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, beside the Himalayas in a balloon, in Andriveau-Goujon’s 1834 Tableaux Comparatif et Figuré (Paris, 1834).  The ballooning record Guy-Lussac set long endured and 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.  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.

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.


bulla and fontanaBulla & Fontana, Tableau Comparatif


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 flight of the hot-air balloon was an emblem of the national transcendence offered in the comprehensive map.


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.


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.

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.  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.


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.

bulla and fontana




The collage-like landscape, if an impossible landscape, to be sure, boasted its accuracy and transparency in the manner of a geographic map.  Indeed, rather than use a directional frame, 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.

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:



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 are exemplify a recognized cartographical imaginary; the geographical compendia became popular tools to synthesize information for schoolchildren at their fingertips.

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 fluvial maps, Gay Lussac, Humboldt, mapping nature, natural history, Tableaux Comparatif, Tableaux Comparatif et Comparé

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