as a strategic genius.

Could it be, one reflects the claim of Bernard Coppens, that a recently discovered blood-stained map, claimed to be the very one that Napoleon used in directing the strategy of his troops at Waterloo, the final battle at which he was defeated, offered evidence that the error transmitted in a map created a crucial error in how French forces approximated the location of Wellington’s troops,leading Napoleon to lose his final battle and disorienting his relation to the battlefield that fateful day, due to an error of the repeated loss of material in hand-printed maps?  If it indeed left him aiming canons in a direction that did not serve his cause, as Coppens argued, the printing error would have left Napoleon suitably disoriented as he tried to grasp his relation to  the battlefield, it is argued.  The conjectural scene evokes how the novelist Joseph Roth depicted he despairing disorientation of Bonaparte’s final days as general in the novel Hundred Days, and the psychic shock of a time when the map suddenly no longer corresponded to the territory.

The theory has encouraged considerable speculation by historians of maps that affirmed their study of the printing process on the vagaries of the mediation of information in the age before universal standardization, and a morality drama that reclaimed the centrality of maps in one of the most famous battles of all time.  The introduction of errors with the printing of an incorrect hand-drawn map reflects links between Napoleon’s use of maps and military genius, and the role of maps in mediating space.   The image of the reliance on an inadequate hand-drawn map introduced into the printed maps he consulted creates a lovely occasion to reflect on the mythology of Napoleon’s consultation of maps to strategize and reflect upon his past victories:


three maps and that consulted by NB at WHand run map and the errors in perpetuated in the printed map that seems used at Waterloo


If the recent claim reflects the reliance on maps as tools of strategy, it condenses the deep trust the Emperor had in maps, but was no doubt also closely tied to the  interest in the historical mapping of empire that Bonaparte and the nineteenth century knew well, and the uses of maps in imagining empire.

The possibility of the map as a key to victory lay in how it offered a new way to imagine strategies of military violence.  Roth describes, in Die Hundred Tage, the crazed emperor, having lost his reclaimed Empire after he had retreated from the lost battle of Waterloo, facing interrupted sleep in the the Elyseé, the very night after his abdication, and turning, engrossed in a set of maps as he even plotted the possibility of an impossible, final victory, suddenly able before his maps to “fathom why he had been so blind,” as “All at once, he felt illuminated as if Grace had come over him and he could guess, better yet know the plans of his enemies; he lured, outwitted, trapped, entangled, beat and destroyed them; the country was finally free, but he continued to drub the enemy, far beyond the frontiers; he had already reached the coast, the English were escaping in their ships to the safe shores of their island . . . ”  The reading of the map is a final refuge, but also the occasion of the greatest nocturnal hallucination, liberated from reality:  “He was not actually reading the map.  He was instead visualizing the actual villages, the hamlets, the roads, the hills, the battlefields, and suddenly all of the beloved comrades of his youth rose up again . . .  He would with the resurrected dead alone.  It would be the greatest battle of his life, the most wonderful, the most brilliant . . . ”


Napoleon's personalMap of French Empire


A new consciousness of mapping a monumentalized relation to expanse perhaps inspired the historical maps of the Roman Empire’s expanse in the historical atlases of the nineteenth century as tools and forms to define the relation of territory to state.  Mentelle and Malte-Brun’s Atlas de la géographie universelle ancienne et modern (Paris 1816) moved (or jumped) between classical antiquity to contemporary geopolitics.   The consciousness of maps as vehicles to explain past empires to audiences created a new imaginative remapping of precursors to the nation state:  A.H. Brué mapped the empire of Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire of Constantine, and ancient Egypt among the maps in his 1822 Atlas universel de géographie physique, politique, et historique, ancienne et moderne; its second edition inserted a map of Charlemagne’s Europe between the ancient world and Europe’s political landscape in 1789.  Despite a growth of historical map making, Christopher Black noted Charles V. Monin’s later 1847-8 Atlas classique de la géographie, ancienne, du Moyen Age, et Moderne included “no maps for the period covering Europe for the period between the tenth century and 1813” (Maps and History, 41).

The gauntlet for comprehensive mapping had in a sense been thrown after Napoleon’s death, by Christian Kruse’s Atlas und Tabellen zur Übersicht der Geschichte aller europäischen Länder und Staaten (Leipzig 1802-18) which used maps to direct readers’ attention to the question of territorial control along clearly defined frontiers across time–a concept more relevant to the nineteenth century than earlier times.  Later historical atlases designed as schoolbooks essentialized the national frontier; as the 1820 Historischer Schulatlas oder Übersicht der algemeinen Weltgeschichte, which effectively distilled world history to fourteen maps, or lavishly produced Historischer Hand-Atlas inculcated students and readers about their relation to the historical formation of national civil space, as well as orienting them to world history.

As the genre of historical atlases had indeed emerged, whose increasing focus emerged as an artifact of the emergence of the modern state, that extended the historical premium that the Emperor placed on the map as a strategic tool:  the epitomy of this cartographical narrative is the expansive Historisch-geographischer Hand-Atlas zur Geschichte der Staaaten Europa’s von Anfang des Mittelalters bis au die neueste Zeit by the retired Bavarian army officer Karl von Spruner, whose third edition of 1880 was expanded by Theodor Menke considerably expanded its first edition of 1846.  The background of this atlas, printed in Gotha, marginalized economic or social topics, in favor of military campaigns, political boundary lines, and the German contribution to world-history as well as the divisions of German-speaking lands.  The bias is apparent in this historical atlas, which took pains to frame historical events from a uniquely German-centered perspective:  the single map of Waterloo emphasized, for example, the contribution of Prussian forces more than of Admiral Nelson’s English fleet.  The background story of its reprinting and expansion was the Franco-Prussian war, of course, which was also the background of Vela’s statue of the defeated Napoleon, left to contemplate a map.

The consciousness of mapping a relation to space, and a local relation to space, is the major source of melancholy in this portrait of the resigned and vanquished Napoleon–immediately bought after it was displayed by Napoleon III.  The revision of the romantic figure in the form of a modern melancholy before the map of Europe is a sort of history of regret or of what was not:  his fist covering the region of the fated march to Moscow and disastrous return in which so many troops either deserted or died, the map suggests a historical map that was not to be, as the unfolded map seems to slide off of his knee, and its reader seems almost aware of the incompleteness of the very dream that it offered.

The bronze copy of the statue shows a Napoleon nodding off, but whose clenched fist suggests the mastery that had finally eluded him, which now appeared located in the map whose well-worn use seems evident from its creases, but which seems to be about to flimsily fall to the ground as if to elude the dying Emperor’s final powers of concentration.


Napoleon Views Europe

(Ben Weider Collection, Napoleon Museum, Montreal)

The monumental statue is striking for the considerable detail that is lavished on the inscription of the map of Europe, however, and the muteness of the register of the printed map, which bears a simple inscription of the political boundary lines of the continent and the difficult terrain over which the French imperial troops had travelled during their bitter loss:



The Map of Europe Nap Holds


What was Napoleon III thinking when he bought it at the very moment that he saw it on display?  He must have recognized the appeal of Vela’s verismo and the sculpture’s evocation of psychological regret, a far cry from the romantic image of Napoleon as world-conqueror.   Now confined to one island, left to contemplate his worldly defeat and what might have been, the statue is something of a modern image of melancholy, as well as something of an anti-historical atlas, as it ran against the grain of the tradition of Spruner’s popular atlases which focussed on distilling history to a sequence of maps of individual states.  The map, declarative and decidedly non-narrative, faces the dying or haggard Emperor in Vela’s “Last Days of Napoleon” as if the encounter between former emperor and map was the primary occupation and obsession of the former emperor’s final days.


Filed under Bonapartism, engraved maps, French Empire, Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleonic empire

Finding the Map-Maker’s Signature, or: When the Map is Not the Territory

Passus Geometricus

The illusion of a billowing bar of scale hanging from the mast of a ship, just above an aquatic monster, appears at the base of one of forty maps that Fra Egnazio Danti painted of an expansive image of the Italian peninsula.  When the cycle of consecutive painted maps, each three meters wide, was  designed by the mathematician Danti in the Vatican palace at the request of Pope Gregory XIII from 1577 to 1581, a map of “Italy” already existed in print.  But the sequence of maps that were organized in a “Gallery” that allowed the reforming pontiff to view the peninsula and nearby islands.  As much as it embodied a coherently unified territory, or mapped the territory onto the structure of the church, the cycle embodied a vision of the church–although it is often viewed as prefiguring a territorial entity in the peninsula.

The project of mapping the region lay partly in the bravura ambitions of the Dominican cartographer, who travelled in the circuits of more than a few Reformation cardinals, but the ambitious reforming Pope.  Although the cycle is long studied as having been designed for a specific site and audience of viewers, the monumental ‘cycle’ of maps is deeply embedded in notions of cartographical authorship that emerged in the sixteenth century, and were often focussed in the trade of engraved maps.  Among the several visual signatures Danti included in a cycle that expanded maps based on his own active surveying of the papal states–the regions of the Romagna, where he lived, as well as Umbria, Sabina and Lazio–noting both “the plans of cities and fortresses in detail . . . with the [topography of] nearby hills” and sites that linked the politically divided region.  Yet if each of the thirty-eight panels of the cycle map regions of the peninsula, a truism is inverted in the cycle:  the map is not only the territory, or the territory transcends the conventions of the terrestrial map.

The  scale bar hanging on the ship’s sail is a motif that reflected the transcription of the region.  If you have a scale bar, you have a map one might say.  Scale provided the basis for uniform mapping, and for manufacturing a coherent transcription of the region.  Fra Egnazio Danti, who would become the he pope’s cosmographer, worked intensively on constructing the inventive cycle of maps by subsuming the conventions of cartography in an expansive pictorial field in ways that fit a familiar classical program of palace decoration–adopting the conventional tops of using world maps as images of imperial authority to present the spiritual preeminence that Rome held both across the multiple regional states in the Italian peninsula and, by extension, in the greater Mediterranean and known world.   Danti inventively included the conventional scale bar on a sail billowing from a ship’s mast, famously converting the abstract conventions of map making to a greater pictorial design in the monumental cycle of maps.  It is emblematic of the conversion of a cartographical to a pictorial register in Danti’s larger enterprise:  for Danti converted the static conventions of cartographical representation to a living landscape, as much as acting as a state cartographer. In an age of the reproduction of printed maps, the most lavish of which were hand-colored or colored by printed blocks, the lavishly painted cycle of maps was an exercise in opulence, for whose construction it seems no expense was spared in its execution and planning:  striking in its rich blues and vibrant greens, the set of maps that draw from a range of nautical maps and terrestrial charts present an abundant landscape from the facing maps of the peninsula viewers of the cycle encounter.

Danti’s transformation of the cartographical register to the pictorial field is the subject of this blog post; the curved scale-bar shown on a billowing sail was the signature by which he naturalized “Italy” as homeland of the church.  But be warned.  This post is oversized:  rather than read it in its entirety, or before doing so, scroll between them both to explore Danti’s artifice and the map’s monumentality, to savor their combination of pictorial and cartographical registers.  





Danti was a skilled cartographer who had created several painted maps of the world’s regions, modeled after the regional maps of the Venetian cartographer Gastaldi, for Cosimo I, as well as other painted regional maps for prominent churchmen in the previous decade.  As Francesca Fiorani has shown, he was a likely recipient of Gregory XIII’s attention, when he appeared in Rome to help reform the liturgical calendar for the post-Tridentine era among the pontiff’s massive projects to renew the worldly order of the Counter-Reformation church.  Having taught artistic perspective to painters in Florence, Danti was keenly conscious of the relations between cartography and art, and eager to realize his accomplishment after proposing ambitious (unrealized) projects of engineering, hydraulics, and calendrical reform to Cosimo I.  The totalistic hope  of mapping the peninsula at so great a scale–and of planning a series of maps that covered the peninsula and surrounding islands in the largest freestanding set of maps that ever existed in early modern Europe–no doubt gained some inspiration from the totalizing project of projecting plans for calendrical reform, the largest such reform to have occurred or been attempted since when Sosogines proposed calendrical reform to Julius Caesar.  Gregory XIII is often attributed a similar imperial pretension–the corridor where the cycle is stored emulated the ancient notion of a palace walkway described by Vitruvius and its central window recalled the architecture of the Constantinian palace in Constantinople.

Yet rather than map the world, the cycle confined itself to the imaginary region of “Italy”–the region where a network of vescoval offices and pastoral parish priests was strongest, and whose confessional identity was most secure.  “As there were many Reformers, so likewise Reformations,” wrote Thomas Browne in his Religio Medici about fifty to sixty years later; “every Country proceeding in a particular way and method, according as their national Interest, together with their Constitution and Clime, inclined them.”  “Because the name of a Christian is become too general to express our Faith,” Browne observed, there was now “a Geography of Religion, as well as Lands, . . . every Clime distinguished not only by their Laws and Limits, but circumscribed by their Doctrines and Rules of Faith.”  The Gregorian cycle illustrates the climate of the Italian peninsula to naturalize it as the historical homeland of the church, forcing us to re-examine how mapping the peninsula means defined coherence for the pope.

Danti portrait

The mathematician Egnazio Danti

Danti’s ambitions met the ambitions of the Boncompagni pontiff in the monumental cycle of maps.  The relatively inconspicuous detail of the “Passus Geometrici Communes” indicated the scale in one among forty panels that map regions of the peninsula at three scales, among  many figural personifications, ornate frames, and textual legends in the cycle.  But it combined the same artifice and craft that Danti wed, and as such constitutes a sort of signature of Danti’s  blending cartographical and pictorial registers of meaning:  it compels attention as emblematic of how the cycle recast a familiar cartographical convention in an image of sophisticated perspectival form of distance-point perspective that he later championed.  It suggests that rather than simply map a territory–or remind us that the map is the territory–the map is a way of thinking about the territory.  If what you have is only a map, you start to think about the bounding of territories:  what you have in the Gregorian cycle is a pictorial surface that asks us to up-end a consideration of maps as territories, by mapping both a transcendent notion of the privileged nature of this territory to the church and the history of this particularly privileged relationship.


1.  The pictorial and cartographical are both enlisted by Danti not only for aesthetic ends alone–if there is plenty of diversion in the cycle–but for creating a new relation to space, and indeed of celebrating the constitution of a new relation of the worldly church to space–not a bounded space, to be sure, but an expansive space of a timeless peninsula.  The coherence of the cycle is able to be processed from  individually framed landscape views of different scale, rather than within a single framed viewed along demarcated indices.  Carefully constructed views of the Italian peninsula encourage viewers process ties between its regions by a combination of historical vignettes, textual legends, and personifications, based on his mapping of the mountainous regions known as the papal states between 1577 and 1578.  The map cycle responded to the elevation of cartographic authorship.  Although the cycle of maps was painted by several hands, the identity of the cartographer is present in the cycle in several visual signatures in the cycle, by which the inventive nature of the cartographer leaves a sign of itself.  One such sign is the instruments of surveying:  they recall Danti’s own skill at instrument-making.  The splendid wind-roses recall Danti’s measurement of the winds–now emblazoned with the Barberini emblem of Urban VIII, they first bore the Boncompagni crest of Gregory XIII, as do the gold lines of winds’ directionality across the maps’ azure oceans.

But the billowing scale bar is a ‘signature’ that invites us to join the pictorial rendering of landscape to the seas in a new vision of “Italia Magna.”   While not politically unified, the region was depicted in the fifth region of the inhabited world in Ptolemy’s Geography and was commonly mapped as a unit by 1571; earlier maps had been printed in Venice and Rome in the 1560s.  Although scale constituted a frame of reference to view maps as particularly plastic media–but in Danti’s cycle, even if scale of each panel is noted, the cartographer dispensed with grid or graticule, save indices on each ornate frame.  Danti seems not to have regarded the cycle as primarily cartographical in the sense of printed maps that demarcated the bounds of the inhabited world on a uniform graticule.  Indeed, rather than present the inhabited world, it depicted the how the Catholic church inhabited the peninsula by enumerating the abundance of relics, houses of worship, resident vescoval seats in the larger cities, and seminaries across the peninsula’s multiple distinctly bounded and named regions, in way that re-wrote the criteria of data that maps contained far beyond the locations of cities and prominent topographic variations.  The scale bar is a signature of pictorial, as much as cartographical, competence,.

The multiple maps are far more dispersive of the viewer’s attention than a map.  Rather than direct visual attention to a subject, as a painting, moreover, multiple details compel viewers to traverse the corridor in wonder.  Yet the cycle synthesized the harmonious order over which the pontiff and his successors would preside.  Let’s pay attention to how Danti combined terrestrial maps with nautical charts in particularly inventive ways in the cycle, much as Ortelius had in his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, and the particular effects to which he did so.


Cartographical authorship and originality was often something of a slight of hand in early modern Europe: most maps were more dependent on the synthesis of findings and readings than a single cartographer’s surveying skill; maps combined hydrographic measurements and nautical charts with terrestrial surveys based on the determination of terrestrial position.

Danti organized the continuity of landscape in the cycle so that the viewer gains a new relation to the coherence of the historical organization of the peninsula, both by its expansive views and its unprecedented scale.  The construction of the cycle artfully conceals the limits of Danti’s own surveys.  The surveys that Danti undertook of these regions is one reason for the expansion of the ‘papal state,’ but the magnification of the scale of the regions was due partly to the difficulty of gaining permission to survey other regions of the peninsula, but also to the centrality that Gregory wanted to give the role of the church in the preservation of a unity that the region had first gained in the era of Augustus.  The notion of a newly inaugurated ‘Pax Gregoriana’ in Gregory XIII’s pontificate explicitly echoed the mythical renewal of a ‘pax’ Augustus had achieved is perpetuated by the view of the peninsula that Danti was asked to present to his patron–as much as the magnification masks the limits of Danti’s surveying or the cartographer recognition of the constraints and limits of his ability to survey the entire peninsula.  Despite its impression of the considerable exactitude and accuracy of recent nautical charts, the cycle invites that we read and process the landscape of the peninsula, recently described by both Guicciardini and Machiavelli as divided by enmity and competing factions or parties, as a harmonious whole.

2.  The magnificent corridor dedicated to the Italian peninsula and surrounding islands are the largest freestanding cartographical image of its period.  The cycle offered a new way to map the continuity of a region that predated the coherence of the peninsula, or of course the Italian nation:  it was popular to cartographers of the fascist era in no small part because it assimilated surrounding Mediterranean islands to the image of “Italy” that the Roman pontiff Gregory XIII had ecclesiastically united by a set of resident bishops.  But Danti mapped the coherence of the peninsula not as a state but within the church, at whose apex the Roman pontiff stood.  Danti’s cartographical assemblage reflects the expanding cartographical vision of the early modern world:  based on the surveys Egnazio Danti had personally conducted a limited region in the peninsula, joined to a synthesis of existing maps, and painted by several hands; the dramatic multiplication of maps on the walls of the magnificent gallery reflect the proliferation of printed maps of the peninsula and the world in early modern Europe–both as visual commodities and objects of curiosity.

Did he seek to redefine the map as a visual commodity when he boasted of his skill in rendering “topographia” shortly before he undertook the commission to map the papal states?  He vaunted his ability to create an image of a landscape whose coherence bested the chorogaphic city views geometers or painters rendered by combining surveys and naturalistic views.  Danti claimed cartographers could “fool” the eyes of observers as well as painters–if not better than them–by drawing an  equivalence between the pictorial artifice of naturalistic landscapes and cartographical proficiency in designing, synthesizing, and collating information in regional maps.  Viewers entering the corridor first found two facing maps of the peninsula, whose contents are shown at still greater scale in thirty-eight subsequent regional maps, three meters in breadth:  by mapping the peninsula at greater scale and detail than any maps before this point, the copious detail as well as hydrographic variations almost challenge viewers to process its unity, even as each panel seems to promise to transcend existing maps by the considerable learning of its historical vignettes and mention of specific detail in textual panels.

The cycle reflects a growing familiarity with cartographical conventions and with maps as visual media in its re-use of the format of mapping.  The commission reflected the current interest in printed maps as wall-hangings, as a sequence of maps , complete with cartouches, with multiple textual panels and scale-bars, in trompe l’oeil painted frames.  All of this calls attention to the particular application of the cartographer to the medium of mapping and raise questions about how the maps were read.  Danti’s expansive cycle of map’s has often been compared to Abraham Ortelius’ contemporary world atlas in its synthetic scope based on both nautical charts and regional maps, as well as a new projection of terrestrial continuity–Danti’s cycle similarly mapped the unfolding Christian history across the Italian peninsula, raising metaphorical questions of historical continuity as well as continuity across terrestrial divides.  Despite their multiple frames of reference, the bridge political and terrestrial divides, and suggest a bound confessional unity.  And although Ortelius’ project is often cited in relation to Danti’s cycle, the far more familiar printed regional maps that divided the Italian peninsula to political entities were more closely engaged by Danti’s project.

3. Danti expanded the peninsula of Italy to document the central role that the peninsula played in the history of the church.  Contrast the continuity that Danti created among a sequence of maps to the expansive cycle to the synthesis of expanse that Ortelius had unified is impressive for the amazingly broad compass of inscribing a known world across two hemispheres:


A learned historian of ancient cartography who has specialized in the semantics of the map, Christian Jacob, observed the innovative manner in which Ortelius’ atlas, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, employed pictorial iconography, textual content, and cartographical symbolism in a coherent cartographical imaginary in the previously printed Theatrum:  Danti emulated this overlap in almost playful ways, suggesting the quantity of maps that he synthesized with his own surveys of such northern and central Italian regions as the Romagna, Lazio, Umbria, and the Marches.  The cycle of maps however effectively refashion the intellectual medium of mapping at the same time that Ortelius had defined the first world atlas as a synthesis of global knowledge.  Danti’s cycle seems a concrete reaffirmation of the unity of the invisible body of the church, and a dispersal of the body of the church over a notion of place deriving as much from Dominican traditions of memory–the locus of the church–as much as geographical sense of place, and designed to reconcile the continued claims to ecclesiastical universality of the church with the historical specificity of its location in Italy.

Historians who have studied Danti’s expertise and learning have broached his deep engagement with the Ortelian project; but the cycle reveals Danti’s engagement with Ortelius’ work in synthesizing cartographical forms for unique effect as a way to mediate his cartographical expertise in his craft.   But unlike the Ortelian imago mundi, Danti’s map reminds us of the lush landscapes within azure blue seas, whose decoration with lapus lazuli paint makes the cycle of maps especially stunning to the observer, and especially effecting as a way to process the relation of localities within a universal frame of reference.  The restricted scope of the cycle of over forty maps of over three meters wide each is belied by how their expansion over the length of the Gallery collectively affirm the peninsula’s historical centrality to the church from the time of the conversion of Constantine–depicted on its vault–to the recently concluded Council of Trent, which had proscribed vescoval residency in each of its major cities.  Danti may have willingly accommodated his cartographical skills to members of a curia who felt deeply in need of affirming the ecclesiological importance and centrality of the peninsula in the Christian world, and indeed in illustrating the ecclesiological integrity of the peninsula in an age when acceptance of the universality of the church had been undermined.  Ortelius drew from multiple sources that the engraver synthesized in a harmonious whole.  Danti echoed this ideal of a uniform distribution of terrestrial expanse in the cycle of maps in the Vatican palace, but playfully reveals its dependence on external sources, as if to acknowledge the fragmented practice of mapping, and its origins in a sort of pastiche or bricolage:  the cycle is more an assembly of maps than as a coherent construction, and frustrates viewers who might be accustomed to viewing it from one point of view.

Hence, many images of city views are shown in trompe l’oeil fashion in the cycle of regional maps, partly to allow a combination of views of different scale, but also to acknowledge the range of maps circulating in the later sixteenth century.

Sicily--Landscapes, nautical charts, maps

A map of the island of Sicily, with inset views of three cities

                  Danti's Romagna

The Romagna, where Danti lived, city views as inset views

This raises considerable questions about the nature of the cartographical authorship of the cycle, or at least suggests the potential divisions within the very region whose coherence the cycle ostensibly maps.  The question deserves attention; this post places Danti’s work within the growing commerce of maps of his time.

4.  The cycle is after all dominated by pictorial virtuosity.  Each is cast in the form of distance-point perspective–rather than as a uniformly flat surface–even if they are surrounded by metric indices.  The lower sixth of most regional maps include a dense foliage of landscape, so that the maps appear more like images recede in distance-point perspective, and extend proleptically and expansively to the coasts or seas that surround the peninsula, whose Adriatic and Ligurian coasts are respectively shown on each side of the corridor.  Despite the grand scale of the entire affair, the verdant landscapes in these views emphasized the abundant flourishing of each region at almost every site.  The landscape is almost that of a Christianized pastoral–removed from the divisiveness, war, banditry and struggle that characterized much of the Italian peninsula at the time that the cycle was commissioned and from the late 1520s through Gregory XIII’s pontificate.  The image of a bucolic pastoral is underscored by the verdant foliage, and by figures who wander peacefully and at rest through each scene.

          DSCN3655                                                                                                                 DSCN3674

Such a conflation of cartographical and painterly skills has led some to assume Danti collaborated with his brother Vicenzo, an accomplished painter, to create its unique design.  But surviving drawings that Danti took from his surveys of the Romagna–the only set of his drawings to survive–suggest the care he took to sketch local details to synthesize his maps, and his eye to local detail, even in such a broader project of mapping.  A map, after all, successfully synthesizes the local with the universal, and holds the two in harmonious balance with each other, or creates the fiction of such a balancing act.  That balance between the local and universal is the central thematic of the Vatican cycle, as much as the comprehensive mapping of the peninsula’s expanse.

5.  Danti expanded one region to the monumental hallway or Gallery, in a sense, to proclaim the central importance that the region continued to have within the Catholic church.  This much is revealed in the Boncompagni eagle that surveys the entire complex from one end of this architectonic complex:

Seal of Gregory XIII

The corridor is placed in quite a particular location in the Vatican itself, overlooked by tourists who view the Gallery with the Vatican museums–they connect the pope’s private quarters and the Vatican itself, just over the Belvedere courtyard, along a corridor that progresses from north to south, and as such constitute a familiar space through which the pontiff not only moved in his daily transit while in Rome, but which he or members of the curia might also allow visiting dignitaries to view.  The cartographical surfaces of the maps are often inscribed with a dizzying array of historical events that viewers find difficult to process, so much as behold with wonder, the use of cartographical forms to celebrate the integrity of a divided region was explicit to its viewers:


The cycle represented “Italy, the most noble region of the entire world,” announced the original inscription of 1581–reminding visitors of the commensurate nature of this monumentalization of mapping forms encompass a peninsula that Pliny himself had used the same words to describe.

The monumental complex of maps in which these two details stand (among many others) is disorienting both because it is itself an overwhelming space, and because unlike most contemporary printed maps, the landscape maps seem to emerge from their frames, rather than being dominated by surrounding indices.  Danti supervised the construction of the cycle with a talented equippe of hand-chosen painters–many of whom had specialized in landscape as a genre, such as the northerner Matthias Bril.  The forty views along the corridor are of shifting scale and directionality, as if the synthesis of such a wealth of local cartographical data led to the expansion of the scope of a project of terrestrial mapping to a degree that the viewer is hard-pressed to retain a clear sense of their terrestrial coherence or continuity as they move along the majestic and monumental corridor.


6.  As such, the cycle provided a variation upon the impressive synthesis of political bounds, hydrography, and mountain ranges credited to  the Venetian cartographer Giacomo Gastaldi (fl. 1545-62), a surveyor born in Lombardy whose maps created in Venetian employ distinctly centered the peninsula around the “Venetian Gulf” or Adriatic ocean, and would continue to be reprinted multiple times in a serial fashion in the decades after his death.   Gastaldi’s projection had importantly popularized the legibility of the inhabitation of the region by hydrographic and orographic markers maps that delineated its political and jurisdictional divisions, as well as providing a massive data synthesis:  Gastaldi was widely credited with a largest number of engraved  maps of the peninsula that circulated in the later sixteenth century, mapping of the peninsula’s political divisions, as the popular 1561 “Italiae Novissima Descriptio” pictured below.

Gastaldi italia nova

Danti’s commission must have responded to both the authority and familiarity of this map, by remapping the peninsula at far greater scale and noting a different range of relevant sites.  Gastaldi’s authorship of the synthetic map was widely asserted in these popular maps, even if they show a variety of orthographic corruptions of his name.  To be sure, the engraved image of “Italia Magna” provided one source for the two facing maps of the Italic peninsula that viewers encounter upon entering the complex, whose organization of the peninsula it respects, including only a northern corner of the island of Sicily–partly under dominion of the Spanish monarch Philip II.  The echo of the form of Gastaldi’s projection, which also included much of the Istrian coast in the Adriatic, is evident:


But, unlike the Gastaldi map, Sicily was in fact mapped in full detail within the following sequence of regional maps that line the walls of the Gallery, displaying its topographic variety with a considerable wealth of pictorial detail unable to be captured in an engraving:

Sicily--Landscapes, nautical charts, maps

For Danti’s cycle re-imagined the project of peninsular map to capture a vision of the peninsula with new coherence, albeit a coherence distributed over forty maps in the Vatican Gallery.  The multiplication of numerous views of the peninsula served both to expansively map the peninsula, as if to deny its boundaries, and to suggest that no single point of view or bounded map could encompass either its variety or the wealth of its local history.  Danti’s project seems to map and encompass the variety of spiritual riches and sacred testimonies in the peninsula that would be particularly valued by the Boncompagni pontiff and his successors as testimony of the triumph of peninsular unity in the church, showing a region whose tranquility and liberties was protected by both the papacy and the saints.

As cartographer to the Venetian Senate, Gastaldi had himself craft a map of “Italy” for the ducal palace in Venice, imitating the lost maps of Antonio de’ Leonardi of the peninsula’s situation in the Adriatic, which had won wide praise before their 1577 destruction as “una tavola d’Italia così perfetta nelle sue misure” that copies of the painted map were avidly commissioned by “diversi Principi.”  The printed peninsular map that long bore his name, in varying orthographic forms, was expanded and refined by numerous engravers in the peninsula, including in Rome.  The map that was often reprinted from original plates in different cities was always associated with the Venetian cartographer, no doubt as a sign of his authority, and collated a complex hydrographic network in the peninsula but also, from the 1561 map, delineated its regional jurisdictional divisions.

7.  The many regional maps in Danti’s cycle did not reveal the unity of the region, but assembled coherence of a somewhat fragmented collective to foreground its confessional unity.  The multiple cartographical sources on which Danti relied became, in the cycle, a synthesis of numerous literally separate multiple sets of printed or drawn maps.  Three chorographic images embedded and illusionistically affixed on maps of regions he knew at firsthand–Tuscany and Romagna, the “Bononiensis Ditio”–distinguish them as the best mapped.  These city views celebrated the sources of the wealth and virtues of the region:  in thirty-eight individual maps, trompe l’oeil images of oblique plans and views of these cities are included on their margins to emphasize their flourishing, from the pentagonal walls of Bologna, placed in green fields near the Apennines in a map of the “Bononiensis Ditio”, to the fortifications of Parma, views of the majesty of Venice and an inset view in Latium of Rome, the expansive view of Palermo in Sicilia, an aerial view of Naples in the image of “Campania,” and a more ichnographic plan of Milan in its Duchy.

The multiplication of these perspectives may disorient viewers who must  negotiate different scales and even angles of elevation before every panel in the cycle, and suggest the unease within the peninsula’s poltical geography of the late sixteenth century.  Indeed, the remove of sovereignty from the unifying coherence of the cycle is at first particularly disarming, as it foregrounded the fragmentation of the very region that it ostensibly united:  many panels indicate the boundaries of terrestrial rule, as that of Bologna, where Danti had long lived and whose confines Danti had recently determined for Gregory XIII–it’s evident in the red boundary line in the map below that separates Ferrara from the Bolognese territory.

Bologna's Boundary

The integrity of the peninsula is expanded in the cycle, whose division of the region devoted specific attention to the unity within it of the regions overseen by papal dominion or government.  Oddly, but perhaps only disturbingly for a modern viewer, is the magnification of the maps that show the regions of the so-called ‘papal states,’ administered by papal legates or governors, relative to the maps of other regions of the peninsula–a fact usually explained by the fact that these six provinces were surveyed by Danti himself on horseback, while the other maps were synthesized from a range of other cartographical forms.  In a sense, this privileging of the papal states in the cycle underscores the ‘good government’ and harmony of the regions that the papacy oversaw.  If the entire peninsula echoes the cultivation of the green topography of the peninsula, as a metaphorical extension of the pastoral care that the pontiff devoted to the peninsula, the region known as the ‘papal states’ are cast as privileged sites of Christian history.  The expansion of this region surely suggests both the privileged relation that these regions in the peninsula enjoyed to the church, and the wealth of evidence of divine favor that was revealed in them.

In the cycle, the regions gained integrity through their governance by the church, in contrast to the division of the peninsula into jurisdictional boundaries within the peninsular map of 1561.  The mapmaker seems to have bound together these different regions,  integrating them within a monumental progression that celebrated a variety of evidence of both the abundant testimonies to the faith of inhabitants of different regions, enumerating or cataloguing an abundance of relics, houses of worship, resident vescoval seats, and seminaries.  He did so to illustrate the harmonious order over which the pontiff and his successors would preside.   It is no surprise that Rome had seen a proliferation of individually printed maps by 1577-81, the period when Danti worked to organize the cycle:  as Gastaldi’s peninsular map circulated in Rome through reprints of Jean Lafrery, Francesco Camoccio mapped individual regions in the peninsula—including Ancona (Luchinum, 1564), Puglia (Venice 1567, Bertelli; Almagià XXXVI ), Lombardy (1564), and Corsica (n.d.; 1562), and Corfu (1537; Berteli 1564; Camocio 1568)—also sold by Lafrery’s shop.  Danti bound these individual maps together to create the illusion of a harmonious landscape map through his art.

Two particularly interesting “news maps,” documenting recent military engagements of the Holy League at Lepanto, a grand victory over the Ottoman fleet, where they were led by Gregory XIII’s natural son, and the Siege of Malta, a further victory of Christian forces in the Mediterranean.  Both maps were widely reprinted in order to explain the stunning nature of both engagements, and both of these maps were themselves incorporated into Danti’s cycle by its exit.  Both are complex narratives about engagements that were recent in the popular memory, unlike many other historical events noted in the cycle.

Lepanto                                                        Malta:Melita

                             Lepanto, with naval siege below                                                                 Military maps of Malta showing naval engagements

The resulting pastiche of maps in the cycle embodied a unique relation to the peninsula of Italy as an imaginary region or land, as much as a territory, in ways that may have made Ortelius less interested in Danti’s project of mapping than Danti had hoped, for it effectively shifted a cartographical discourse of terrestrial mapping to a sacred register, to define the “future” and nature of Italy from Rome, as much as to present a cartographical record of terrestrial inhabitation of the modern world.  As the cycle rebutted charges of the fraudulent nature of the papacy’s claims to worldly power, the cycle presented a “Magna Italia” subject to and benefitting from spiritual guidance and pastoral care, rather than being plagued by civil dissensus or lack of harmony as a community, erasing the competition among its varied interests by unifying them within a harmonious landscape over which the viewer’s eye could travel with delight.

8.  Much has been made of the role of the pontiff’s governance of the church during the Counter-Reformation as a mirror of monarchical rule, and the governance of Gregory XIII in the peninsula has been often read as an illustration of the papacy’s sovereign aims.   The cycle of maps might be argued to optimistically map a future “Italia Magna” unified by the church, rather than by a worldly monarch.  A clue to this coherence is in an inscription below the map of Ferrara, added after the completion of the cycle, that describes it as having been ripped from papal domains by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III, but restored to the lands of the church by Clement VIII, Gregory XIII’s successor:

Region of Ferrar, Restored by Popes

Or the representation of towns that had been returned to the papal states under the rule of the Boncompagni pontiff.  Each of the cities that was returned to papal administration is shown not only in a verdant Italian landscape but below the Boncompagni crest, a winged dragon in flight:

Dracones in the Landscape

This detail is impressive for the care of noting the Boncompagni emblem:

Quae loca in depi[c]tis tabula

But the protection offered by the church to regions in the peninsula lay as much in how the church preserved religious and confessional unity in the face of the fragmentation of the Christian world.  The fragmented peninsula which embraced all of its regions as well as the surrounding islands is a synecdoche for this unity.  The symbolic unity of the regions transcends the sovereign boundaries that the cycle notes.  For in the Vatican cycle of maps of Italy’s regions, each region is shown beneath color portraits from the  saint that its inhabitants most widely venerated–who stood as an intercessor to God more direct than the pontiff himself, but affirmed the fidelity of its inhabitants to the church. The cycle indeed mapped the vescoval network whose local residency was affirmed and enforced at the Council of Trent:  each map carefully noted the seats of bishops.

9.  This image of the unity of the ecclesia is perhaps the fundamental achievement of the cycle.  It trumped the very question of terrestrial continuity. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the expansion of a number of surrounding islands among the forty panels that divided the peninsula on the walls of the Gallery.  Many of these islands, like this volcano, are isolated, cut off from the mainland by lapping waves of azure seas.


The cycle however suggests a degree of symbolic unity that could not be mapped in strictly terrestrial terms–in the manner of a nation or monarchy.  Rather than being limited to the peninsula’s land, the cycle was less modeled after an atlas than the expansive structure, unique to Italy, of the compilation of island maps in a printed isolario–a composite book of successive discreet island maps that was particularly popular in sixteenth-century Italy.  The term “atlas” was of course coined when Ortelius sought to explain his synthesis of maps of different regions in the world in a “collaborative venture in large-scale data collection” that linked its different individual regions. “Because every part of the world will have its own map as well in this book, and will be discussed at some length,”  Ortelius announced to readers of the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, which promised complete coverage by incorporating recent nautical maps, island charts, and surveys, “we will therefore refrain from discussing those here, and restrict ourselves to the seas, since together with the land they constitute the entire globe.” In contrast to the novelty of the unity of the atlas, the cycle of maps Danti designed suggested a variation of the island-book, or isolario, several of which had been extremely popular during the sixteenth century, and which Italian printers and engravers had to a certain degree specialized not only in Venice but in Florence and Rome.

Danti’s signature is literally present in one panel of text in the cycle.  The panel is not evident in the cycle to most observers, somewhat hidden in an original Latin inscription above one portal.  But although the cycle was a collective project, Danti seems to have distributed his signature as a cartographer in multiple details, and, it is evident in his correspondence, felt a close connection to the unique construction and arrangement of pictorial and cartographical imagery in the cycle of maps.  One such signature may lie in the scale bar draped graciously and elegantly across the sail of a passing ship, threatened by the waving tail of a massive sea-monster of fantastic form.  Danti’s achievement was after all perhaps not the synthesis of terrestrial unity, but that of mapping coherence in a region that transcended the divisions of the peninsula from its surrounding islands–a region that included not only the papal states, and indeed not only the peninsula, encompassing not only Sicily, a region over whose jurisdiction Gregory XIII challenged Philip II, but islands as Malta, Cyprus, or Corfu, the site of the recent victory of the Holy League against the Turks at Lepanto, which was shown as evidence of the continued divine favor in the form of an angle who overlooked the recent military confrontation of 1570.

The sailing emblem of the “Passus Geometrici Communes” is  a virtuosic illustration of skill by a master of perspective; it echoes the technical tools by which the cycle maps united its divided sovereignty, and transcended the geographic or terrestrial distances between the mainland peninsula and its outlying islands.  In contrast to these divisions, both jurisdictional and geographic, the cycle affirmed the seat of the Roman church in Rome–the city stands at the approximate center of the corridor.   Such a signature is emblematic of the work done by a cartographer able to unify the Catholic Church’s presence in the peninsula and its surrounding islands, and mediate its unity.

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Filed under Egnazio Danti, Gastaldi, Ortelius, Theatrum Mundi, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, Vatican Maps

Up in the Air

Guy Lussac en Ballon
The balloonist Joseph-Louis Gay-Lussac, who set a record for ballooning of 7,016 meters in 1804, flying in his hot air balloon beside the Himalayas, in Andriveau-Goujon’s 1834 Tableaux Comparatif et Figuré (Paris 1834).  The ballooning record was only broken in 1862.

The crisp condensation of an array of multiple mountains and rivers by their magnitudes in a uniform scale and imagined plane represents an image of the coherence of scientific knowledge by its transformation of nature into a single reference tool.   The etched “comparative map” reveals an exquisite conflation of legibility and the cartographic surface: it contains not only a database of Humboldtian proportions, but information about the nature of the world’s tallest mountain ranges, volcanic eruptions, longest rivers, and even some waterfalls in Peru–although not the waterfalls in Yosemite, which were not yet discovered or surveyed, or Andes.  The map, if prosaic, is a register of the first age of globalism, before maps of air-travel or internet bandwidth, but processing and echoing a new taste for global aspirations in a post-Napoleonic era, in the elegance of lithographic form.

Containing, and finding a unique way of dominating the increased expanse of the natural world, the popular comparative chart of rivers, mountains, and waterfalls of the world first printed by Bulla & Fontana in 1828– based on Darton’s far more stodgily titled “New and Improved View of the Comparative Heights of the Principal Mountains and Lengths of the Principal Rivers of the World” (1823)–offers more than an episode of cartographical entertainment. The landscape that it opened for viewers suggested something like a popular panorama, in cartographic detail, a prospective view of global scope the likes of which was on the cutting edge of popular entertainments and sophisticated cosmopolitanism of a global map.

As it was redesigned to accommodate increased information and encompass a greater global purview in its qualitative imagery, the map became something of an assertion of the unboundedness of post-Napoleonic levels of global knowledge, and a celebration of data.  Encyclopedically growing through the complex 1834 chart of Andriveau and Goujon celebrated the addition of new claims of knowledge as a domestication of the natural world by indices of scale, even if it abandoned the orientation of the viewer to their geographic locations or spatial relations in a purely idealized record of the mastery of global proportions–the illusion of a growing global mastery illustrated by the comprehending a proliferation of local qualitative detail in its frame in encyclopedic detail.

bulla and fontanaBulla & Fontana, Tableau Comparatif des principales montagnes, des principaux fleuves, et cataractes de la terre

The vertiginous pleasure of the lithographic map lay in the combination of metric precision and exactitude with utter abstraction from place. The marvels of the world were presented, as it were, in a mental landscape of the geomorphological features of the known world, abstracted from territoriality or national divisions, in a gloriously unified view of the world.

The terribly successful genre of mapmaking essentially offered an elegant compilation of human achievements as well as of the natural world–from the pyramids, to the tallest buildings in cities, and highest ascension made by a voyage in a helium balloon.  Despite its encyclopedic scope and the range of data it processed, the “table” is human-sized, a large wall-map abel to be readily scanned, in order to digest spatial immensity to a scale designed at a human dimension for exploring a virtual record of the natural world that seemed to distill a global atlas to one sheet:  the findings it collated derive from first-hand observations, each concretized in a clearly pictorial fashion so that it can be immediately recognized and understood.  If the aerial triumph of ballooning as a transcendence of the everyday was well-known from the late eighteenth-century aerial flight over the English channel by a French-American team, accomplished in 1785, the celebrated flight of the hot-air balloon was an emblem of the national transcendence offered in the comprehensive map, breaking the bounds of national survey.

1785 British Channel crossed by balloon.png

The most striking single detail that dates the map is the place it accords Gay-Lassac’s recent triumphant ascent to 7000 meters in a hot-air balloon of 1808, noted in the sky of the Tableaux, just above the mountain range of the Himalayas.  Perhaps more importantly for readers, the height of the balloon was just above the highest elevation that Humboldt himself had climbed (5914 feet), as well as the highest levels at which vegetative life–for lichen, 5488.  As it rises above this barrier of living vegetation, and beyond the furthest height of the German explorer, the lone balloon is a triumph of the modern world, and an exploration of the unknown that was great as the ascension of peaks or waterfalls.  The balloonist suggests a sort of French victory in the transcendence of previous bounds of knowledge, and a sign of national pride for the Andriveau-Goujon workshop (fl. 1805-94).

Readers of the map could not only recognize the transcendent flight of Gay-Lussac, but could project themselves into a range of comparable adventures.  The map is not in any familiar sense a projection–or a uniform transference of a conformal expanse to fixed bounds.  There’s not even a pretense of uniformity in the map, because the assembled landscape discards usual cartographical operations that ensure continuity, fix orientation, establish directionality, or claim exact measures of adjacency.  All are sacrificed for one criteria of scale–height–that provides a lens by which the cartographer’s fantasia of representing how space can be viewed.

The notion of such a mental transcendence of space-and idealization of the basis of knowledge–was of deeply Humboldtian spin, and rested on his neo-Kantian comparative categorization of the relative height at which he scaled Mt. Chimborazo to place it in the context of the scaling of Mt. Blanc, Vesuvius, and the elevation of Quito. The scaling of mountains provided a sense not only of worldly retreat–as, for example, Petrarch, who ascended Mt. Ventoux for a new look on life and worldly vanity–but of global triumphalism of geographic plates, trumpeting natural knowledge of the Andes as a register of global sophistication by tallying a comprehensive compendium of all terrestrial mountains of in a panoptic survey of heights.


Unlike Humboldt, however, the atmospheric ascension of the balloonist implies an imagined prospective of an actual landscape, where the pictorial embraces, domesticities, and processes the comparative, and presents a pictorial unity of comprehensive scope–in ways that echoed how the prospect of ballooning was long associated with maps.

The synthesis is truly cartographical because of how it “writes” space against uniform indices to offer a domestication of geographic diversity and variety within the inhabited world–even while abandoning actual inter-relationships.  A fantasy of mapping, stripped of coordinates, enlists the familiar repertory of cartographic conventions of accuracy to offer a compendium of statistical knowledge.  The cartographer abandons the usual cartographical conventions of noting spatial orientation, directionality, or adjacency, as well as cartographical signs, but transfers statistical measurements to a pictorial view in which heights can be viewed in relation to one another.  This popular format of mapping uses our familiarity with mapped space to sacrifice the need to record or establish location to fashion a comparative collation of known topographic variations.  Optimistically, it shows the world as a unity and unified landscape, without divisions of nationality, in a project in which knowledge about the world is curiously disembodied (in numbers) and re-embodied in a single tableaux of global synthesis.

Gilbert’s Modern Atlas (1840)

The elegant steel plate from Gilbert’s Modern Atlas, 1840 arranged the world’s rivers and the heights of its mountains by length across an imagined chasm, juxtaposing Western and Eastern Hemisphere, running off from the spine of the bifold plate, even abandoning indices in a prospective view of the globe’s natural splendor that suggest a reduction of natural philosophy to one triumphal prospective view: akin to an unveiling of a natural harmony of revealed knowledge, the cleverly combined plate of Rivers with Mountains is not only an economic illustration of information but encourages an imagination of how rivers descend from the mountain ranges that flank them–including the now-iconic figure of Guy-Lussac’s aerialist feat as a way of entering the tallest heights ascended by man in the upper left and upper right as an index of human achievement before this natural splendor, as if to ask the reader to imagine achieving a view over this imaginary landscape from an awesome prospective, if not the landscape that it might afford.

Although there are no recognizable cartographic indices in the, the Tableaux comparatif reveals a familiarity with the collation of information in mapped space, rising above the range of important cities that formed points of spatial orientation on most maps–including, but by no means limited to, Paris, Rome, London, Geneva, Mexico, Bogota, and Quito, among others, that were noted prominently in the various maps and pocket atlases that its printers also produced, Whereas most maps map itineraries, routes, pathways, or memorable sites of human interaction, the Tableaux is a compendium that draws from different human experiences, correlated with one another in a space that does not exist, but assembled in a single whole.  It is a sort of surrogate for the totality of what we know about the inhabited world and its bounds, and the victory of the diffusion of a form of cartographic writing:  its readers were able to place each of the world’s greatest rivers in their geographic situation,–but now afforded a chance to measure (or rank) the Nile beside the far longer Amazon and Mississippi, in order to decontextualize and historicize the limits of global knowledge, and afford a transcendent view.  

As the ascension of the balloonist occupies a crucial pride of place in the 1834 map, verticality is the implicit theme of the map, which registers heights and lengths, to be sure, but focussed on the collation of knowledge by elevations, including forest lines, barometric readings of the elevations of cities, and heights of mountain ascents to make it a repeated object of visual curiosity that merits intensive scrutiny to local landscape detail.


The Tableaux stands as the culmination of known science, and the triumph of the map–and Geography–as a subject able to comprehend the physical sciences.  One might take the map may be a final redaction of the Ortelian ecumene (the inhabited world),  which it processes for the mind’s eye, but takes the idiom of a pictorial landscape to decontextualize the abstracted record of geographical knowledge.  And also to the observer’s eye:  for the data accumulated and synthesized is clearly both “figured” and “represented” to be readily recognized by viewers familiar with maps. The synoptic register of mountains, rivers, waterfalls and rivers that exploited the four-color potential of maps.  The image was based on a map first assembled in Paris during the 1820s, before being widely reprinted in schoolbooks or atlases through the century as a compendium.

Inscribing the landscape with remarks on vegetation and marking the turning points of ports on rivers, which the cartographer has straightened for adequate comparison as if from a laundry line, the picture is a representation of the use of the inhabited world as well as of the limits of its inhabitability, and a condensation of all that needs to be known about the world and all one shall, presumably, ever know.

bulla and fontana

The collage-like landscape, if impossible, placed global features for the observer in a way that reflected their own competency and sophistication, boasting its accuracy and transparency in the manner of a geographic map.  

Rather than constitute a new genre, the assembly of the world’s principle mountains had become a sub-genre of geographical knowledge, echoing the French taste for lists, perhaps, and the mastery of geomorphological features in ways ways that suggest an imaginary landscape, and the power of placing the world’s known mountains beneath the viewer’s eyes, as the hemispheric division of principle mountains of note suggested, in this 1825 atlas that abandons territorial bounds, but presents the romantic mountainous landscape as divided between the hemispheres,–with the ancient Egyptian pyramids, topics of huge touristic attraction that were almost included in a French patrimony in the post-Napoleonic period, if by erudition alone, front and center–

Carte des principales montagnes du globe. Hauteur comparative des principales montagnes du globe. Fonderie et Imprimerie de J. Carez. (Paris 1825)
“Montagne du Globe: Hémisphère Occidental/Hémisphere Oriental,” Bossange/Carez 1825

–between both hemispheres, as if in a signature of French erudition. The synthesis of global triumphalism in a pictorial landscape is the triumph, as it were, of pictorials over borders, in a graphic synthesis of volcanic and ice-capped glacial mountains arranged for the viewer in a landscape panorama of sheer verticality, measured on a scale rooted, at its base, by the limits of human achievements–the Egyptian pyramids.

Instead of offering any spatial or directional frame of reference, the Tableaux is strikingly framed by statistical tables that serve as the basis for its ordering of space–an imaginary space, that compiles locations in relation to one another, without correspondence to actual directionality or adjacency.  Adjacency and orientation are sacrificed in the hope of registering human measurements and achievements of measurement, conducted “après les observation des plus savants voyageurs” with the truth-claims familiar from geographic maps, but by expanding its level of synthetic view and the scope and range of its qualitative content o a degree that few earlier geographic maps had ever dared.  By collating these measurements in a truly utopic map, the cartographer transformed these multiple observations into a single scene that viewers could readily survey–in a supremely confident of compendium of collective observations that demand our trust, and promise to enlighten ourselves about the world’s entire form.  The arrangement of these observations in a map allow us to measure distances in ways that were not possible, moreover, in a simple map:  in a map, we see a river, like the Nile, as difficult to measure given its many twists and turns to its source, but all–even the Amazon–are now laid out in their relative lengths for easy measurement.  

This format of mapping, both for its synthetic scope and pedagogic utility, was extremely popular. Indeed, the genre was so popular as a synthetic view of space that it was widely imitated–if without the detail of the French balloonist.  An undated German reprinting grouped ranges of mountains not only by size, but actual geographic location in continents, as if the map was somehow an image of the members of different continental families–elevation of mountain ranges trumping coextensiveness of global expanse:

The imagined landscape of global topography, newly indexed for ready consultation, imagined the landscape as a library catalogue.  A contemporary Russian chart comparing rivers expanded on the genre in its own manner, displaying rivers as if their estuaries lined up to open to a contiguous body of water, to facilitate their comparison:

Russian Rivers

More often, this variety of map disembodied rivers or topographic markers from its surrounding landscape, oddly tracing the outlines of aqueous bodies alone:


All exemplify a recognized cartographical imaginary; the geographical compendia became popular tools to synthesize information for schoolchildren at their fingertips. The abstraction of the Ortelian globalism that reconciled topography with political bounds was dismissed, with a French wave of the hand, in a sort of cartographical magic trick that reduced space to a flat surface of the engraving, and hierarchalized rivers by size.

Abraham Ortelius, Typus Orbis Terrarum

To be sure, John Thompson’s earlier undated “Comparative View of the Heights of the Principal Mountains and other Elevations in the World,” dated to 1817, presented a composite prospect of mountain tops from different hemispheres, in something of a cartographic collage that took advantage of the aesthetics of landscape to abandon the principles of coherence or spatial proximity that paramount in most geographical maps.  Thompson, a Scottish cartographer, united the relative heights of the mountain tops of the eastern and western hemispheres, comparing the presence of buildings, cities, vegetation limits, and even fauna in an aestheticization of empirical observations that bridged Ecuador’s Mount Chimborazo, beside which flies an Andean Condor at an altitude of 21,000 feet, and figured Alexander von Humboldt himself scaling the peak, as well as Lake Toluca, Quito, Caracas, and Mexico City, in the same frame as Nepal’s Dhaulagiri, 27,677 feet–promising a global prospect if without either the Chilean peaks or Himalayas. 


If the map of mountains echoes Humboldt’s maps of mountains, Thompson had issued the first comparative atlas of rivers–“A Comparative View of the Lengths of the Principal Rivers of Scotland” which had a purely choreographic intent, in 1822, in one of the first comparative river chart of the century, just after his inclusion of the comparative chart showing the height of global mountains for the 1817 edition of his “New General Atlas” (Edinburgh), which built on Humboldt’s 1805 work–and also acknowledged that dependence by including Humboldt in his map, scaling Mt. Chimborazo.  The map of Scotland’s rivers offered an even more pictorial rendition of the many rivers that watered Scotland’s heaths–and is striking for representing the same sort of Kantian transcendence that inspired Humboldt’s own work.

Comparative Veiw oft he Lengths of the Principle Rivers of Schotland

“Comparative View of the Lengths of the Principal Rivers of Scotland” (1822) (Courtesy Rumsey Associates)

But the esthetic appeal of the composite map’s original designers and cartographers, Bulla and Fontana, had designed it in the 1820s as a landscape for viewers to enter and explore in ways that Thompson did not fully exploit, so careful was he to preserve and synthesize the newly arrived data of naturalists.  The slightly later Bulla and Fontana Tableaux comparatif retains the four-color format of printed maps; the original Bulla and Fontana from 1826 was exquisitely hand-colored in a range of manners that spectacularly heighten its coherence as a landscape that is inviting to the eye:  the warmth of these hand-painted colors is hard to ignore, and contributed to how the map was cast as a landscape picture.

The set of impressive rivers that emerge from the upper edge of the Tableaux extend, for example, from a grassy region near their mouths, the waterfalls are thunderously crashing with white spray, the snowy peaks with their blueish hues imposingly weigh heavily upon the stoney landscape beneath them:  the mountain ranges indeed fill up the yellow frame of measured indices, which serves as a pictorial frame for the scene, unlike the neo-classical border that frames a band of white in the later Tableaux.   In Bulla and Fontana’s map, the icy light-green valley underneath the mountain ranges invites eyes,and suggests a reserve of ice from which one can believe the set of lengthening waterfalls contain the freezing cold run-off of icy plateaux.  It seems that this wonderful post-Enlightenment map not only synthesizes measurements, but presented to the post-Napoleonic Europe the harmony of a state of total geographic knowledge as another green world, in true Renaissance fashion, in a sort of bucolic land that was both richly irrigated, filled with waters indicated by the synecdoche of waterfalls,and ready to be cultivated by man, even as Europe had been dissolved by wars and the migrations of soldiers and military campaigns planned in military maps.

Comparatif, 1836.png

Goujon and Andriveau, Tableau Comparatif et Figure de la Hauteur des Principales Montagnes et du Cours des Principaux Fleuves du Monde (1836)

The 1836 expansion of the comparative chart of mountains, rivers, and waterfalls engraved was produced by the prolific cartographic partnership Goujon and Andriveau, and proved particularly popular–meeting a clear demand for the investigation of natural spectacles such as volcanos, whose synchronized explosions are rendered on the visual center of the map that claims one’s visual attention in almost all of its parts, echoing the memory of the global influence of the eruption of Mount Tambora during the Napoleonic Wars, perhaps illustrating a sense of the climatological inter-relations even in a map that abandoned the rendering of accurate geographical relations:  volcanoes almost provided an acknowledgment, almost, of knowledge of the ecological complexity, after actual inter-relations had been abandoned in the name of the economy of map-engraving.


Both include the easily overlooked detail of the balloonist who surveys the landscape. The balloonist seems to be something of the hero of this scene, who has not only entered into the picture but, in one’s imagination, is able to survey the entire expanse that lies below.  His view would be what would look more like a map, even though what we see reflects the range of geographic knowledge that we can collate through our own unsurpassed cartographical abilities.

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Filed under air travel, fluvial maps, mapping nature, natural history, pictorial maps

Alberto Uderzo’s Maps

“All Gaul Was Divided into Three Parts . . . “

The cynicism of the Republican party’s attempt to redraw the electoral map of the United States certainly withdraws from reality:  when you’ve lost a big election, just take a few steps back, breathe deeply . . . and re-write the map.  It’s hard to take seriously the attempt–as if gerrymandering wasn’t recent history.  If votes didn’t materialize the first time, just change the rules of the game:  these are only conventions; why not protect the economic homogeneity of the electoral district to get more votes?  We’ve recently obsessed as a nation with questions of boundaries and drawing firm lines in maps, a pursuit which hasn’t got us that far in international affairs, or anywhere worth being.

If drawing boundary lines in the sand or in Ohio are powerful exercises in power, my favorite case of delineating boundaries for readers is from the popular comic, drawn by Uderzo from 1959, each issue of which began from the stark boundaries of an imagined ancient world:  even without consulting Ferdinand Lot’s Les invasions Germaniques:  La pénétration mutuelle du monde barbare et du monde Romain (1945), the identity of Gaul/France was the recurrent theme of Goscinny and Uderzo’s rendering of the adventures of the blond Gaul Asterix and his band of fellow-villagers as they continue to resist Roman invaders to their lands.  Indeed, the Gaulist conceit of the cartoon series plays with the idea of national and linguistic diversity in the ancient Roman world, imagining a past of fixed territories, clear borders, and national aggression that mirrors our own, or mirrored what would be a clearly defined region of Gaul–as if by a modern boundary line–from which a magic potion allows them to undertake the against-all-odds deviance of one city, not yet fallen to the Roman troops, and to preserve their identity even if they are within the Roman empire.


Fearful Gauls.png

The potent image of Gallic resistance that the comic strip has inspired has spawned theme-parks, stuffed animals, live-action films, and legions–sorry–of admirers, as well as probably having directed the imaginations of more kids to antiquity than any other media.  (So powerful were the connotations of resistance that when Uderzo’s daughter wrote a column for Le Monde in 2009, protesting the sale of the series to the French publisher Hachette Livre, she wrote that it was “as if the gates of the Gaulish village had been thrown open to the Roman Empire,” to give voice to fears that the resourceful cartoon characters discovered in 1959 would be exploited by marketing, as if they would be Disneyfied–a fear Uderzo himself counter-charged was only motivate by greed.




Uderzo’s now-iconic “Map of Gaul” introduces every one of Asterix’s adventures.  But the map becomes a them of a relatively early book in the multi-volume collections that is un-coincidentally entitled Asterix and the Goths.  On the comic book’s cover, the imaginary boundary line that bound Gaul/France was concretized for readers of the strip, as the boundary line between became the stage for action:  Uderzo marked a dashed line (familiar from road maps or national atlases) on the ground, to essentialize differences between France and Germany, if not intentionally to mask how the historical determination was actually more fluid than Uderzo rendered the boundary line between Gaul and Germania for readers, but which the wily Francs were about to invade, even if that meant leaving the flagstones that Roman conquerors had used to pave roads in Gaul.



Border of Germania.png

Border to Germania


Historical accuracy or verisimilitude wasn’t exactly the point for the authors or readers of Asterix.  But celebrating a mythistory very much was:  much as our hero stands for the defense of Gaul against the invading Roman Empire, the looming shadows of the helmeted Goths in this image echo the Bismarck-style helmet that date from World War I, and cause our hero to turn his attention from the Roman legions that Obelix stands posed to clobber, reaching for the sword to face a new enemy.  After all, the colors of the map are evident in the land that he defends:  Gaul is green; Germania yellow.  The border marking is clear, and the border sign notes the different fonts used in each land just as the Germans speak in Gothic letters in the speech bubbles in this comic book.

Demarcating regional boundaries was of course not so much a reality for the ancient world, or migratory Goths, as they are in historical reconstructions.  But the comic essentialized France by the gallantry and derring-do of its Gallic ancestors–as the counter-weight and barbaric other of the Goths to the east.  In each adventure, Gallic wiles defied the formal boundaries displayed in the frontispiece in Uderzo’s map of Gaul’s division into three parts in they year 50 BC, where all of Gual is indeed divided, . . . save one town that holds out to the north in Caesar’s time . . .


Gaul 50 BC.png

The regional divisions of Gaul are pseudo-scholarly, if not antiquarian, and the joke of the towns that are revealed, surrounded by Roman camps, by the magnifying glass, is matched nicely by the cracks of the earth caused by the cracks in the Gallic landscape, as if by an earthquake, caused by the aggressive planting of the Roman standard in the south of France, casting more than a shadow over the region’s fertile plains.

There was a something of a tradition of an imagined creation of boundary-lines in Renaissance editions of Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, to be sure, that is echoed in Uderzo’s clever cartographical cartoon.  The insertion of such boundary lines into the landscape is  reflected the increased national segregation of regions in Renaissance maps and national atlases.  They paralleled, to be sure, the fantasy among Germans that the region Tacitus described to the Romans in his Germania revealed the antiquity of the Germanic people.  National maps were popular in France from regional maps from 1550, or the national atlases of Bougereau and others, and commissioned by the monarchy–even if they were far less colorful than Uderzo’s cartoons.




The notion of the invasions of Goths in a later date was rendered as a cartographical violation of French territory in the great medieval philologist and demographer Ferdinand Lot’s 1935 Les invasions germaniques, an erudite study republished in two years as Les invasions barbares, a work whose cover oriented the work around its central subject–France, in the guise of Francs–despite Lot’s positivistic evaluation of historical evidence.





A subsequent edition of the map was noticeably far more reticent:



But let’s go back to the comic books.  Uderzo’s boundary line in the two-color Asterix map is an actual sequence of dashes, thick dashes, beside a marker which seems to have been drawn in the Gaulish/Roman side–Gaul is predominantly indicated in the sign, and, betraying the question of who wrote/drew it, the presence of Gaul in the Roman Empire is noted as something of a parenthetical afterthought. This is a boundary line for twentieth-century observers of the map, in ways unavoidable when the first comic was printed in 1959:  Asterix is a national hero who brilliantly and craftily defended, after all, occupied Gaul with ingenuity and help from a magic potion. The region’s bounding is totally unlike the tribal distributions that characterized Europe’s peninsula:




And so it’s not a surprise that maps are always coyly present as a conceit in Asterix, as well as national identities that the Gallic hero visits with or without his local bard, including not only Spain, England, and Rome itself, but even America.  This fantasy of mapping was part of the fun, as well as part of the creative anachronism.  Why were maps such a recurrent part of the comic, save as guides to narrate the Gaul’s worldly adventures?

Asterix was only something of a semi-serious hero who defended the cultural boundaries of occupied Gaul.  But the defense of occupied Gaul was of course a powerful motif in the twentieth century, and the recurrence of maps in the entire series–from the brilliant  frontispiece that begins each book, and is included below, by way of summation–repeatedly employed maps as the perfect stage for Gallic ingenuity and wit.  The man from Gaul had a certain international fame recognized on the covers of later volumes:




Well, that combines a map and aerial view, but seems straight out of a classroom map, if not a Michelin touring guide.  But Asterix and Obelix encountered plenty of signs like that of Paris carefully marked on their travels and itineraries across the ancient landscape that looked suspiciously modern in the iconography of their design:




But the line between Gaul and Germania, or the land of the Goths, is the on-the-ground view of the clear demarcation that existed in the minds of all the Gauls at that time, runs the conceit of the comic book, or, er . . . all except in one town.



Such is the beauty of maps, and their power as iconic images.  It’s not surprising that such resistance was shown when  Uderzo, who had worked so lovingly and hard to create these characters got slammed in the national press in 2009 by his own daughter for planning to sell the franchise after his own death as betraying a national hero to “the modern-day Romans–the men of finance and industry.”  Uderzo eventually appointed his own assistants to continue Asterix’s adventures.


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Filed under Asterix, boundaries, Gaul, historical atlas, Roman Empire

Map-Inspired Madness: Mapping the Great White in the Solitude of Ahab's Cabin

The terrifying search for the whale Moby Dick runs almost vertiginously off the known map.  The absence of bearings are particularly apparent in an era of increased map-printing and the growing claims of map authorship, often insecure of the origins or coherence of their captain’s narrative design.  The quest for the elusive Great White takes readers literally off the map, as The Pequod leads readers off of the map, in frequently disorienting ways; the apparently unreliable narrative carries readers on a quest for Moby-Dick into unknown areas less mapped as the almost  primal site of whale spawning, unknown to most, where the craft, itself adorned with whale bones—“tricking herself forth in the bones of her natural enemies,” bulwarks adorned with sperm whale teeth, rudder made from a whale jaw bone, seems to seek to arrive by human artifice, as if to persuade the whale to reveal itself by charms–or be all too similarly cannibalized by its craft. 

As the voyage progresses across the seas, Ahab descends to madness as he falls into maps in his desire for stability and power.  The book is an epic of consciousness, of Shakespearean scale, and a study in a landscape of psychic interiority.   As if conjuring the character of Ahab, on the final flyleaf of a volume of Shakespeare’s works, Melville echoed the words that Captain Ahab deleriously howls as he mock-sanctifies the harpoon he feels destined to kill Moby Dick.  The devlish incantation sums up his monomaniacal absorption, inverting the sacred ritual of baptism of a Christian soul, “Ego non baptizo te in nomine Patris et/Filii et Spiritus Sancti–sed in nomine/Diaboli”–after which Melville added:  “madness is undefinable” in its hubristic drive for “converse with the Intelligence, Power, the Angel.”   If Melville was raised in the austere Calvinist, learning the catechism in the Dutch Reform Church, taught to  “acquiesce in God’s will, no matter how unjust or cruel it might seem,” without recrimination for the divine plan, Ahab’s attempt to conjure the Great White whale moves not by summoning angels or demons but by conjuring his location on maps, as if to trying to conjure the whale by imprecations, charms and talismans.  The charms, we learn in Chapter 100, begin first and foremost in his obsessive reading of nautical charts and maps. Ahab’s mad drive is no where more unbalanced than on his obsessive poring over maps to reveal the location of the whale, as if he might geolocate his position by latitudes and longitudes. Ahab’s investment of maps with mystical powers is almost a clear echo of the Theurgic magic that Melville saw as the belief in his ability to conjure the whale he so obsessively seeks.

Of course, as Melville would remind us, the map is all in the eye of its reader.  Maps, in contrast, provide a sense of stability to Ishmael, and were the basis of historical orientation to the seas.   ‘It is not down in any map; true places never are,’ Ishmael descriptively evokes the mysterious origins of his fellow sailor and companion, Queequeg, whom he praises as “George Washington cannibalistically developed.”   Queequeg hails from the South Seas, and his unknown origins betrays the fascination of unmapped spaces and the allure of being “off” the map.  The sailors’ concern with mapping places haunting the narrator of the novel obsesses the monomaniacal ship’s captain who leads his ship to the same area of the globe in search of the lone whale he seeks to lead an increasingly wary crew.  Melville wrote with a particular sense of spatiousness in a chapter that first tells the story of the Great White Whale–“Moby-Dick” (Chapter XLI)–poses the question of preserving collective knowledge to gain bearings on the location of the White Whale, that suggests the onset of the first mapped knowledge of whale routes.  If providing pictures of  the specter of the whale from from the point of view of the whale-man, the encounter of ships at sea at the start of the hundredth chapter betrays a  desperation to orient his ship on the high seas, but which the conjurer Ahab invests with devilish properties as if they had the Theurgic properties he so diabolically desired.

At the start of the hundredth chapter of the massive narrative, an obsessive Ahab cries hopefully to crews of a passing English ship monomaniacally—“Ahoy!   Hast thou seen the Great White?”   Ahab cries in biblical syntax in desperation to the approaching English ship’s captain and crew, showing his ivory leg to the ship whose captain barely seems to understand him, but improbably turns out to be his twin, having lost an arm last year to the very same white whale:  in a macabre recognition scene, the ships joined the two disfigured by the same whale clink ivory limbs, arm and leg, bound by both how their lives found new orientation after their encounters with the great white whale.  Ahab has prepared to track the whale’s course on a map, however, and in ways not often historicized in the mapping of whales, a sort of hubristic act in the case of the Great White that Ahab tracks, and yet a cartographic image of location of the great white whale’s course that Ahab seems perversely and maniacally determined to be able to conjure by a map–perhaps an intimation of madness. As much as revealing the hubris of such determination, Melville’s description of Ahab’s madness is historicized, in a telling footnote, in contemporary maps of whale routes, whose potential promise, limits, and benefits he would have known well as a man of the seas.   

While legends of sightings are dispersed among whaling ships “sprinkled over the entire watery circumference” in disorderly fashion, each “pushing their quest along solitary latitudes,” sharing knowledge about whales’ locations was prevented given the “inordinate length of each separate voyage” and “long obstructed the spread through the whole world-wide whaling fleet of the special individualizing tidings concerning Moby Dick.”  The sightings of sperm whales of uncommon magnitude provoked rumors and fears of encounters with the whale, as one might expect, even if they were recored at a fixed time or meridian.  For, Melville reminds us again of the unique space of the open seas, “in maritime life, far more than that of terra firma wild rumors abound, wherever there is any adequate reality for them to cling to;” in the “remotest waters” or “widest watery spaces,” whalemen are subject to “influences all tending to make his fancy pregnant with many a mighty birth.”  

Such an expansion of legends of the White Whale on the open seas contrast to the single-minded focus of Ahab’s tracking of Moby Dick, and the certainty that the Captain possesses of his ability to find Moby Dick on the open seas .  Such a fixation is opaque at the book’s start, but is perhaps most manifest in his obsessive desire to track the individual whale by the sea charts kept in his cabin, to which he retires to read each night, and seem to provide the first point of entrance into his psyche–and what Melville calls his “monomania.”  As the ship moves over the seas, Ahab returns often to his cabin to read charts, maps, and logs, as map-reading becomes a keen emblem of monomaniacal fixation–as the belief that maps will help him track the whale that he is committed to kill.  The maps may magnify the sense of monomania, the psychological diagnosis of an undue expansion of mental attention on one object; if repeated reading the maps serves as an emblem of the growth of his fixation despite the survival of his intellect; trying to pursue the whale on charts seems to serve to focus his vindictiveness, as if materializing how the “White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all this malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating at them, till they are left living with half a heart and half a lung.”  Ahab’s fixation on the yellowed charts he unrolled on his cabin table express the monomaniacal tendencies defined in nineteenth century psychiatry of how an inordinate fixation persists in an otherwise rational mind; the fixation on mapping the course of the whale obsesses his attentive mind.  

Is the hope of locating the White Whale by the rutters of past whaling ships and collation of mapped observations an emblem of nourishing an undue fixation of his pathological preoccupation, despite his apparent ability to reason the possible path of the whale’s path?  The extended narrative of the ongoing quest for Moby Dick on which Ahab leads Pequod that fills the content of the novel becomes a sort of psychic profile of the obsessiveness with which Ahab takes the Pequod, and the novel’s narrator Ishmael, to encounter Moby Dick in the South Seas–the site of whale -spawning where the novel culminates.  The retiring of Ahab to the solitude of his cabin matches his withdrawal into his mind and serves to nurse his preoccupations.  What provides a more gripping image of Ahab’s inner psyche than the obsessive attention that he gives to tracking the White Whale by maps?   Ahab retires to consult log-books and charts to cull sightings of sperm whales that almost substitute for an actual map or rutter–and for the trust that sailors might place in maps and charts to guide the ship.  The problem of locating the whale s underscored by mention of the “wild suggestions” of many ships that have given the whale chase of an “unearthly conceit that “Moby Dick was ubiquitous; . . .  had actually been encountered in opposite latitudes at one and the same instant of time;” if”the secrets of the currents in the seas have never yet been divulged, even to the most erudite research,” Ahab seeks to challenge this sense of ubiquity through his obsessive consultation of charts, by following of the outlines of naval courses.  His intensity comes to transform his very brown and visage into a lined map, tracing out courses, so that his forehead comes to resemble a chart; reading maps with such obsessiveness to track his prey seems to remove Ahab’s single-minded pursuit from any oceanic transit, and from the common good of the ship that he commands.

Ahab’s monomania may seem sui generis.  But it is closely tied to the mapping project of Mathew Fontaine Maury and the contemporary project of collating open data on whale migration in Melville’s time, and the promise of investing legibility in a global space of whale migration.  Even more than the bodily injury of the loss of his leg that left him tormented with visions of the White Whale, the obsessive tracking and persistent consultation of charts and maps with other records manifests the idée fixe by which Captain Ahab is obsessed, and indeed the solitary consultation of these charts while his crew sleeps at night stand for the single-minded madness of tracking one whale on the open seas.  The folly of tracking the White Whale on a map embodies Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit of a way to track its course by a paper map.   So fully does map-reading come to consume both his mind and his body as he ponders charts every night in his cabin, drawing new lines and courses by pencil, and revising them, “threading a maze of currents and eddies, with a veiew to the more certain accomplishment of that monomaniac though of his soul, so focussed on a map that, in a brilliant image, his tormented face even becomes a map, bearing the traces of the pencil lines traced on the charts, as if the subject of his fixation rises to the surface of his skin, so entirely consumed his mind by the conceit of mapping the course of Moby Dick.  The appearance of these self-inflicted lines as if engraved on Ahab’s brow–Melville’s image–echo the captain’s fixation with obsessively tracing multiple marine courses on the charts he keeps in his cabin; the courses that are so intensely pondered seem to rise to lines inscribed on his own skin as if in as a consequence of the imprint that tracing possible courses  of the leviathan has brought.  

The conceit of the tracking of whales on maps appears an emblem of Ahab’s madness, if it almost echoes contemporary techniques of Global Positioning Systems.  The utter hopelessness of locating one whale in an ocean map seems apparent; Ahab has indeed so often red maps to transform himself into a map hoping to locate Moby Dick, and the conceit of mapping whales has filled his mind.  Yet, as the “hidden ways of the Sperm Whale when beneath the surface remain, in great part, unaccountable to his pursuers, . . . the most curious and contradictory speculations regarding them, especially concerning [how] he transports himself with such vast swiftness to the most widely distant points”    Melville presents the problem of mapping the course of whales as one by which the crazed Captain Ahab is increasingly consumed, pouring over charts in the captain’s cabin, increasingly isolated at a remove from the crew including Queequeg and Ishmael, and the fate of his ship.  Although whalemen by their expert knowledge often came to the conclusion after the White Whale so often escaped their capture “Moby Dick not only ubiquitous, but immortal,” the presumption of mapping the course of the White Whale’s course is perhaps the clearest illustration and emblem of Ahab’s hubris, and monomaniac obsession with tracking the whale above the expert knowledge of his crew, as he “led upon the whale’s white hump as the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race,” so violently did he come to see personified in the whale that had once torn off his leg all evil in the world, and pit himself against it.  Maps provide Ahab with a basis to nourish and expand the “monomania  in him [that] took its instant rise at the precise time of his bodily dismemberment.”  If such a mania began he returned home, stretched in a hammock on his homeward voyage, swaying in a straitjacket in the rocking boat returning across the tranquil tropics, as “his special lunacy having stormed his general sanity,” he obsessed after returning to Nantucket with the one aim of hunting the White Whale.  Monomania had almost fallen out of favor as a diagnosis by 1850, when Melville wrote, but novelists from Balzac to Bronte adopted the image of mental fixation and unhinged rationality that Ahab’s reading of maps convey.  

Nothing in Mellville’s novel is so great an emblem indicating Captain Ahab’s madness than his obsessive consultation of nautical charts and maps of which he is a jealous custodian, and which provide the basis to nourish his determination to locate Moby Dick.  Maps may feed Ahab’s relentless compulsion to track the White Whale.  Ahab’s obsession with maps reflects contemporary attempts to map the open seas:  indeed, the superstitious value of the leviathan held a special place in the “wild, strange tales of Southern whaling,” and the deep sympathy of whaling men for their prey, who they know far better than those naturalists who have perpetuated false legends of their fierce animosity for humans, from Palsson to Cuvier, distorting the actual awesomenes of pursuing any whale tracking the Great White.  

Ahab’s obsessive reading of maps to track Moby Dick seems a figure for his monomania, but reflects an actual mapping project tracking whales on the open seas, which Melville knew well, and a project of mapping the logs of whaling ships in legible cartographic form.  Ahab’s use of maps to track Moby Dick mirrors the cartographical project of Matthew Fontaine Maury, the nineteenth-century Virginian polymath and early hero of open data, who in 1851 sought to map migratory routes of Sperm and Right whales or the benefit of the whaling economy.   If Melville often consulted histories of arctic searches for Northern Whales published from the 1820s, the appearance of an authoritative map of the courses of whales that Maury had accumulated from ships’ logs provided a model that attempted to impose human reason and fixed continuity on a whale’s migrating itineraries and paths, in order best to predict its actual location.

Ahab’s obsessive hope to track the course of the great white whale Moby Dick in the ship the Pequod may mirror the scope and ambition of M.F. Maury’s project–a project that led to one of the odder maps of marine population and migration that appears below, but which is one of the monuments of open data.   For Melville, however, Ahab’s mania seems driven by the hope the map carried for being  able to track  the course of the great white whale that his prey, and to arrive at the moment of confrontation that will in fact never appear on any map.  For unlike the observations Maury graphically collated, the specificity of Ahab’s tie to Moby Dick is not on the map at all.

Whale Chart 1851Maury’s Whaling Map; Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

Ahab’s self-imposed sequestering on the voyage of the Pequod in his cabin, surrounded by a variety of charts, seems emblematic of his single-minded obsession to track the elusive Moby Dick.  It is emblematic of a uniquely obsessive sort of map-reading emblematic of his particular sort of hubris:  as he will never know the true path of the majestic whale, his study of the map symbolizes a contest between the mapping abilities of man and whale.

The private consultation of the map in the the secret space of the captain’s cabin reveals the sharp contrast between the whale as an innate cartographer who migrated across seas and the knowledge of routes inscribed in lifeless nautical charts, and the inability to plot or plan the intense longing for his confrontation with Moby Dick within the range of observations of all whales by traveling whale ships.  But it also offers an amazing fantasia of the reading maps and nautical maps as if they were guides to habitation, and a reflection on the nature of map-reading and the comprehensive claims of encompassing known space within engraved maps, and specifically of the colored charts of sea routes, whaling and sighted whales that the oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury produced in the 1850s compiling nautical logs of whaling ships, after having remapped the coastline of the United States from the geodetic Survey of the Coast by the Swiss Ferdnand Hassler, which had tried to fulfill the Jeffersonian dream of a nation facing two oceans, before joining the Confederate cause.

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We have little sense of the amassing of data that existed in Ahab’s cabin, so much as the intense relation that the captain develops to his charts.  Melville describes how Ahab retires to his cabin to open “large wrinkled roll of yellowish sea charts, spread them before him on his screwed-down table,” ready to set himself to “intently study the various lines and shadings which there met his eye,” and escape into the paths that they trace.  The memorable episode in Ahab’s own cabin focusses attention on how the captain’s obsessive consultation of the maps, as a sort of emblem of his search to capture the whale in them.   Ahab processed information in the map as best he could, and “with slow but steady pencil trace additional courses over spaces that before were blank,” while consulting log-books of previous voyages and noted sightings of sperm whales in a desperate attempt to locate the migratory path of the white sperm whale Moby Dick–whose own route he so obsessively seeks to understand and on which he fixates so obstinately. The reading activity is isolated and isolation, because the map is essentially mute, a second order of spatial knowledge with which he has no literal traffic or exchange, but becomes a way to wrap himself in further isolation from the mammal that communes with the productive fecund waters of the sea.  “While he himself was marking outlines and courses on the wrinkled charts, some invisible pencil was also tracing lines and courses upon the deeply marked chart of his forehead,” as every night, “in the solitude of his cabin, Ahab thus pondered over his charts, . . . threading a maze of currents and eddys [sic], with a view to the more certain accomplishment of that monomaniac thought of his soul.”

Such a collective map of the sightings of whales is both the focus and talisman of Ahab’s monomaniacal will:  both as the transcription of the paths of hidden submarine itineraries, “with the charts of all four oceans before him,” and the hubris of understanding the concealed migratory course of that noble whale with which he is so obsessed and that has long evaded his search.  For Melville confides that “it might seem an absurdly hopeless task thus to seek out one solitary creature in the unhooped oceans of this planet” to many; “But not so did it seem to Ahab, who knew the set of all tides and currents; thereby calculating the driftings of the sperm whale’s food, which whales were imagined to follow; and, also, calling to mind the regular, ascertained seasons for hunting him in particular latitudes; could arrive at reasonable surmises, almost approaching to certainties, concerning the timeliest day to be upon this or that ground in search of his prey.”  The privacy of the consultation of the tables that allow him to try to read this map, and to establish the position of the whale he seeks, becomes the basis for the captain’s obsessive hope to track the progress of the whale, better to interpret its location.

The intensive reading of ocean charts becomes a site of reading that obsesses Ahab as a means to determine and decipher the logic of its movement stand at odds with the description of the sublime nature of the sperm whale, whose own head cannot even be read without wondering at the majesty of the form of the “head of this Leviathan,” truly “an anomalous creature,” impossible to interpret or decipher, whose imposing grandeur is of such “god-like dignity” to defy human interpretation.  As the wonderfully described problem of the legibility of the “plaited forehead” of the Sperm Whale is a living surface that defies interpretation, inscribed with “innumerable strange devices for [its] emblematical adornment,” following not Euclidean mathematics, but rather “pure nautical mathematics,” the mapping of the course of the whale seems to defy tracking by Euclidean tools also defies reading, much as Melville described the sperm whale’s forehead forms a “mystically carved container,” the lines of whose face defy clear reading, as the “bumps on the head of this Leviathan” is a surface whose interpretation “no Physiognomist or Phrenologist has as yet undertaken,” and would challenge the abilities of Lavater–despite his study of animal faces–or Spurzheim or Gall, suggesting the intractable indecipherability of the whale, but whose “sublime aspect” and “added grandeur” Melville attempted, in the brow in which “mighty god-like dignity” is indeed “inherent” in a brow “plaited with riddles,” presenting Lavater’s mark of genius in the depressed crescent at its middle, in a brow “so amplified . . . you feel the Deity and the dread powers more forcefully than in any other object in living nature.”

As the brow of the leviathan remains challenging to be read, any hope of reading the map of the path it takes seems, despite Ahab’s desire and Maury’s map, Melville appears to assure his readers, as futile as a way locating the actual whale Moby Dick, but becomes an obsessing act of tracing, retracing, and location, that becomes Ahab’s obsessive interpretive project in Melville’s novel.  The fantasy of an ability to harness sperm whale as a medium or vehicle for global travel had appeared in the Currier & Ives satire on the California Gold Rush circa 1849, “California Gold,” that conflated value with the huge “Blower” a ’49er placed in a harness to steer his chunk of gold across the Cape Horn, rendering the prospect of laborious journey to California as a fantasy of the domestication of wild mammal put to use as a private frigate:  while the whale’s course was never to be so predictable the Currier & Ives cartoon suggested the appeal to a broad imaginary, a joke on global travel if not the presumptuousness of circuits around continents.


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Filed under American literature, data visualization, Herman Melville, Moby Dick, open data

Mapping Knowledge and Mapping Food


What relevance do maps have in a world often organized by database systems that are in themselves often impossible to visualize?  One answer is that the map is not only a visual register of data, but prepares an active correlation of information patterns and raises questions about human relations.  Rather than arranging data, maps show or highlight selective relations between data in graphic form.  Maps do so in ways that generate questions about our relations to space, if not the variety of relations each of us occupy to an otherwise uniform expanse, in order to make space our own; they are as a result particularly useful tools to ask us to consider our sense of place in ways that we might not otherwise find a way to puzzle over and consider, or find a way to concretize.  Although the size of massive database systems escape the kind of an individual, the maps that guerilla cartographer Darin Jensen has solicited and assembled in FOOD: An Atlas raise chart the spaces we organize around through food, and understand place through the intersection of place with how food is produced, exchanged and consumed.

In an age of the unwarranted expansion globalization of food consumption patterns and trade, where the importation and circulation of foods to their consumers often seem shaped by processes irrational in nature, the rationality of the map provides a way to raise questions about how to understand the ways that food sources and substances travel across space both in commercial ways and in raising questions about the efficiency of these systems.   In identifying and rendering a joint database of food production and consumption, we can grasp in an entertaining visual form multiple questions about how we value the place of our food and how food is now valued and exchanged over spaces far beyond the places where it is grown.  We may not know what bacillus of yeast helped the fermentation of the glass of beer we are drinking, even if we prize the origin of our coffee; we can’t visualize or often even know what field of tomatoes provided the basis for our pasta sauce, or the huge range of regions united in the foodstuffs in a plate of school lunch, or where the almonds of northern and central California travel in order to reach consumers from the Central Valley.  The maps in FOOD:  An Atlas provides a range of provocative maps of how food interacts with space that provide a compelling set of questions about our relation to place, and indeed the relation of food to space.  Maps of the global distribution of grains, or of the costs of the same foodstuffs, remind us of how food exists in relation to place, even if food travels globally—as well as the places where food grows.

The compilation is a true atlas of modern life—or of modern tastes for foodstuffs.  The Dutch engraver and cartogapher Abraham Ortelius compiled the first global atlas by sourcing maps from different areas in Europe from his multiple correspondents in the 1560s, obtaining a range of extant cartographical forms of nautical and terrestrial form that he collated in a synthesis of terrestrial coverage that canonically redefined the image of the inhabited world.  Refined and expanded in his own lifetime and after his death, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum bound these multiple maps obtained from different parts of Europe and vetted in Amsterdam in a single commodity that was immensely popular and, though dedicated to Philip II of Spain, was disseminated over a huge geographic expanse.

The crowd-sourced maps collected in FOOD were sourced in a considerably shorter period of time over the global internet, solicited from cartography listserves and Berkeley classrooms alike, starting from the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS) and coordinated through a GIS lab where proposals for mapping were often linked to potential owners of databases, and submitted maps refined for their persuasive visual organization, the transparency of their cartographical iconography and the appeal of their format.  The variety of graphic skills that are applied to map food and food’s distribution are themselves inventive exercises, and suggest the degree of invention that

The crowd-sourcing of the atlas is not only a question of pragmatics, but itself an instance of informational exchange.  On the one hand, Jensen describes how he arrived at “a project of guerrilla cartography and publishing” as the result of a natural desire to make the sort of compilation of maps that “take too long to make,” which led him to “an experiment in doing it faster,” both by relying on crowd-sourcing and local publishing. “It doesn’t have to take two or three years to put out a book or an atlas.”  The anonymity of the crowd sourcing generated a far more imaginatively diverse use of mapping conventions—unlike Ortelius’ interest in universalized norms, they celebrate local diversity of mapping abilities in keeping with the polycentrism of a post-modern age.  Rather than conforming to a single style or aesthetic, each crystallizes specific issues in an individual fashion.  The maps provoke us to consider the relations of place and food, and alter or tweak our relations to the world in mapping the circulation of food wastes, the sites for importing tomatoes for that pasta sauce, or the “food swamps” where junk food constitutes a dominant share of the foods for sale.  Each is brilliant in its own way.  Whereas we know the many authors of the maps that Ortelius collected primarily from his extensive correspondence, as well as the “elencum auctorum” that provided a comprehensive list of the different authors of maps in his atlas and sources that were consulted in its creation, Jensen lists the individual or joint authors of each map–and even invites us to construct our own!

Why create a set of maps of the relations between food and space?  This volume is a way to rehabilitate the use of the map as a way to consider and contemplate relations we construct between place, as well as the product of a local culture of food.  All food is local, even if the world we live in has globalized food as a resource.  The open arguments of maps Darin Jensen and his team assembled in FOOD:  An Atlas provide a collective tool to understand what might be called the irrationality of the globalization of food sources in the transparent and supremely rational language of cartographical forms.  Much as the previous MISSION:  POSSIBLE led us to view one neighborhood in San Francisco in new terms of the distribution of coffee-shops, trees, ethnicities, restaurants, underground gas reserves, parking spaces or sounds, each map in FOOD:  An Atlas provides a distinct corner of the exchange of food as commodities and elegant goods we value for their local origins, as well as celebrating the recent growth in the valuation of the locally produced good.  As Jensen’s map of the Mission noted the rise of artisans in the neighborhood, the mapping of Farmers’ Markets—both in Berkeley and in the United States—offers a view of the rising value of the locally farmed (and even the changing definition of what local farming means) as well as the access and audiences of these markets.  As MISSION:  POSSIBLE provides both a map of a region of San Francisco and a sort of surrogate for orienting oneself in any modern city, FOOD:  An Atlas provides a tool to orient oneself within the global exchange and local production of foods.  The map of areas of urban agriculture in San Francisco that is included in FOOD is a great model of a collective interest in the local production of food in that city, and a sort of template for resisting a growing divorce of food and a local landscape.

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How better to understand the pathways by which select regions of almond-growing enter the chocolate bars sold across our nation, or consider the inequalities of food that dominate the urban and rural landscapes in an era that celebrates famers’ markets?


Filed under Abraham Ortelius, crowd-sourcing, Darin Jensen, data visualization, data visualizations, datamaps, Food, Food Maps, Geographical Information Systems, Guerilla Cartography, NACIS, The American Beershed, Uncategorized