Cartography, Personification, Figuration

Personification was something of an early modern topos, and a device for how to preserve unity.  When that man of letters Desiderius Erasmus singled out personification as a trope worthy of imitation in De utraque verborum ac rerum copia (1517), a primer on how to vary and embellish writing in an elegant manner.   The use among literate classes and high social orders of forms for amplifying written expression emphasized inventive models of expression, valuing the versatility in inventing and experimenting with combining varied modes of rhetorical accomplishment as illustrations of virtuosic skill and ability.  Far removed from a techne, the art of deploying tropes or figures of speech provided a tool to please one’s audience, employing figures of speech from allegory to synecdoche in order to illustrate the abundance and fertility of forms of public expression and engage one’s audience.

The adoption of standards of amplifying abundance in speech as a form of rhetorical virtuosity was not limited to oratory, but was readily transferred in interesting ways to how nations were embodied in early printed maps, whose formulaic construction lent them to the sort of combinatorial arts by which rhetorical practice had been increasingly understood, both as a form of technical writing by state secretaries and personal scribes described and provided models by which to organize formal written as well as verbal expression by virtue of their plenitude.  Indeed, if the proliferation of early modern maps is often tied purely to printing to meet cartographical demand or a taste for maps, the embellishment of chorographical city-views as well as national maps provided a canvas on which to express settlement as a form of unending abundance to provide confirmation of the nation’s actual and symbolic wealth for readers.  Maps provided particularly apt vehicles for copia, especially through the allegorical personification and amplification of the inhabited land, in ways that merged the purely quantitative tools of mapmaking with elegantly qualitative detail.

Erasmus lent currency to the figure of speech as an exemplary method of expression.  In a book often cobbled together from model passages of classical works of writing and rhetoric that served audiences as a guide throughout the sixteenth century as a model of written communication, Erasmus personified the abstract virtues of a number of ancient writers from Aristophanes to Chrysippus and Horace with attention to how the trope of personification could encompass the virtues of mythical beings–the trope served to make vividly present for the eyes of readers something absent through varied forms of expression.  The evocation of a personified form  seems to have encouraged cartographers to attribute a similar poetics of embodiment to mapped expanse, and indeed helped make such figurations of bodily unity more easily recognized by their audiences as expressions not only of virtues, but as a deeply symbolic measn to mediate surveys that augmented their coherence and power, and convert them to texts that better engaged audinces.

The trope or topos of visual personification informed terrestrial maps’ coherence and continuity has been neglected, in some unintentionally or unwittingly intentional way, however, in a story that privileged the mathematics of cartographical accuracy, and tended to marginalize more clearly allegorical maps as curiosities.  The striking popularity of these device-like images both as forms that encoded information and processed it in a recognizable graphic form was particularly popular in mid- to late-sixteenth century Europe, intersecting with emblematics as well as the quantitative sciences or mathematical learning.  These images reflected the broader currency maps had gained as sophisticated tools to process a cognitive relation to expanse that readers could readily–and almost intuitively–grasp.  Figuration augmented the power of the map as well as its coherence, and indeed served to render maps in a readily recognizable format for their viewers–even if those viewers were not practiced in the arts of surveying or intuitively able to graps the mathematics of terrestrial projection.  For personification helped cartographers use the formats of mapping to bridge the tools of transcription of place and the assertion of their cultural unity.

The corpus of regional maps of France and England alone by practices of surveying and triangulation acquired virtues of embodying national identity for cartographers who presented their maps as images of the nation that analogously rendered the abstraction of royal rule concrete:  the royal mathematician Oronce Finé’s deep pride at the national map of France he went to considerable difficulties to create in the late 1530s, studied by Lucien Gallois and more recently in a collective volume edited by Alexander Marr, extended the poetics of embodiment achieved in his cordiform (or heart-shaped) world-projections–a creative mathematical innovation of global projection departing from Ptolemaic schema, using a model first rendered in diagrammatic form by the Austrian imperial astronomer Johannes Stabius.  But the design that Fine engraved invested the form of the globe–or the surface of the heart-shaped globe–with a joint physical and symbolic presence, using a form had wide significance as a form of Christian devotion among religious reformers as a symbol of devotion and sincerity, as Giorgio Mangani suggested, imbuing the world’s map with deeply spiritual association, even as its design also served to foreground the proximity of France to the New World in an age of global discovery in ways that would delight royal audiences.   The international appeal of the embodiment of the world as a heart-shaped form rendered it an engaging site of contemplation, if not encoded the map with deep significance as a meditative form.

Finé’s elegantly harmonious cordiform projection offers a strikingly material symbolic form of terrestrial unity, organizing words as if on a plastic surface that not only foregrounded the proximity of France to the New World that would be pleasing to a French monarch at a time of global discoveries–but communicating the concrete presence of the legible surface of the globe, as if to render it by a new portrait rich with emblematic significance, framed both by an elegant cornice and armature and against a dark red field:




The map’s harmony intersected with Christian imagery of devotion–undoubtedly also underscored by the deep red field of its background–as if to treat mapping as a form of piety, as well as provide a satisfying variation of the format for ordering the map’s surface.  The organization of place-names on the curved meridians and parallels of its surface preserve a sense of its perfect smoothness, distorting Antarctica as a ˆTerra Australis” but doing so to lend the organization of what seem four large landmasses or continents far more harmonious symmetry and structural balance.

The 1538 map of France, if far less famous as a symbolization of unity, accorded embodiment to France as a nation that is particularly striking in its attention to record only the sites of population or topography within its national frontiers, which not only received a royal privilege, but was enabled by his charge to take surveying measurements by an instrument of triangulation he claimed was his own device, and which he invited each inhabitant in the nation to submit any reading that deviated from the “portrait” he set forth–adopting a language of personification for the jurisdictional boundaries of its expanse, here including part of current Switzerland:



This stunning woodcut from the Bibliothèque nationale‘s online collection presented something of an icon of national unity.  As much as providing accurate records based on new instruments, the comprehensive coverage of local detail in maps as that of Fine responded to political exigencies:  even if we can associate the determination of accurate base-lines with Cassini and Turgot, the uses of maps to refigure national unity or to imagine the nation-state that a monarch ruled was actually more of a purely Renaissance affair.  For the French mathematician sought “depingere Galliam insignorem nostrae melioris Europae regionem . . . ad vivum quantum fieri potuit figurate” in an image that knitted the  Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul into one life-like image, “pour ample et facile intelligence”–and in doing so would bridge the historical divisions in France that Caesar had described in his Gallic Wars.  While this boast was sure to attract erudites and illustrates his intended audience, the life-like notion that he sought to attribute to the map, I would argue, revealed its deeply figural properties, much as does its adoption of a language of cartographical portraiture.

The royal portrait of Elizabeth I by Maurice Gheeraerts the Younger gestured to the role of maps in providing a concrete figuration of national unity in the counterpoint that he drew between the nation as embodied by map and by monarch–the opposition of the body of the nation and the body of the king (or, as it were, queen)–in the 1592 Ditchley portrait standing astride a map of her land recently mapped in detail in Saxton’s 1579 atlas:


The Saxton atlas was crafted with royal permission to visit private lands, and is not to be opposed to narrowly to a figuration of monarchical authority.  In the portrait painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger of the queen in her sixty-second year, showing Elizabeth as leading her country into the future after a storm, the map re-figured her relation to the nation in vital ways.  The material precedent of the thirty-four highly ornamented maps that Saxton printed of the realm’s counties, issued as an atlas of 1579, afforded a model for this multi-colored map, and presented each county in differing colors, much in the Saxton’s popular county maps, in ways worth viewing in close-up detail:

England's Land


Take, for example, Saxton’s mapping of Kent in his highly ornamental, if also in part practical, colored atlas, for which he had received special royal privileges to enter villages and private properties for the purpose of conducting his surveys:




The topos of the map provided a powerful symbolic model for the figuration of monarchical identity, and for a new poetics of embodiment, less invested in the trappings of monarchical authority alone, and recognizing the extent to which national identity had become increasingly mediated in maps by the late sixteenth century.

Indeed, the master-engraver and cartographer Abraham Ortelius himself had personified the continents in the frontispiece of his authoritative collation of maps in his 1570 Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, a massively ambitious comprehensive compendium of maps of the known world which became known as the first modern “atlas”:


Ortelius' Continents-Ftspiece


–and gave pride of place to the figure of a crowned female Europe, surrounded by the artifacts of cartographical practice and knowledge distinguishing practitioners as himself, and fabricated European knowledge of non-European peoples–here represented by less regally clothed figures of Asia and Africa that theatrically gesture on both sides of the monumental classical architectural frame on its title-page.


Europe with Globes


In this context, the use of “Europa Regina” provided a new figuration of Europe’s identity when it was reprinted in Sebastian Munster’s Cosmographia in 1586, and enjoyed considerable success in the reprintings of later years.  Similarly, in the cycle of maps of the Italian peninsula that was composed from surveys that the mathematician-catographer Egnazio Danti specially took of papal possessions in six regions of the peninsula that were formally included in papal lands.  The surveys provided a starting point for which the cartographer worked with a team of painters in the Gallery of Maps in the Vatican Palace whcih  refigured the peninsula’s identity as a region embodied by the church, rather than a series of constituent states–and indeed cast the unification of the state by the Reform church as a historical conclusion to the conclusion of the violent civil wars by Augustus, in a symbolic analogy that was potentially fraught if powerful in the authoritative model of peninsular unity:  Augstus’ ascension to his rule was by no means peaceful, but his shoring up of state authority after the Civil Wars was a historical touchstone.

Such maps stake visual arguments about national unity.  They do so by inviting their audiences to linger on the coherence with which cartographical tools embody a coherent record of territorial extent.  The maps mediate a carefully worked record of territorial surveys to present a united field for viewers to scan in particularly pleasurable terms.   The cartographers of each employhd mathematical expertise to express political unity in particularly useful ways:  for they blur nature and culture to mediate images of nations invested with symbolic values of unity and coherence, often doing so by gesturing to the organic unity of the body.   Each map advertised its own  pictorial coherence by taking advantage of the formal unity of mapmaking.  Gheeraerts seems to have adopted this language of personification much as Saxton was engaged in refiguring English identity from the country earlier best known  from the 1564 Mercator’s maps of the country.  The national mapping of France later took on new urgency in an age of confessional divides, for example, as a generation of cartographers sought to knit its divides, and in an age of religious wars create a literal metonym for religious concord and confessional uniformity, rendered as legible in flourishing rivers, forests, and fertile plains, and praising, as Bougereau’s map of France, the many rivers that gave it nourishment.  And Claes Jansz. Visscher’s “Leo Belgicus” (1611)–or “Leo Hollandicus“–


Leo Belgicus.jpgDavid Rumsey Map Center, Stanford University Libraries


The map elegantly embodied the Netherlands as a rearing lion, restored to its symbolic unity, to mark the restoration of integrity and peace region’s liberation from Spain and the truce that brought tranquility to the region–and restored local commerce.  Is it only a coincidence that the “brain” or mind of the lion is effectively occupied by the sea, the site of the compass-rose that remained an iconic tool of orientation in nautical cartography?


HEAD of LION.png


The figuration of the region in the form of a rearing lion celebrated the region’s regained autonomy in a chorographic format of a regional map, ringed by a series of individual city-views of startling detail; situated beside the hirsute lion’s mane and legs, paired views of the peaceful countryside and of the active shipping commerce, to celebrate the benefits of the new age of peace that the treaty inaugurated.





Bucolic NL.pngDavid Rumsey Map Center, Stanford University Libraries


Indeed, if the colored 1648 Fischer map of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg is better known from postcards, the image derived from a 1583 map that stunningly figured the Netherlands in the form of a lion that the Austrian diplomat and geneologist Michael Eytzinger published in the Civitates orbis terrarium compiled by Ortelius’ friend and colleague Michael Hogenberg:




In a strikingly dense period of designing and printing maps, cartographical refiguration provided a persuasive graphic form of material personification, and something of a learned figuration of a fabricated regional identity.  As a figural image, the map became a basis to imagine the future of the region as a nation, but more compellingly to render its history and prefigure its future in vividly persuasive form.

1 Comment

Filed under allegorical maps, cartographic design, copia, engraved maps

One response to “Cartography, Personification, Figuration

  1. Great post! The analogy between Erasmus in words in De Copia and visual personification or figuration suggests all sorts of Renaissance text/ image connections and, often tensions. Interesting that copia means prolific abundance but in Erasmus’s project is also about formulae and formalization, not to mention showing off the “bella figura.” The fit with maps is close.

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