Monthly Archives: July 2013

Mapping What We Now Weigh

There is little comfort to be taken in the recent announcement that the United States has been overtaken as the world’s nation with the greatest number of obesely overweight citizens by Mexico.   As Mexico collectively surpassed the symbolic statistical benchmark of the 31.8% obesity of citizens in the United States, this was clearly never meant as a cause for self-congratulation about the reduction of our own waist-lines.  The announcement that almost 1/3 of Mexico’s citizens were obese allowed it to surpass the United States among the world’s most over-weight, and also illustrates the rapid success of a model of mass-produced food consumption in a post-NAFTA world where the popularity of fast-food and sugar-laden drinks has dramatically grown south of the border.

The real story behind the story is the relation of how our habits of food consumption have shifted the total body weight of the nation over the past several decades from the mid-1980s–and the much-noted radical changes in percentages of obesity throughout the entire lower forty-eight since 2000 in this dynamically animated time-stop choropleth map, which seems to constitute something of a watershed that opens the floodgates to weight-gain through 2005, in a preview to the drama of over-consumption of edibles narrated in “Supersize Me!”:



This animated map, generated by the CDC, provides a scary image of the changes using the government’s standard for obesity at a body mass of 30 or over, might be more disorienting than explanatory, but charts a massive shift in Americans’ eating habits.  In displaying those states with citizens whose body mass exceeds 30 or over–a generous benchmark, given that the World Health Organization marks obesity at a BMI of 25–the map charts the changing waistline of a nation over time.
Their expansive standard of obesity in hand, the CDC defined the goal for reducing obesity to 15%, which no state successfully did–even if Colorado came close until 2004–which reveals the difficulty of turning back the trend.  This is not surprising, given the map of world-wide per capita calorie consumption that the World Food Program devised in 2006, anticipating some of the imaginative cartographies of Dr. Benjamin Hennig, which illustrated the bloated caloric intake of the United States, Australia, Canada, and Saudi Arabia.
World Map-Calorie ConsumptionThere is clearly a culture of overeating waiting to be mapped.  But one cannot say the map has a clear cultural origin–so much is it rooted in food purveyors, and a food network of factory farms, as much as economy.  Obesity was recently mapped in 2010 by the World Health Organization for both men and women, in ways surely reflect the local economy, but also show a resistance to obesity, if we can call it that, in areas as Irish or Frenchmen,  although lack of food in Afghanistan contributed to limit average male BMI in that war-zone.
OBese Men 2010--WHO
Although French women are notably less obese, as those in Estonia, women in the United States are revealed by this metric 75% obese–fully two shades of color greater than their Canadian counterparts:
Overweight Females--WHO
The global shift in the prevalence of obesity is strikingly evident in Europe from 2005 among both sexes, here to note only women, taking special note of Italy and Greenland:
WHO Females 2005
The prevalence of obese males in 2005 is less striking in its difference, although German, Austrian, and Croatian males don’t seem slim.
WHO Men Obese 2005
To scratch beneath the surface of these infographics, it might help to ask how folks got that way, or what might be done to better understand the change–as well as to get beyond the limited chromatic variations of the WHO maps.  At last notice, the CDC found that no state in the nation in 2011 was lower than one-fifth, or 20%, with twelve states–including Alabama, Arkansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Texas, and South Carolina–the proportion being almost one-third, mirroring both CDC maps of an inappropriately metaphorized “fat belt” and “stroke belt” discerned in the nation in 2011–neither of which provides enough grain to get us far, but which surely packs a punch and gives a shock to our national health-care system.

%22Fat Belt%22 Map.


Scarier, and mirroring eating trends, is the rising obesity among those college-age, and the alarming concentration of an over-50% rate five years ago in Alabama and Mississippi, for what this tells us about the future picture of the nation, this courtesy Miller-McClune:


Obesity in CHildhood MapThe infographic maps unsurprisingly onto the CDC’s mapping of 2010 obesity trends provides a striking picture of the spatial concentration of the obese.

To start to add finer grain and greater questions of causation to the CDC infographics–and to unpack the information that they provide–we might do well to test the correlation to eating habits and with diet.  For a start, we might look at the clever data visualizations based on aggregates that Stephen von Worley devised to chart fast-food preferences nation-wide to interrogate McDonald’s’ market-share monopoly of the fast-food chains that line the nation’s highways.  Starting from a visualization of the continuous United States that plotted the nearest McDonalds from any point in the nation–that reveals at its brightest spots the near ubiquity of a McDonalds restaurant at certain nodes in the country–the brightest lights signify the points of least travel to the Golden Arches in September of 2009.




As much as providing a new picture of the question of our nation’s actual continuity, von Worley’s slightly tactless visualization raises interesting questions about the options for food available in specific parts of the country, and the possibility to discern clusters along national interstates, from California’s I-5 to route 95 in Florida, or along specific regions, like Long Island and the Chicago area:




After winnowing down the over 36,000 restaurants to the eight largest, but to prevent one from outshining the others, von Worley maps the three most dominant fast-food purveyor among eight contenders in different colors across space–McDonald’s (black), Burger King (red), Wendy’s (yellow), Jack-in-the-Box (magenta), Sonic (the Oklahoma-based America’s Drive-In; periwinkle), Diary Queen (cream), Carl’s Junior (green) and Hardee’s (cyan).  Although devised with the intent was to question the market-dominance of McDonalds, von Worley also elegantly illuminated a dense distribution of burger-consumption as national food swamps, and by weighting stores at a 4:2:1 ratio the limited variety that underlie the illusion of a landscape of uniform food-choice:


Steve Whorley's Fast Food Map


The data distribution unsurprisingly overlaps with those states whose inhabitants share a BMI that tends to be supersized, looking at the final frame from the animated colored choropleths above.



As an expert data visualizer if not an artist, von Worley seems aware of these implications, although his upbeat brightly-colored points gives a pop-art aesthetic to spectacular maps of gluts of fast-food chains that hint at stretches of food swamps (where access to prepared foods or processed food outweighs fresh food) across the nation.  Indeed, von Worley started by mapping the total area controlled by fast-food chains, to compare McDonald’s and its competitors, as if to imagine of local resistance to the evil ‘burger force’ that must be overthrown at all costs in an openly Manichean vision of the world of burgerland:




As suggested, von Worley hoped that the growth of the evil empire Ray Kroc could be reversed should competitors join forces against the Big Mac seems wrong headed–rendering here in utopian pastels–that cast Jack-in-the-Box and Wendy’s as Davids to McDonald’s Goliath as a landscape of dayglo colors, where the black of McDonalds presented something of a plague or blotch infecting, as if a cancer, much of New York, western Massachusetts, Vermont, and Chicago.




Von Worley wanted to map the degree to which McDonald’s locations are only dominant in the North-East.  But his data visualization is oddly not so concerned about the lack of variety at these stores, or the sort of dietary habits that the map maps.

His recent dedication to measuring the burgerscape, both by taking into account both the distances likely to be traveled for folks to spend money on food to weight places folks are more likely to travel to indulge, and introducing scalable model of market dominance.   The data visualization maps a glut of burger consumption in specific regions that is striking, placing Mississippi in an expanse from Dallas-Fort Worth (upper left cluster) to the Mississippi Delta, where yellow clusters mark Jacksonville, MI, and ports are dotted with fast-food chains.  The burger density is striking, even if von Worley’s chipper aesthetic sensibility belies the glut of consuming all that factory-farmed meat and animal grease:   for the pied pastels of von Worley’s pointillist mapping of fast food locales transmute eating habits to pop art.




If it is less artery clogging, also note the flourishing fast-food ecosystem that flourishes across multiple microclimates stretching from Atlanta, Georgia to Charlotte, North Carolina:


Atlanta GA to Charlotte NC


And the visualization of the dense outcroppings of stores that promise a variety–even without noting In-n-Out, A & W, or Taco Bell–suggest the redefinition of the urban foodscape in a city like Phoenix, even if the food-markets in the city are not so dominated by our friend Mickey Dee:




One of the few historically informed maps in van Worley’s visualization of the colorful beefspace so densely clustered in the Southern United States does not concern the mapping of lived space, but a perspective from the moment when the seeds of a new topography of fast-food eating began, which makes one want to extend the animated choropleth back it time to the veritable big-bang of the very beefspace that led to all those brightly colored food swamps:


Big Bang of Beefspace


But, as with any map, one must move from the local to the global: for the real story underlying the effects of sedentarism or over-eating on salty or sugary pseudo-foods is a global one. The FAO recently found that “For the first time, the number of overweight individuals worldwide rivals those who are underweight,” citing the findings of the Worldwatch Institute that measured both at 1.1 billion worldwide; obesity now emerges as a problem equal to malnutrition in ways rarely anticipated earlier.  An “obesity map” of global scale finds a notable jump in obesity rates of 5% in just three years in China, and the startling growth in numbers of obese across sub-Saharan Africa, Colombia, as well as among north African or Middle Eastern women; it places both problems in the very same national spaces:


Obesity %22Map%22

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Filed under data visualization, data visualizations, fast food, fat belt, obesity, overeating in America, overweight populations, stroke belt

Maps in the Air

The novelist Edward St.-Aubyn offers a moving description of the existential torture in-flight maps inflict on his hero.  St.-Aubyn captures indeterminate relation we all feel as passengers suspended before the sheer toponymic abundance displayed on monitors during air travel, which offer handy metaphors for one’s own suspended relation to space.  The in-flight maps are often as disorienting as orienting, and might trigger a moment of panic, even as they seek to pacify by providing a clearer pathway to one’s destination than one could imagine in air.  Especially for Robert:  “Robert switched channels to the map. It showed the airplane hovering near Cork. Then it expanded to show London and Paris and the Bay of Biscay.  The next scale included Casablanca and Djibouti and Warsaw. How long was this informational feast going to go on? Where were they in relation to the moon?  The only thing anyone wanted to know finally came up: 52 minutes to arrival. They were flying through seven fat hours, pumped full of darkening time zones. . . . They told you everything, except the local time on the plane.”

While these in-flight pixellated screens are over-abundant when it comes to information, the relative dryness of it makes scrutinizing them for meaning as much a masochistic form of torture as the lighting of the inflight cabin itself.

In-Plane Map

There was far less information on this flight monitor, which by a fluke wasn’t working. It didn’t communicate the anticipation of arrival, or give the sense of the snail’s pace of the plan crawling across the video screen.


But it provoked a musing. Because of the presence of maps in so many areas of our daily lives, this may be yet another context in wich we’ve come to devalue the map, and lowered expectations for its use at all.  Up in the air, the sort of orienting map we’re given is often of little use anyways:  this seems to be an assurance that the trip will take a long time, more than even to offer a sense of how long remains in flight.  If it used to offer a sort of minor visual diversion (of whose accuracy we were never so sure) or a sort of punishment inflicted for not buying access to the in-flight film, the in-flight monitor has been marginalized as a flight-tracker map by the deluge of mediated maps of flight paths, like the maps at websites like “Flight Aware.”  The huge amount of metadata–and vastly superior user-interface–these websites deliver to travelers must have diminished expectations for in-flight monitors, if not bring a certain healthy skepticism about the level of accuracy or trust such maps could promise their readers.


Flight-Tracker map


Who doesn’t feel empowered by their newfound ability to track weather formations nation-wide, courtesy CNN or the Weather Channel.  In the maps of FlightAware, the mere addition of the generic swirls of cloud-cover that move across the flat screen add a realist touch from the weather map to an otherwise stagnant and static symbolic form:


Flight Tracker with Clouds


Thanks to the resources of FlightAware, otherwise bored passengers, who forgot to bring novels onboard or have finished their newspapers, can browse flight conditions in different areas, and track the density of airplane travel in screens in ways that have all the symbolic characteristics of an antiquated video game:


Live Flight Tracking--FlyAware


The sort of assent that the in-flight tracking screen once commanded has, it almost seems, been eroded by the proliferation of maps in media like FlightAware, so that they have become an antiquated relic still built into most passenger planes, but rarely consulted for information in the sort of user-friendly ways of the  recent past.  The erosion of their authority might be mirrored in the very sort of in-fight hard-copy maps we find in facing seat-pockets, which  foreground the cities/airports that the airplanes serve–more to communicate that they’ve got the map covered and to advertise future flight possibilities, than to orient the viewer to space:   the service map is surrogate for the nation, which takes second-seat to the aerial triangulation of air-hubs in Boston, JFK, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, San Juan, and Long Beach, sites of airports that constitute a sort of ring around its physical expanse–of course, the map is clickable on their site, but it looks like an uninteractive screen in its paper form.


Where We Jet-JET BLUE

I use that to imagine potential future routes by electing plugin destinations once I get home:

website flight route

But it didn’t serve as much more than an advertisement for future travel plans in its paper form.  The lack of content or topographic variation in the flyer, as well as a lack of interface without wifi, making the image above the stowed tray-table disconcerting.  The Google map format offers a map randomly framed and without a marker to trace the itinerary of the flight path, although with stretches of interesting stagnant greenery whose narrow ornamental in character makes one ponder what it signifies–remaining underlying greenery? old forest growth? cloud cover?  remaining wild areas?  There seems much more of it in Canada.



This seems mapping in the age of NAFTA, or at least driven by specific economic needs and a monopoly on the quality of cartographical information that can be delivered to passengers after the seat-belt buckle is fully inserted and snapped, and one faces monitor of reduced size.  Then again, the monopoly on the quality and range of automated delivery of readily constructed cartographical information that continues to be provided even after we deplane, where the airline provides numbers of maps in monitors that seem to seek to prove that they are up-to-date with models of commanding assent to their content–usually by referencing weather maps.  (Are such low-res video maps programmed for sequenced delivery to passengers, one often wonders, or do they indeed reflect real time travels of the airplane in which one sits?)


Maps in Airports--Jet Blue NYC

Despite the clear elitism that is on view at this library, and the stability of a relation to place that this globe in the city of Fermo suggests, the difference in the viewer’s relation to the terrestrial surface is a huge difference in time, and in how one moves through space.

Fermo Library


There was a nice irony by which these cartographical eras met and overlapped in the Burlington airport, where several of the multiple maps that Samuel Champlain designed of the area and nearby lake that bears his name are displayed on banners for anyone who would like to see.  Or the map inlaid in the pavement of Oakland airport’s baggage claim:  it declares to all arrivals with blunt finality that they have at last arrived, adopting the iconography of the Robertson projection once used by Pan-American airlines to trumpet the position of Oakland in the world, marking it by an outsized start that violates the principles of scale and precision, but that returns the tired traveller’s back to the place where s/he has arrived, no longer coasting over the meridians of the globe, but now having arrived at the imagined center of the intersection of two hemispheres–an intersection coincident, here, with the United States.


Arriving at Port of Oakland--Airport Inlay Map


Filed under Flight Tracking, FlightAware, Port of Oakland, Weather Channel

Mapping the New World from France: Savages, Vegetables, Animals, Pelts

We often can’t detect traces of cartographers in their maps.  Yet Samuel de Champlain left multiple clues concerning his new world encounters the maps of New France printed between 1612 to 1632 in Paris.  Champlain’s experiences are not encrypted in emblems, moreover, but explicitly recorded in his depiction of a territory whose rivers he opened for navigation and commerce through a set of maps printed in Paris, as well as by actions as a proxy of the French realm.

Champlain mapped the interior of New France as Hydrographer Royal shortly after he gained the charge to secure trading rights in New France from about 1602, which led to some twelve sojourns in the New World from 1603-35.  His encounters are not only noted but prepared for a French audience of readers in his maps:  and while Champlain is cast as an explorer, so much as tracking his own exploration of the region, the multiple maps he designed and printed in Paris staged graphically dense appeals for the New World’s settlement, not only marking outposts of French settlement, but investing value in a region earlier described as “frozen wilderness” as a land of viable trading partners, rich in beaver and otter pelts, cod, and fruits–mapping the New World, as it were, from France.  Whereas the prolific cartographer Giacomo Gastaldi had provided the earliest qualitative map of the region of the “Terra del Labrador” and “La Nuova Francia” in 1556, synthesizing nautical maps probably made from those of Jacques Cartier with rich qualitative details of the region an its inhabitants, as well as its plenitude of marine fish, the abundance of islands and crisscrossing rivers suggested a need for navigating by canoes, more than an outpost of easy nautical approach, but a richly peopled region.


1556 Gastaldi Nuova Francia


When Champlain returned to the region Jacques Cartier had more cursorily mapped in his 1545 “nauigation faicte es ysles de Canada, Hochelaga, et Saguenay” by expanding the account in Cartier’s Brief recit & succincte narration of his travels up the river, using the toponyms known to Europeans through Cartier’s account, to expand detailed cartographical canvasses  whose rationales for its settlement were adopted by missionaries to make their own arguments of conversion.  As he travelled on what we know call the St. Lawrence, for Champlain “la riviere de Canada,” he incorporated native Amerindian accounts to map the resources of New France.  Champlain’s hidden need was to present both an image of Amerindians as potential trading partners, and to present an image of the territories as open to future settlement that expanded the manuscript journals of Cartier, themselves published in 1598, unlike the wild regions Cartier had earlier so evocatively described.


Vallard Atlas extract on hung


Champlain presented himself as an intermediary to the New World, echoing his Old Testament given name of a prophet, visionary and seer, called by God to be an advisor to Kings; the image of a prophet who advised the nation fit the role Champlain styled himself as an intermediary of judging areas of potential trade in the New World.  From the time he served as a captain of a Spanish ship to “Porto Rico,” Mexico, Colombia, the Bermudas (Santo Domingo) and Panama to the persuasive images of regions that he mapped for French settlement from 1603–travels described in his 1604 “Des Sauvages: ou voyage de Samuel Champlain, de Brouages, faite en la France nouvelle l’an 1603 [Concerning the Primitives: Or Travels of Samuel Champlain of Brouages, Made in New France in the Year 1603].  Although the title was probably chosen by the printer, as perhaps the name New France, the term for the Amerindians colored the reception and diffusion of the “Sauvage,” a term later invested with connotations of absolute difference so that by the mid-seventeenth-century Jesuits as Allouez asserted Europeans doubted the ability to convert Amerindians to true Christians.

The evocative title that the printer gave to Champlain’s account of his encounters  transformed the search for natural resources conducted after the governor of Dieppe, Aymar de Chaste, asked the Royal Hydrographer to help expand his monopoly on the fur trade at the trading post of Tadoussac, based on Cartier’s accounts, and then, after de Chaste’s death, from 1604-7, plan the settlement of Acadia to make good on its Governor’s patent on trading rights.

Whereas the Vallard atlas offered an inviting illustration of the benefits of settlement along the riverine network with potential Amerindian trading partners, Champlain’s maps of 1604, 1608, and 1638 compiled convincing arguments for the logic of New France’s settlement, based both on the Dictionary that Cartier had compiled and the even more intense engagement of native Amerindians that he believed would both secure a monopoly in the fur trade and, as he sought to learn from them a convincing route and, after his 1612 commission, to “search for a free passage by which to reach the country called China.”  The potential of such a route had been long advanced in the Ortelian 1570 “Typus Orbis Terrarum,” but was not cartographically realized, as the interior of “Nova Francia” was left unmapped beyond Cartier’s account, through the de Jode map of 1589.



Ortelius' Nove Francia


Terra Incognita, de Jode


Champlain was trained as a nautical cartographer, but unlike the pictorial maps prepared from nautical charts in the French Dieppe school, whose pictorial images attracted nautical exploration in ways I’ve discussed, Champlain’s printed maps invited a French readers to examine a region about which there was particular curiosity.  The chorography of New France that Champlain prepared as hydrographer to Henri IV  detailed not both a less imagined view of the region’s topography and navigability, and mapped the inhabitants of  North America with considerable care:  in his map, Champlain combined both his own surveys and charts with knowledge of the region’s inhabitants and habitation gathered from native Innu peoples who lived there–known by Champlain as the Montaignais and Etechimani–whose inhabitation of the region was poorly mapped and previously “unknown.”

Champlain’s map made the land New France, although the title that he chose for his book “voyages en France nouvelle” of 1608 seems to have been chosen, as its discussion of “Sauvages,” by a publisher, in ways that led the map to refract more meanings than Champlain might have understood–and quite soon after its appearance beyond the charge to open the St. Lawrence valley for French settlement.


map new franceb


Yet if the title of the book, not surviving in editions with the map that seems intended to accompany it, he was clearly fascinated by native cultures, only later linking the “Sauvage” to the pagan, and believe in transforming Amerindians through Catholic conversion and intermarriage with the French in ways that were probably informed by his increased contact with and dependence on missionaries by the 1630s.

In the map of New France he had engraved in 1612, an expansive chorographical or regional map of New France, detailed the coasts of islands that he had first travelled among extensively along its coast and the riverine network to the Great Lakes he first saw or described–and whose path Champlain pursued to gain the most complete monopoly of the fur trade, rather than the search for silver and gold that the French king hoped to pursue, which increasingly come to subsidize his expeditions.  In shifting the mapping of New France from a tradition of nautical charting to the medium of terrestrial mapping, Champlain both gave his maps richly ethnographic material functions that allowed him to stage broader arguments for the region’s future exploration, even as he continued to raise the possibility and promise of mapping routes of trade to the east by a Northwest passage.

The engraved regional map of New France detailed the coasts of islands that he had first travelled among extensively along its coast and the riverine network to the Great Lakes he first saw or described as he sought to gain advantages in the fur trade.  The current exhibit Moving with the River organized at Ottawa’s Museum of Civilization examines the role played by the St. Lawrence River in Canadian identity from its place as an avenue of Champlain’s contact and alliance with native peoples.  Yet the maps Champlain made for French readers pivot from nautical maps of coasts of Acadia and Newfoundland, to parlay skills of mapping developed on the west coast of France and in voyages to the Indies, to exploiting the legibility terrestrial map-making to chart future ties of trade and eventual intermarriage of peoples.

His expansive maps of the region and its inhabitants shifted his brief from mapping sites of settlement in New France to mapping inland avenues for trade on a web of rivers and lakes.  The maps demand specific attention, in other words, for how they provided a compelling record of the region for French readers by introducing them to it alternately as a site for potential settlement, commerce, and conversion–combining the ends of mapping and combining several formats of mapping that had often been previously held distinct competencies or forms of expertise and subject-matter.  In an almost improvisational way, Champlain was adapting his mapping techniques for new audiences that the printed maps might address.  Whereas Champlain’s initial project of nautical mapping echoed a conception of Canada voiced Marguerite of Navarre, who saw “Canada” as an island (and possible obstacle to voyage to the orient), the engravings that he provided during his many trips to the region re-mapped an image of the region as an area of trade and settlement, embodying a network of routes of trade around where he founded the first French cities in the New World.

The map that he designed in 1608 redefined French readers’ relation to the New World in a magisterial synthesis of nautical and terrestrial cartography, bridging charting and surveying to map the mouth of the river that Cartier had earlier entered to the inland region known as the Great Lakes that would be so profitable for fur trading, after he concluded a lasting peace with native tribes to allow French settlement.

The map suggests a new sense of having mapped lasting peace in New France.  A lower left cartouche conspicuously mapped the inhabitants of the region from whom Champlain he was asked to make a treaty with and from whom he learned so much.  Champlain not only conducted peace with the Montaignais, but relied on native accounts to map much of the Great Lakes–trusting Algonquin accounts of the upper St. Lawrence and eastern Great Lakes, openly seeking them out to map of the region from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie, and mapping its imagined relation to a great saltwater sea.  Although it is doubtful he traveled beyond the current site of Montreal on the St. Lawrence, where he began to write his text–but amplified the map beyond where he had traveled by incorporating Algonquin accounts obtained in 1603–the imagined expanse of New France created a New World with the hint of the promise of a North-West passage, and ample evidence of trading partners along the river’s path.


map new franceb


Champlain’s printed account of 1608 consciously exploited the term of “Sauvages” or ‘forest-dwellers’ popularized by the arrival at the royal French court of native North Americans.  The term was not derogatory, but described the forest-dwellers who since an alliance of 1602 had helped orient himself in the region, and whose considerable attention after their visit to the royal court increased the interest in the work he prepared at just short of thirty years, Des Sauvages: ou voyage de Samuel Champlain, de Brouages, faite en la France nouvelle l’an 1603 [“Concerning the Primitives: Or Travels of Samuel Champlain of Brouages, Made in New France in the Year 1603“].  Indeed, the term–if introduced by his publisher, advertised his status as a privileged informant, more than a map-maker, that echoed his first post aiding a secret agent and  member of the royal household in Brittany.

Champlain styled himself as a principal informant about New World life for the French public.  At roughly the same time Native Peoples arrived at Henry IV’s court and piqued interest in “Sauvages” among court figures, the striking title capitalized on wide curiosity in the figure of the New World Native, rather than as a derogatory term, in ways that opened the map to further readings as a site of conversion and commerce alike, calling the natives likely to welcome Catholic colonizers from France for the order that they would provide, and concepts of prayer they would introduce, even if “most of them live like brute beasts” (1603:  117) and often in ritual dances “stripped themselves stark naked” (1603: 107-8; 180).  Champlain wrote admiringly of their government, costumes, nautical knowledge and bravery, offering that “I hold that they would quickly become good Christians if their lands were colonized [je tiens que qui leur monstreroit à vivre & enseigner le labourage des terres, & autres choses, ils l’apprendroient fort bien],” his work would in ways provoke debates about the possibility of conversion for Jesuits, and about the limits of converting, civilizing or “Frenchifying [franciser]” Amerindian natives.  When Champlain sought to teach Amerindians the nature of a beneficent God and the efficacy of prayer to Amerindians, he presented their absence of religious ceremonies as akin to their absence of law , but did not see why this could be changed:  “You see why I believe they have no laws, nor know what it means to worship and pray to God [je croy qu’il n’y a aucune loy parmy eux, ne sçavent que c’est d’adorer & prier Deu],” he wrote; yet “I believe that they would be quickly brought round to being Good Christians if their lands were colonized, which they might well mostly desire [croy que promptement ils seroient reduicts bons Chretiens si l’on habitoit leurs terres, ce qui’ils desireroient la plus part].”  (Only later, among debates between the limits of conversion to French customs among Recollect and Jesuit missionaries, did the notion of a “sauvage” become associated with a pagan.)

Champlain’s richly ethnographic account provided little sense of natives’ nobility, but his images of these warriors–the Montaignais had encouraged the French to be their allies against the Iroquois–reflected in his sustained interest in “their countries . . . and forms of assembly,” as well as their songs, clothing, hunting practices, food, tobacco, and snowshoes, as well as hairstyles, public oratory and dance-steps.

Champlain’s dependence on native accounts of the region led to his expansion of ties with natives on the Saguenay River that Cartier had earlier encountered.  Indeed, in 1602 Champlain concluded a treaty or peace with the natives that he called the Montaignais, native Americans on the St. Lawrence’s shoreline and Labrador and Quebec and those he called the Etchemin [Maliseet], and later the Algonquin, admiring the superior quality of their furs to those he had seen in the future Nova Scotia; Henri II eagerly founded the Acadia and Canada Company and granted it a monopoly on the fur trade which Champlain was to help protect.  The map recorded to some extent the longest-standing alliance Europeans created with Natives–or “sauvages,” as he put it–to that point, much as Champlain himself discussed their “nations” and treated their leaders as heads of state.  The “sauvages” who Champlain had ‘tamed’ were displayed in the map, as something of a token of what he saw as his accomplishment:  it seems that two of these peoples had returned from France while as he was in Tadoussac, increasing the possibility of the alliance, as did a treaty against their Iroquois enemies–dragging the French into a conflict lasting through the eighteenth century.

For Champlain, the engraved map was a complex and subtle register to mediate his encounter with New World, unlike the pictorialized charts of the Dieppe school before Champlain’s birth that rendered natives hunts such as the  “Vallard” atlas.

Harleian Map c. 1542-44


Although the atlases of the Dieppe school, as Vallard atlas above from the Huntington, or the Harleian Map, presented enticing images of natives along green river-banks, attempting to attract interest in their settlement through images of peaceful relations with local inhabitants Champlain’s maps promoted the settlement of a region poorly known to Europeans still “Terra Incognita” as late as 1589, if contiguous with New France, as in this Dutch map of Cornelis de Jode, one of the competitors with the French in the potentially lucrative fur trade, as well as in the charts of Nicolas Nicolai’s Isolario for Henri II.


Terra Incognita:AMerica


The map Champlain drafted of the interior contrasted strongly to the routes of potential Atlantic trade that Nicolas Nicolai, predecessor as royal hydrographer for Henri II, created to foreground routes of potential trade, which plotted routes to North America in his Isolario and 1548 Navigazioni del mondo novo, reprinted through the late 1560s, whose paucity of detail revealed limited knowledge of the Montaignais at the mouth of the Saguenay and only vague knowledge of anything about the land through with the river’s course runs, and focus on the Indies as a locus of trade, limiting New France to the mouth of the St. Lawrence.



ca 1565 gastaldi map


In the series of maps that he made which provide something of his increased encounters with New World natives, and search for new potential trading partners, Champlain shifted his sights dramatically to the unknown rivers of the interior that he explored not by ship–as he was familiar from his first voyages of 1598, but by canoe.  After several natives the French knew as the Montaignais or “mountain-people” had travelled to the French court of Henry IV, popularizing the term–and category–Champlain adopted the term of New World curiosities as subjects worthy of description and mediation in a map.

The geographic and ethnographic detail in Champlain’s map of 1608 reflect not only curiosity with the figure of the “Sauvage,” but Champlain’s decisive engagement in tribal disputes in attempting to secure fur trading rights–as well as rivers’ course.  The map reflected not only the considerable inter-breeding of French settlers and fishermen with the nomadic natives they called “mountain-men” or mountaineers because of their knowledge of the hills at the mouth of the St. Lawrence, and since the contact promised further knowledge of the region. Rather than follow the precedent of nautical map, familiar in from the picturesque images of “Canada” in the manuscript atlases of the Dieppe school whose pictorial images had promoted the material benefits nautical exploration from the time of Champlain’s childhood, or maps of the New World that first circulated in engraved in France.  Unlike these maps, Champlain’s maps situated the Atlantic islands around modern Nova Scotia and the Bay of Fundy on meridians in ways that gave a material presence to the northern expanses of North America to Hudson Bay and past Lake Ontario, in ways that offered readers a material record of geographic fixity as well as documenting the goods, mapping both products and routes for future mercantile expansion in the New World for which Henry IV was so desirous, by placing its inhabitants as crucial figures who might both be converted to Catholicism and be active partners in colonial trade.  (The legend continued far after the settlement of Canada:  Claude Levi-Strauss remembered in Tristes Tropiques that an older Frenchmen described the Nambikwara as “sauvages“–and never otherwise—as if “on l’eût cru débarqué en quelque Canada, aux côtés de Cartier ou de Champlain.”  Levi-Strauss may have made a similar connection in contemplating their “sauvagerie” when describing his arrival at a land “as large as France and three-quarters unexplored,” by filled with nomadic indigenous peoples.)

Although Champlain’s first mission as Royal Hydrographer seemed to have been to establish a permanent seat of settlement for France in the New World, his maps both lent greater fixity to place; if Cosgrove suggested that the “geographic indeterminacy [of islands] also increased their imaginative resonance,” Champlain’s New France supplanted the colored islands on the edges of earlier world maps with newly determined coordinates.  Indeed, he noted routes of trade and objects of interest with far more restraint than the abundance of fantastic creatures in marine maps of northern seas like the chart that the Swedish patriot and priest Olaus Magnus drafted as a comprehensive visual geographic history of Scandinavia and surrounding waters in 1538, with Roman artisans, as a graphic register of the arctic seas.


Carta Marina


The maps printed in Paris that traced Champlain’s explorations of North America for French readers mirrored a shift from a nautical network of travel around the coasts of Newfoundland and the present Nova Scotia, where he founded the first French cities in the New World of Port-Royal and St.-Croixe as outposts of trade in minerals or furs.

Champlain (1604-1607)

The terrestrial maps that Champlain would later design reflect a shift form a network of routes of nautical travel, seeking to found outposts for trading ports in the New World, to a search for inland connections to new networks of trade in furs to secure the monopoly on the fur trade that Jacque Cartier described:  a position from which he sought to both better understand and present a convincing picture of a network of trade in the interior.  After years spent mapping possible seats of France’s first city or entrepot in the New World in Acadia, Maine, the Bay of Fundy, and even down to Cape Cod, Champlain had returned to France to print the map–the precursor of subsequent printed maps of 1612, 1631 and 1638, each of which seems to punctuate twenty-one voyages Champlain made to the New World–and turned his attention to the interior, a decision that probably encouraged him to decide to attract Jesuit missionaries  from 1614 to help establish colonies in New France.

Champlain’s terrestrial maps of 1608, 1613 and 1637 present gradual  syntheses of the assiduous reconnaissance in a New World he visited over in twenty voyages, each giving greater materiality to the project of exploring and settling New France.  The intense return to map-making suggests a new attempt to define the primacy of a Francophone version of the medium of maps, as well as to seek increased funding and support of his own voyages and contact with natives in the New World.  If Champlain was indeed raised as a Huguenot, as suggested in archival research of baptismal records which place his family in La Rochelle, it is striking that his detailed map distinctly privileged the legibility of the New World more than the maps he drew on the basis of his earlier voyages to the Barbadoes and Indies as commander of a Spanish ship:  the detailed prospect that they presented for exploring lines of contact with Natives placed him among the Huguenot ministers Henri IV cultivated to develop his kingdom’s economy and infrastructure, but to do so in the new setting of New France, much as the Sieur de Monts, a Calvinist, had been granted the rights to the territory of Acadia (Nova Scotia), by Henri IV, “to cultivate, to cause to be peopled, and to search for gold and silver mines from the forty-sixth to the fortieth degree North latitude,” despite his Calvinism–enjoining him to teach Catholicism to the Micmac natives.  (It also placed him in a coterie of suspected reformists who include Ortelius, among those who stressed the transparency of the map as a printed text.)  The religious background of Champlain may be striking, given his close cooperation with Jesuits and other orders, but seems echoed his sailing with Récollet missionaries in 1615, a small group of reformed Friars Minor repressed in the French Revolution, who arrived in Quebec City, and only later with Jesuit missions in Acadia and in Ontario and Quebec from 1609.  (The Récollet were far more hopeful of introducing French customs to Amerindians than their Jesuits brethren.)

The image of New World natives indeed strongly contrast to the striking image he had earlier described, when sailing to Santo Domingo as commander of a Spanish ship, of the horrors of witnessing burning of unconverted natives–no doubt a scene that haunted him–and provided a model for cultivating new models of exchange in New France.


Inquisition in Champlain's MS from Journal JCB


The stunning and particularly striking image from the Brief Discours documented the torture of natives who did not convert to Catholicism at the hands of the Spanish, “Indians Burned by the Inquisition,” must have stuck in Champlain’s mind as an opposition of pagan and European–he argued the “evil treatment” that caused Indians to flee to the hills at the Spaniards’ approach, he noted in a manuscript in collections of the John Carter Brown Library.  In contrast, existing intermarriage among natives and French sailors created less of a duality of otherness if not a greater appreciation of cultural difference.

The 1598-1601 manuscript “Breif discours” about his travels to the Indies included a prized description of the local dragons that Champlain described as indigenous to the region, as Susan Danforth of the John Carter Brown has also noted, whose care reveals his deep attention to preserving a record based most likely on native accounts–“dragons of strange shape, having a head approaching to that of an eagle, wings like a bat, a body like a lizard and only two rather large feet, the tail somewhat scaly” who are in appearance “as large as a sheep, but not dangerous, and do no harm to anybody, though to see them one would say the contrary.”  While Champlain probably did not see these dragons, pictured in his manuscript below, they were a central to his description, and his care at their description echoed the interest in fantastic creatures in the New World, which later informed his later striking descriptions of the Gougou in the Bay of Chaleur, a “terrible monster” male but “in the form of a woman, but very frightful, and so large that the masts of a sailing vessel would not reach [her] waist” which “possessed pockets” on her body where the Gougou stored its captives before eating them.




If his account is only slightly incredible, Champlain similarly trusted his native informants accounts of the Gougou, from whom several natives told him of their escape, and others of having heard the Gougou’s “horrible noises” as they passed by its home:  “What makes me believe what they say,” Champlain wrote, “is the fact that all the savages fear it, and tell such strange things about it that if I were to record all they say it would be regarded as a myth; but I hold that this is the dwelling place of some devil that torments them”–translating the legend into a Christian cosmology, as much as in credulous tones.  He did not draw the Gougou in his maps, but readily included information from a range of local informants.

Although Champlain’s continued dependence on native informants, including the Montaignais and Etechemani, depicted in the 1608 map as we have seen.  Their relation to the French were no doubt closer than many may have realized:  members of these tribes who allied with the French increasingly may have intermarried with French settlers, becoming the first New World allies of French after their decisive conclusion of peace in 1603–described in the Museum of Civilization as the first durable peace with New World natives.  The treaty must have blurred such clear oppositions among natives brooked by earlier cartographers, if they did not explicitly return to the map as collaborators or co-authors if not guides.  His subsequent dependence on native informants may have further encouraged by the intermarriage of Montaignais and Etechemani, the New World allies of French from 1603, with traders and sailors, and led Champlain to dignify them as noble warriors–and to study their arts of oratory, politics, and political order, as well as their dress.  The cartouche blurred such clear oppositions, increasing the subjectivity of these warriors more as objects of curiosity than as collaborators or co-authors of his maps.


Figures des montaignais


Indeed, they suggest Champlain’s hope to pursue a lucrative trade in furs that Cartier hoped to secure.  For Champlain, the map was a complex and subtle register to mediate his own encounter with New World.  Indeed, the rich detail of the maps of the Dieppe school, like the fantastic maps of mountains of Nutmeg and Cinnamon in the imaginary continent of Java la Grande conjured in maps of the Dieppe school–discussed in an earlier post–may have lead Champlain to promote equivalent trading routes, and map the imagined wealth of trade routes that would nurture an imagined French empire, and  to place images of sought-after beavers and otters which populate the surface of he prepared in his 1612 map.

map new franceb

Similar dreams of trade motivated the creation of these promotional atlases to win sponsorship and support of future voyages, to an extent realized when Champlain gained far more extensive privileges and support to expand the fur trade.  The engraved maps Champlain composed during over twenty voyages to the New World turn attention from the charting of routes of sea-travel where France might establish a seat of maritime investigation to upriver trade on what is now the St. Lawrence or “rivière de Canada.”

His Travels in 1613

His maps from 1613 most always were left rivers as the St. Lawrence and Hudson Bay conveniently open-ended, as if to suggest the possibility of linking areas of trade and bodies of water by transcontinental navigation along a North-West passage that responded to his charge, and secured further voyages in the New World he increasingly adopted as his charge and of which he became raconteur and rapporteur.  In seeking to establish trade with native peoples led him to travel for reasons of commerce, as much as exploration, he charted advantageous sites for dominating the fur-trade from the Saguenay to the St. Lawrence, and inland to the  lakes later named the Huron, Erie and Ontario, of which he learned from Native informants, encountering natives on the great river who remembered Cartier’s arrival and capture of their chief almost seventy years earlier but were eager to cultivate trading ties, choosing the city of Stadacona as a center of trade and describing its lands as uninhabited.  Champlain’s far more expansive map of 1613 presented a comprehensive case for joining the nautical exploration of the shores, with their rich marine fish, to travels into the interior, with its rich traffic in beaver pelts, on an accurate meridian; it also prefigured Champlain would continued to seek greater trading routes in the interior after his 1615 journeys to the Hudson Bay, even if he discovered the ruse of a direct route to Cathay, traveling up the Ottawa River to Lake Nipissing and the Georgian Bay in Lake Huron, and crossing Lake Ontario–regions that his 1608 map show as open for settlement, minimizing the local presence of native nomadic tribes.

The alliance that Champlain formed with Montaignais and Etchemin [Algonquin] tribes from provided a turning point in introducing native informants into maps of New France, and indeed in the mapping of New France as a community open to French trade.   When Champlain turned up the St. Lawrence to gain dominance in the pelt trade from the Dutch and English, he depended on Native guides.  He had admired the Iroquois for their navigational skills–he relied on the sailing skills he had learned in France’s coast.  But as he increasingly dedicated himself to inland mapping for possible commerce routes, focussing on the riverine paths that he would open to trading for fur pelts, exploring what would be the St. Lawrence and its tributaries, traveling upriver to found the city of Montreal.  There is some evidence of how Champlain relied increasingly on native interlocutors to determine place-names in his map; his subsequent founding of Ottawa–perhaps as his sites had shifted.

The more expansive and detailed 1618 map of New France, meant to accompany an account in his 1619 Voyages of his travails and unsuccessful battles against native peoples while attempting to discover a Northwest Passage that obsessed him from 1615, and provide a tantalizing teaser of potential routes to continue to explore, as much as it describes a region which he had become such a primary informant.  The map printed in 1619 in Paris staked out an argument for continuing to fund his successive voyages not only of exploration but of potential commerce, leaving open much of the possibility of arriving at a route to the Orient and China across polar ice as a hint of future riches that he wanted to pursue.  Champlain’s 1619 “La Nouvelle France,” engraved in Paris, narrated his own exploration of the region in detail through 1618, now focussing on his travails in the course of exploration; the Voyages describe unsuccessful battles with Native Americans as a tale of frustration and self-sacrifice in enlarging the surface of the map for French readers at a new stage in their mission of settling the New World.

Whereas Champlain had charted French towns on the coasts of his first voyages of 1598 and 1602 with Francophone toponyms as Port Royal in the current Prince Edward Country or Sante-Croix between 1604 and 1605, the maps mirror his decisive move inland and engage native inhabitants and guides in founding cities from Quebec in the voyage of 1608. And in later periods, Champlain engage the Iroquois at Lake Champlain in 1619 to modern Montreal and Ottawa in his later travels with the Huron guides to lake Ontario of 1615, meeting the “Cheveaux-Relevés” (Odawa), whose painted and pierced faces Champlain noted, as he offered their chief a hatchet in exchange for a map drawn on tree-bark with charcoal of the expanse of the region around the Georgian Bay (III: 43-5), in what they took as a symbol of their future alliance, most likely, rather than the securing of a new trade route.

The title and inclusion of a topical notion of cartography Champlain practiced in this ‘chorography’ of New France contrast with the abstract universalist perspective associated with early modern maps.  It is interesting to observe some connections between Champlain’s own ethnographic perspective in the charts drawn when had sailed to the Indies and Santo Domingo, serving commander as a ship of his uncle which was leased for a voyage to the “Indies” in 1599-1600, and whose “Brief discours” provided a model he expanded upon in the far more extensive geographic cartographies he executed of New France for the French King.  While the map of Santo Domingo recalls a book of islands, the mapping of New France suggests less a bound area of trade, so much as a region of continued engagement.

Champlain Santo Domingo

There is another continuity with the maps he drew of the Indies in the late sixteenth century.  Each provided a detailed account of the economic advantages of each site he explored–including the notation of the suitability of copper mines or existence of gold–revealing their deep reliance on a material culture of New World goods, as in this rendering of the Cassava.

Champlain Cassava

Champlain famously even included a rendering of a New World dragon–boasting it was completely harmless despite its appearance, as if to create interest in the beast–indicating what would be a longstanding curiosity in recording foreign fruits or animals in naturalistic detail.   Champlain’s work reflects keen interest both in the marketing of New World goods–copper mines or the availability of gold; beaver pelts; marine seals; horseshoe-crabs–and a sites of raspberries or cod, potential products of economic value, if not curiosities that demonstrated knowledge of the terrain.  In the cartouche in the lower boundary of his 1608 map of New France, appear images of almost botanical naturalism for readers hungry for pictorial detail on natural curiosities and material goods:


Fruits and Veggies from New France


Champlain’s maps of the Bay of Fundy and eastern seaboard, drawn as he searched for sites of potential cities in three years of intense chart-making along the Atlantic coast in Acadia, and sailing from Cape Cod to Maine, and before his later voyages turned from nautical to terrestrial cartography, tracing the inland riverine paths, were long focussed on regions that the French crown determined were of economic interest.   The equation of the ‘voyage’ with ‘the savage’ raises multiple questions, however, as much as reveal his skills of terrestrial hydrography, both about the medium of the map, and the roles maps played between travel literature and a concerted program to promote New World trade for which France was eager.

The Royal Hydrographer engaged an established model for mapping in print by noting the rivers that created an area of future commerce and trading in mapping New France.  In the same year that Bougereau’s Le Theatre francoys (1594) delineated hydrographic routes of travel and the borders of the principal fluvial basins, for readers, demonstrating courses of travel and commerce as sources of the country’s nourishment and “natural ornament” by its detailed hydrography, which had challenged both royal cartographers as Jolivet or the valet de chambre et geographe ordinaire de roi in his surveys of the Bourbonnais, and to encompass the hydrographic network that united regions of trade so important to Henry IV and his ministers, and may have led Louis XIV from 1665 to later fund the construction of a Canal du Midi linking the Atlantic and Mediterranean.  Bougereau’s maps already focussed on the network of commerce that rivers enabled in the realm as they knit together regions whose inhabitants were bitterly divided by confessions:


Bougereau Langue d'Oc


If Oronce Finé, Nicolas and Bougeraux sought to create a united chorographic image of the religiously divided nation, as Peters has argued in Mapping Discord, their precedents of hydrographic mapping certainly created a dynamic charge for crafting a chorography of the  French presence in the New World.  If rivers and fluvial networks were the central focus of the more detailed chorographic images that royal cartographers delineated in France, the river as a source of trade and network of exploration among native nomadic tribes was thematized in Champlain’s maps.  Indeed, the river became the central vehicle of transport and terrestrial portage, as Champlain and a small body of French men adopted the vehicle of the canoe to move from Tadoussec, the major post for previous fur-trading, and Quebec, the city he had founded in the 1608 voyage, moving inland after obtaining the charge to “search for a free passage by which to reach the country called China” that he had gained in 1612.

Champlain was convinced in the form of a Northern Sea, probably based on responses from Native guides to his questions about the river’s paths and its relation to the great salt-water body that they described.  His attempts to seek protection of trade routes led to increased siding with Huron and Algonquin natives against the Iroquois, traveling up the St. Lawrence by boat and abandoning his large ships to move to native-made canoes from 1613, traveling in the Great Lakes and up what is now the Ottawa River, reaching the Georgian Bay using native crafts of canoes to cross the network of rivers and lakes, and by 1615 traveling up the Oneida River.

The notion of such a passage was already retained in Dutch global maps by de Jode, pictured below, but the inland route he hoped to obtain promised a more advantageous and direct route–much as Mercator, relying on Cartier, had drawn the Saguenay and St. Lawrence as extending to a freshwater body–“hic mare est dulcium aquarium, cujus terminum ignorari Canadenses ex relatu Saguenaiensium aiunt“–whose end was unknown to the natives on the Saguenay; Ortelius had showed the great lakes as extending to the Arctic Sea.

As Champlain came to trade with Huron, Algonquin, and Montagnais, he responded to their appeals to fight against the Iriquois in ways that expanded the charge he had gained to broker piece in 1612 Charter to become enmeshed in local conflicts, using gun-fire at the same time as he confronted the warrior skills of provoked Iroquois.  The images that he drafted reveal an even greater level of violence to other images of the New World, dramatically documenting his immersion within local conflicts, as this description of resisting the attacks of Iriquois in 1608 printed in 1613; the image of Champlain holding his firearms against the Iroquois cast natives in a positive as allies, and placed Champlain in a heroic pose in a rare surviving image.



The native bows and canoes echoed images of Staden’s encounter in his popular travelogue, yet the far more sophisticated attention to their dress and customs reveal Champlain’s attention to their culture and society to a far greater extent, evident in the attention to the Algonquin in his writings of 1615-17, pictured below Staden’s earlier woodcut images:

violence tupinamba staden

17 bis  Algonquin indians 1615-17 by Champlain


The detailed attention to the particulars of their costume and dress, formal postures, and family structures provided a detailed map of their society as befit allies he cultivated for the French monarchy, and whom he would increasingly depend upon as he continued to seek new routes to expand French settlement inland along the region’s rivers–as well as to seek a pathway to arriving at the Pacific through the frozen waters of the north.  (Levi Strauss must have seen Champlain, indeed, as a sort of model for ethnographic observation, even if he attributed an elder Frenchman’s distaste for the Nambikwara to echoing Champlain’s remove from the customs of “les sauvages.”)

The map Champlain compiled by 1613 mapped his travels adopted the criteria of proof long applied to terrestrial maps , accurate meridians, and the emblems of his craft as cartographer–a surveyor’s compass and scale bar–which overshadowed the rhumb lines of charts, and reflected his new interest in a northern bay.  The northwest passage that became the prime object of his 1615 westward journey in the map he made of his voyages in 1616, which, though not included in his 1619 Voyages, provided a convincing record of an open path to the north or northwest passage for which he had so assiduously searched, seems to have been encouraged by the natives from whom he sought increased assistance, and who provided him with the materials for an expanded trade that funded his successive New World voyages.

Champlain ms map La Nouvelle France 1616, pre Voyages 1619

Champlain maps his Voyages on a true meridian

These maps of the Hudson Bay, region of Ontario, and great rivers across New France stand in contrast to the form of isolari, even as they borrow from them in showing the islands that cluster around the coast of New France.   As he travelled inland on the St. Lawrence to the site of Quebec, the town of Champlain boasted in his journal with the zeal of the European that “all this lovely area was uninhabited,” as its residents had fled before the arrival of the French, and conveniently “abandoned it for fear of Iroquois raiders.”  So it is not, perhaps, surprising, that the savages assumed a primary role in the marketing of this book, as did images of the same native peoples appear banished from the surface of Champlain’s maps of 1602 or 1613:  the maps lacked inhabitants, and provided a sort of advertisement for future sites of trading posts with Francophone Catholic names, in contrast to the 1638 map’s display of Native settlements and “nations” or “petites nations,” and detailed images of the Algonquin and their customs, dress, and families.


champlains map %22Des Sauvages-  ou voyage de Samuel Champlain, de Brouages, faite en la France novelle l'an 1603%22

Golfe de l'homme

So much was probably what viewers had come to expect from a map of the New World–as well as because of the fact that the importance of securing the fur trade from the early 17th century led the French to enter into a longtime war between Native Peoples in the hopes to protect trading routes.  The more expansive and elegant “Carte Geographique de la Nouvelle France par le Sieur de Champlain, . . . Cappitaine Ordinaire Pour le Roy en la Marine” of 1612 would also banish most all of the native inhabitants from the territory it depicted, as if to erase the very wars that he had begun, moving them to the status of curiosities in separate parts of a cartouche.  By that time, a royal charter gave him licence to negotiate alliances in the name of the monarch, and he more openly charted the open lands that his privilege from the King had charged him to explore.  The map commanded assent from readers in new ways that extended Champlain’s own bid for authority of organizing routes of trade in the New World.  After returning to the Bay of Fundy, founding the French city of Port-Royal on the coast of Nova Scotia in 1605, as a new site for the St.-Croix island settlement in 1604, as a seat for the French in the New World.   After three years of intense chart-making along the Atlantic coast in Acadia for seats for colonies from Cape Cod to Maine–he visited Cape Cod twice in reconnaissance voyages to the “beau port” of what is now Gloucester during the summers 1605 and 1606 to search for further sites for possible trade and explored possible areas of settlement in the Bay of Fundy.




After mapping options and noting their advantages, he turned from charting sites for possible trading posts on the coasts, all of which met with limitations, to mapping courses of trade along riverine paths by which he could gain advantage over Dutch or English traders through the alliances he developed with the region’s inhabitants.  Champlain proceeded up the river after growing disillusioned after having no further suitable sites for colonies on the Atlantic in previous voyages and eager to map out a route for further trade.  His later famous voyage of 1608 led him to sail inland up the St. Lawrence where in June sought to found a French base beyond the treading post of Tadoussac at the Saguenay River’s mouth, and followed Cartier’s route north seeking dominance in the fur trade with his new Montaignais and Etchemin allies, and later with the Huron and Odawa peoples.

As the later itineraries of his over 20 voyages turned from nautical to riverine paths, Champlain seems to have interacted even more with native guides to explore his potential course.  Did this create a lack of trust between him and his interlocutors, as he sought to develop an authoritative record of potential trading routes?  There must have been some ambivalence with which he engaged native peoples as he moved up the St. Lawrence river, entering the territory with a group of men he came to call “sauvages” in his Journals, even as he allied with them.  The term “sauvages” had far less to do with Champlain’s personal perceptions than the currency that the image of the savage had gained in early modern France, and as talismen of the New World.  Champlain was dependent on native indications and advice as he sailed upstream in Cartier’s footsteps:  his immersion in native culture on the river, rather than on his ocean-bound craft, surely marked a shift in his attitudes perhaps visible in maps he drafted after his manuscripts: by the 1638 map, he not only noted native habitations with interest, but described the precise locations of the “nation of the Algomequins [Algonquins]” or the “nations of Montaignais,” French names for local nomadic tribes; Champlain acknowledged their own possession of territory, reflecting both the durable treaties he had made with them and assigning their fixed sites of habitation in an unprecedented manner by recognizing their spatial location on his 1638 map.


Nouvelle France 1632

Champlain Banishes Iriquois

Pettit nation des Algommeguins

Habitation de sauvages maniganatico



Mapping the settlement of Canada by the natives they called Montaignais, Etechemins, and Iroquois became central to the project of mapping the rivers and coasts of New France, and particularly as important an artery of trade as the river known as the St. Lawrence, much as it was central to the understanding of the New World in later periods.


Indians in Canada-  Iroquois, Etechemins, Montaignais

Although it is difficult to know what sort of help natives provided in mapping the interior of modern Ontario, it is instructive to examine a later map that an unidentified Chickasaw mapmaker presented to the Governor of Carolina that described the situation of native nations near the banks of the Mississippi River, in this copy of a map “Drawn upon a Deer Skin by an Indian Cacique and Presented to Francis Nicholson Esqr. Governour of Carolina,” covering some 700,000 square miles from Texas to New York around 1723.  The unidentified Chickasaw mapmaker distinguished each native nation that inhabited the region in relation to local rivers–and notes the tribes allied with the French who surrounded the Chickasaw:

Chickasaw map of Indian Nations

Did Champlain encounter similar oral descriptions of different nations, or did he translate these terms into French?  This Chickasaw map of about a century later demarcated the positions of native residences primarily in relation to the river, noting natives allied with the French by a simple “F”:

Nations mapped

The Algonquin relations about the upper St. Lawrence on which Champlain depended were later mapped, but must have included considerable information about neighboring tribes. After Champlain had left his ships and traveled inland, he had deepened his relations with the native guides who took him on the “Iriquois trail” up the river.  He was drawn further inland out of the need to reach further inland trading posts to secure advantages in the fur trade, as much as exploration; but perhaps his attitudes shifted as he traveled beyond the trading post of Tadoussec in his 1608 voyage from France, and adopted native place-names, perhaps reflecting some dependence on local guides.  In fact, he seems to have come to adopt Native names for the first time in his cartographical career, arriving at a narrowing of the river [“Kebec” = “where the river narrows”] where he chose to found a city of trade whose cliffs could be adequately defended, and choosing it to translate into French.

He described the site of the future city as abandoned, perhaps by natives who fled the Iroquois:  in fact, the place was deserted after Small Pox devastations.  Quebec was the third city he founded in the New World:  “I could not find any more suitable or better situated than the point of Quebec [at July 3 1608], so called by the natives, which was covered with nut-trees.” 



The arrival of the French paradoxically had earlier both cleared the map of the Native inhabitants he had come to call “Sauvages,” much as he had renamed the cities in New France with Christian place-names in his very first chart-like maps:




As Champlain grew enmeshed with the rivalries of native informants who defined the project of mapping and the larger still project, never completed, of actualizing deep belief in the ability to reach Pacific Ocean and an imagined route to Cathay–and the maps seem to reveal this search for a North-West passage–probably on the basis of what informants told him about a river that opened to an ocean, either the Mississippi or Hudson, or perhaps a sort of white lie.


Champlain's coastal map


Champlain was  similar intermediary, converting local knowledge of riverine paths and lakes to his own land-charts, and trying to exploit local knowledge to discover a North-West passage that had eluded the English or Dutch, but which Iroquois or Huron led him to believe:  this was in a sense the real war that he had engaged in, struggling for more exact knowledge of the land.


DefeatOfIroquoisByChamplainSavages and Champlain


The famous woodcut images by which he narrated his own involvement in what was the beginning of the Iroquois War in 1608–the first sustained military engagement with native inhabitants in which France remained so long involved.  The images reveal the extent to which, as a royal hydrographer, Champlain knew well natives’ experience in canoes as tools of river-navigation–the careful detail was no doubt in part a reference to his own mapping skills, presumably to recall his dependence on native guides, moving between the native world and providing new information for future trade routes to the naval officials at the French court who might encourage future voyages.

There must have been a degree of ambivalence in the elevation of the “savage” or “sauvage” for Champlain.  Historians have suggested that he used the term to refer to his guides and the natives who accompanied him on the “Iroquois trail,” as they ate raw meat, and as he introduced his young  twelve year old French bride to the men with whom he did regular business.  His riverine navigations were the basis of the travels that occasioned the narrative, of contact with fur traders and exploration of what would be the Great Lakes, on which he was assisted by numerous guides, but whose inhabitation of local areas he had earlier regularly omitted.   Natives sketched the routes of rivers and travel in the sand and on birch bark: Champlain learned the lay-out of local hydrography from them, and probably not only achieved his migration up the St. Lawrence but gained increased convictions of a route to Cathay that lured him up the river further, as informants described the sort of river that opened to the Ocean that he must have sought to question them in order to find.  When he followed the river past modern Ottawa in canoes, by portages between rivers and lakes, traveling past Allumettes Island to Lake Nipissing, Lake Ontario and Lake Huron after 1615, in search of the great salt-water sea Hudson Bay, he appears to incorporated sketches from local mapmakers in his maps, as the somewhat odd rectangular islands from his 1632 “Carte de la Nouvelle France, augmenteé . . . par le Sr. de Champlain, captaine de le Roy [Map of New France, expanded since the previous one, by Sieur de Champlain, Captain for the King]”–a map which, despite its greater accuracy, depended on native sketches for lands west of Montreal, or to the north in the Hudson Bay.


Nouvelle France 1632 WISC


Is there a chance that Native Peoples convinced him of the path for a what became later known as the “North-West Passage,” eager to appease him in his search to discover a path that would bring further economic wealth to France as an empire?

The New France that he surveyed on these travels was striking not only for its extension to the interior, but filled a similar taste for depicting the inhabitants at first-hand that he had removed from the land itself that he surveyed.  The map seems also hopeful of a Western opening to water, and suggests a rich alluvial plain in the Americas.  The image of an unending plain of voyage continued until the early eighteenth century, when cartographers noted that “The country is laid out in such a way that by means of the St. Lawrence one can travel everywhere inland, thanks to the lake which leads to its source in the West and the rivers that flow into it along its shores, opening the way to the North and the South,” Jean Talon wrote in 1670 to the French monarch, echoing the North-West passage Champlain sought to indicate in leaving open the “Mer du Nort Glacialle” to which boats cold easily arrive.

Mer du Nort Glacialle in Nouvelle France

Champlain’s maps of both 1612, 1618 and 1635 suggest a combine the rhumb lines of nautical cartography and surveyor’s tools, and present geographic maps as of considerably increased precision, the final of which portrayed New France “on the true Meridian” that combined the accuracy of topical mapping of New France’s topography while describing the advantages of nautical access that New France offered, in ways that continue to echo the cartographical imaginary of an isolario or book of islands, to which he almost rendered the Great Lakes as an extension.


Champlain maps his Voyages on a true meridian


A sign of his whole-heartedly identification of himself with the construction of his 1632 map may lie in the common interpretation of the centrally-located image of the sun’s face as a concealed portrait Champlain, a center from which rays spread across the map’s surface as if to illuminate the complex coastline and the detailed network of rivers and lakes in its interior.


Champlain in sun 1632c


The image of New France that was transmitted in the work of Nicolas Sanson from Champlain’s work effectively erased any analogous ethnographic components, although Sanson retained the toponomy of native towns in New France that still often survives.


Sanson Canada


Yet Champlain’s terrestrial mapping of the region’s future settlement is his legend.  The surveying instrument or mariner’s astrolabe of French manufacture found near the Ottawa River in Muskrat Lake, and dating from the early seventeenth century that is enshrined at the Museum of Civilization under glass as a treasure, believed to have been used by Champlain to perform sightings for his survey of the region–and a talisman of his ability to transform multiple sightings to a surface of uniform continuity–is preserved in Ottawa’s Museum of Civilization under glass as a material relic of mapping of New France; although its provenance is impossible to substantiate, its seventeenth-century instrument of surveying is presented as the medium of Champlain’s is relation to the project of mapping New France.


Champlains's Own Astrolabe-Museum of Civ, Ottawa


No image of Samuel de Champlain exists, but the image of the explorer popularized in prints as the below, that imagine native witnesses to his expertise as in awe of the terrestrial surveying he performed to chart his entry, as if to erase his own role in helping Champlain map the region.  His awe is perhaps a reflection of Champlain’s ability to expand his nautical chart by meridians–and to assemble his inland map without clear base-lines.




The engraving of course erased or whitewashed dependence on Native informants and their knowledge of the river.  By evoking unknowing amazement at Champlain’s instrument, the notion is to mythologize his acquisition of the country through a map–a classic if all too familiar 19th-century narrative of modern competence and expertise.

The narrative was launched in part by his inscription of the lake bearing his name in the map.


Lake Champlain:Trois Rivieres (a bit blurred)


If there are traces that Champlain left of his encounters all over the surface of the map of 1612, traces of the encounter are prominently celebrated in Burlington, Vermont, site of Lake Champlain and Champlain College, where recent interest on the relation of the namesake of the Lake–and celebration of his relatively enlightened contact with native peoples–are commemorated in multiple banners (and maps) that decorate the local airport.


Banner Champlain


As befits the proposal of expanded commercial traffic in the territory of New France, in his map of the region Champlain embedded multiple sightings native animals traded there on its surface–otters and beavers, whose pelts were particularly valued, and whales or native fruits–encouraging readers to peer into the content of the map’s surface they scanned for further natural curiosities.

But unlike the fairly fantastic sea-creatures depicted with abundance in sea charts, the marine seals, beavers, otters, horseshoe-crabs and other local curiosities in his 1632 map transform what was known as a “frozen wilderness” of little interest to the French court into a surface of abundance and copious meaning, and land of commercial plenty.



beavers in New France

Champlain Beaver?

Seal otter champlain

horse-shoe crab

beavers in New France


But it was the inhabitants of the land that Champlain knew–his informants–that were in part his cartographic assistants as well, and are depicted in greatest detail, but wearing costumes to separate and distinguish them from the French readers of Champlain’s maps, but offered an object of wonder at which to gaze at the inhabitation of New France that the map revealed: but from objects of wonder who participated in the crafting of the map, however, the native inhabitant were effect transformed to subjects of conversion.


Figures des montaignais


In preparing this post, I was inspired by an exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Civilization/Musée des civilizations in Ottawa CA, Moving with the River.  Any and all errors in my discussion of Champlain’s maps are of course my own; the maps of Champlain’s travels depicted in this post appear on the Museum’s website.  I’ve also adopted passages of the recent editions of Des Sauvages in Samuel de Champlain before 1604, ed. Conrad E. Heidenreich and K. Janet Ritch (2010).

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Filed under Canada, Native Peoples, Nautical Charts, nautical maps, New France, New World, North-West Passage

Mapping Land and Sea in Venice (and Elsewhere), ca. 1500

The medium of single-line engraving provided an expressive medium for organizing the continuity synthetic maps of land and sea long before trans-Atlantic travel was available to most.  Mapping beyond one’s place or region is a specific area of expertise; it is not surprising that it is a difficult competency to define.  It’s long been observed that the manner in which engraving produced an exactly replicable visual statement brought a variety of levels of expertise to bear on the map, both as a repository of collective visual memory and a coherent visual statement designed to orient readers to the notion of a uniform space.  But it’s interesting to consider the local differences in how a coextensive notion of space was understood to be composed of mapping the integration of land and sea:  and the understanding of the political power of the Serenissima–and the authority of the Venetian senate–as extending “onto the salted waters [sopra le acque salse]”–suggested a unique model of imagining worldly rule that uniquely inflected the construction of a cartographical space.

The transmission of the concept of a map of uniform coverage–one first expressed by the second-century astrologer and mathematician Claudios Ptolemaios [Κλαύδιος Πτολεμαῖος], bequeathed to us as simply Ptolemy, was successively translated in early modern Europe considerably before maps of land were fully integrated with maps of sea.  The  translation of the forms by which Ptolemy mapped an inhabited terrestrial expanse not only to superseded the inhabited world as Ptolemy had described it and imagined it, but broached a different model of continuity within visual form:  epistemologically distinct spaces of travel that corresponded to different forms of mapping were joined in a Ptolemaic planisphere, as were the distinct competencies of mapping, in what might be profitably examined and studied as a ‘trading zone’ of varied forms of technical skill. 


1.  Mapping Land and Sea

Techniques of artistic engraving offered a matrix in which to synthesize mapping forms from the fifteenth century, and the medium increased a synthesis of formats of mapping, as well as a the demand for maps as reproducable forms.  As much as benefiting from Ivins’ useful characterization of the innovative ways that print afforded “exactly reproducable graphic statement,” engravers’ skills provided a way to transmit the map as a graphic form.

The Dutch engraver and cartographer Mercator in 1569 described his map as a synthesis of geographical maps and nautical charts:  in so doing, he modernized the projection of the map’s surface as a continuous surface.  In a unique and inventive way, Mercator assembled a record of terraqueous expanse on parallels and meridians to address a large audience of readers by boasting of his ability to bridge the distinct media of nautical charts of the ocean with geographic maps–whereas the Ortelian “Typus Orbis Terrarum” of 1570 directly below displayed traveling ships, riverine networks, and maritime expanse on curved meridians, Mercator’s projection distributes an inhabited expanse on perpendicularly intersecting meridians and parallels.  But both maps advance cartographical expertise as preparing a surface that could be uniformly scanned by viewers as a proportional and uniform distribution of the inhabited world.



Mercator Close-Up

Mercator did not explain the mathematics of a uniformly mapped space.   But the unique projection he devised gained broad authority by the seventeenth century as a means to visualize global relations.  Although the Mercator projection ensured that the loxodromic lines of nautical travel, denoted in charts by rhumb lines, would perfectly intersect with meridians, the straight parallels construed “ad Usum Navigantium Emandate Accomodate” was not adopted for sailing or for plotting voyages until the ability to measure longitude at sea–partly since he did not explain his method for calculating the “true course” on straight lines, but also since the media of terrestrial maps were so distinct from nautical or navigational carts.  But the combination of registers for noting nautical and terrestrial space, or imagining expanse on ship and on land, provided a major shift in maps’ graphic design and epistemological claims.

The gradual supersession of the autonomy of  sea-charts facilitated increased claims of realistic representation–or reality effect of mapping land and sea in a continuous frame of reference.  The combination of geographic and nautical charts to record of the known world in ways shifted how the world is known depended on acceptance of the descriptive potential of maps, as much as their accuracy or the use-value they gained to navigate in an era when calculation of latitude at sea depended on the sighting the altitude of the sun above the horizon and due course rarely achieved.  But the Mercator projection integrates land charts and marine charts to provide totality of global expanse.  This was the first age of globalism, and it could be readily understood.  The cognitive basis of maps as vehicles seems concealed in Cornelius de Jode’s presentation of Mercator’s projection as a “Totius orbis cogniti Universalis descriptio” or record of the known world in 1589, a decade after its appearance:  it offered tools for knowing the inhabited world as well as a record of the known world.

A similar visibility of the world’s surface was advanced in Cornelius de Jode’s later compendium of global coverage, which synthesized the conventions of nautical charts with the conventions of terrestrial mapping to create a convincing understanding of relationships between nautical travel and terrestrial expanse.

MErcator 1579

Such supersession of the conventions of mapping had to an extent previously occurred in the combination of results from different mapping formats in a unified cartographical space.  Yet even before Mercator devised this projection, sixteenth-century maps had synthesized the content nautical maps had increased the claims of realistic representation–or reality effect–in printed maps.  The graphic and pictorial detail and abundance of signifiers that was invested in Ptolemaic projections had increasingly shifted the status of the map from a schematic register which lay at remove of one from space, to a compelling synthesis of terrestrial relations for its viewer:  and the map became a surrogate able to stand in metonymic relation to a place it described, stood at the center of  modern claims of maps as forms of visual relation to space that could be inscribed with meaning.  Indeed, the combination of registers of terrestrial and nautical cartography compellingly joined areas of practice that had been kept previously separate formats of spatial descriptions, if not incommensurable registers of qualitatively different registers to chart spatial continuity.

Was this change in attitudes to the map partly enabled by the combination of registers of terrestrial and nautical cartography?   From previously separate formats of spatial descriptions, if not more significantly incommensurable registers of qualitatively different forms of space, the map’s surface became understood as a way to register motion through a uniform space and encounter places on a determined path of travel.  The use and status of the map as both a register and descriptor of expanse was already evident in the integration of nautical charts and Ptolemaic maps Bernardus Sylvanus designed in Venice after 1508, which, despite the notorious absence of coverage of North America and reduced coverage of the globe, had previously described a terraqueous unity in compelling–and readable–ways by explicitly combining what had been seen as incommensurable orders of registering expanse.

Sylvanus PLanisphere--close up



The legibility of the 1511 projection of Sylvanus was both very contingent and local in nature, despite the universalizing viewpoint it prepared of the inhabited world.  When Sylvanus, hailing from Eboli, possibly also an illuminator of erudite texts, undertook a newly illustrated printed edition of the ancient geographer Claudius Ptolemy’s  Guide to World-Mapping, known in the Renaissance simply as the Geography, he decided to create a more updated edition of comparative maps deriving from nautical charts collated by sailors and the set of maps transmitted in codices of the Ptolemy’s work of global geography.  The plans for a new Venetian edition had recently been abandoned, although several plates for it had been made and perhaps engraved by 1508, probably including a new world projection.  In confronting problems of modernizing the Ptolemaic maps, Sylvanus foregrounded the integration of islands and coastlines compiled in nautical charts in the maps transmitted in Ptolemy’s geographical treatise, translating the conventions for land-mapping into representational conventions from the graphic arts and advances of two-color typography:  the birds perched on the cornices of his map of Italy, the sixth plate of Europe, may echo the modern bird’s-eye view of the peninsula he offered, using nautical maps to present the configuration with a sense of naturalism often foreign to early printed Ptolemaic maps.

Sylvanus Italy--Europe 6



2.  Oceanic Space

The treatise that the second-century geographer titled a “handbook for drawing world maps” was both a technical guide and a compendium for drafting land maps.  But in Venice, a city of maritime trade, Ptolemy’s promise to collate and list a database of all the places in the inhabited world’s surface had potential appeal as incommensurate with the chart used to decide or compare nautical routes of travel, and posed a specific challenge to synthesize mapping forms.

These charts provided an alternate source of information that promised both to refine and expand the ancient geographer’s encyclopedic claims that led him to list names of ancient cities and noteworthy cities or rivers exceeding 10,000 in number–if the richness of Ptolemy’s text led erudite readers to consult his book with their manuscripts of Herodotus or Livy, as Bernardo Machiavelli–father of Niccolò–their elegant terrestrial maps they more often addressed learned readers and armchair travelers as surfaces often read in relation to other ancient texts, rather than graphic descriptions of expanse.  Indeed, their printers did not aim to address a larger audience of readers.  Yet even when presenting accurate place-locations in coastlines that resemble charts, the maps struggled to offer an easily readable surface.


sugar hillls in Spain


The synthesis of a more legible cartographical space was foreign to earlier cartographical traditions.  The history of the transmission of medieval maps is considerably complex–as are the techniques of varied forms of map making.  Elizabeth Edson argued information from accounts of travelers, traders, and sailors became accomodated in world-maps from the early fifteenth century, joining travelogues that both expanded the content and challenged the parameters of earlier symbolic world maps.  The inclusion of information from travel accounts and nautical charts not only expanded the surface of maps, but posed complex problems of integration on parallels and meridians–a reproducible grid–and elicited potential graphic models for spatial representation over a century after its textual translation that lent formal authority to the world map.

The alternatives for such a synthesis were not clear.  The considerable questions that surround the transmission and construction of earlier manuscript charts, often drawn on sheepskin to guarantee their preservation and illustrate their value, are raised by the unclear relations between how the maps were transmitted and copied–if not created–given the unclear questions about copyists reliance on the intersecting directional lines that seemed sketched over their content in tracing coastal shorelines and locating islands, or how the skein of lines apparently determined from compass-bearings provided guides for nautical travel.  These maps were produced predominantly in port towns, as this Mediterranean chart executed in Alexandria by Jehuda Abenzara (or ben Zara), coastlines are crowded by names of coastal ports written perpendicularly to the shore, linked by a network or web of potential sea-routes that demand close reading and intense preparation by specially trained scribes:

Jehada Abenzara

In port cities like Alexandria, chart-makers regularly synthesized and collated a sort of collective memory of varied routes of travel that might be on board any arriving ship, in the hope of piecing together these local records of coasts or island-charts to synthesize more expansive networks of trade with a degree of accuracy that minimized cartographical distortion with a precision that geodetic observations had not allowed.

The chart synthesized a form of collective memory, if the protocols by which its contents were transmitted are not clear:  the organization of a synthetic record of travels provided little more than symbolic reference to inhabited interiors, however, which in essence remained “off the map.”  Rather than a representation of terrestrial space, it primarily provided a record of the location of ports and idealized potential lines of nautical–rather than terrestrial– travel.


The spatial mapping of coastal cities in the Mediterranean, and situation of coastlines in a broad nautical expanse–both in relation to both equinoctial lines and vertical bars of latitude however provided an alternate orientation to the network of the web of loxodromic lines of the compass rose.  The below schematic version of a portolan chart, signed by Juan de la Cosa of c. 1500, provided a distinct frame of reference and spatial indices to enumerate points of landing and prominent capes in the New World at different latitudes for its readers.

Wrote de la Cosa's c 1500 map


The parchment portolan chart stored in Madrid’s Museo Naval and made in the port city of Andalusia, Puerto de Santa María, was prepared for competencies of a restricted audience, with specific interpretive tools in mind–whether they were kept by captains, or by trading houses is unclear, as is the primary techniques they use to demonstrate relations of space.  By the fifteenth century, elegantly decorated versions became prized possessions among even landlocked elites–probably in copies that obscured or hid their own mercantile provenance and were designed to stake boundary lines of exploration or colonization in the New World, by demonstrating the boundary line of Tordesillas.  But although the competencies of mapping these documents enlist to render expanse are opaque, their synthetic construction have provoked continued investigation of their formal manipulation or symbolic construction of mapped space.

Some of the relevant underlying schema of the networks and constellations in charts have been identified, but their operative value is not known–were they of use for copyists in Salamanca, Barcelona, or Genoa, or were these keys that allowed them to be read?  The construction of scale lay in the relation among focal circles, wind roses, and loxodromic lines, as in this reading of the Cantino Chart.



Spatial position is not much of an apparent interest, however, so much as the collation of alternative networks of travel–or, in the case of some charts presented by the Spanish or Portuguese, to illustrate the meridian that demarcated colonization of the New World at the Treaty of Tordesillas.  The image of nautical continuity was a huge attraction for the humanist geographer Martin Waldseemüller, but his 1516 “Carta Marina” based on Portuguese marine charts like the so-called Cantino chart constituted part of his broader cosmographical project, but this image, discovered only by the Jesuit Josef Fischer around 1901, constituted an alternate model of cosmographical learning to his large world map of 1507, 4.5 to 8 feet, provided a wall-map whose comprehensive character was less successful in making claims for its legibility, if it invested greater artistic skills in converting the format of nautical charting to a legible form that Waldeseemüller had the projection engraved in the same dimensions.  This map printed on high-quality hand-made rag paper was only found in one sixteenth-century bound volume, but was a complicated investment, even more so than the cosmographical map that Waldseemüller described as having been printed in 1,000 copies.



Somewhat oddly, the map did not include the image of “America” surrounded by oceanic waters that distinguished the lavish cosmographic wall-map he had printed in 1507, and whose accompanying treatise described America as “an island . . . surrounded on all sides by sea,”  in his Cosmographiae Introductiomost probably because its sheets reflected the content of sea-charts–even if it superimposed an equi-angular grid that had little relation to the graticule employed in the terrestrial wall-map he had titled a Universalis Cosmographia.

Oceanus Occidenatils

The two large wall-maps produced at the University of Vosges, then in the Holy Roman Empire, both only recently acquired and restored by the Library of Congress, enshrined opposed if  incommensurable models of world-geography at the very time Sylvanus prepared his own edition of Ptolemy’s precepts of geographic map-making and study of global geography.   Did the lavishly produced “Carta Marina” offer a counterpart to the geographic theorization of expanse that Waldseemüller had advanced in his cosmographical writings?

3.  Envisioning the Continuity of Terrestrial Geography

The location of geographical in the continuous coastlines of manuscript nautical charts was hastened by a demand to process the over 12000 identified sites Ptolemy specified as able to be mapped in a format  which conformed to viewers’ expectations for representing spatial continuity.  And Sylvanus seems to confront this difference shift in collating nautical charts with other mapping forms in Venice around 1510,  in what seems a uniquely local manner to read a map’s universal claims.

The detailed coverage of the world’s surface in sixteenth-century Europe increased not only the coverage or precision of maps, I would argue, so much as the claims of realistic representation–or reality effect–of maps in critical ways.  Yet changing understanding of the map as a medium, as well, provided Bernardus Sylvanus with grist to collate nautical charts in a set of new conventions that created a uniformity among data of diverse provenance previously regarded as qualitatively distinct if not incommensurable orders of spatial description.  Although his exacting transposition of ancient names into modern outlines of land-masses ran against the critical project of comparing the ancient and modern worlds, the uniform conventions of maps he made presented a distinctly uniform continuous surface in images from charts.

For charts were less concerned with describing or denoting spatial location, than determining (and collating) potential routes of travel:  the conceptual mapping of routes of travel was rarely invested with descriptive force or value; its competency reflected applied knowledge.  The growing authority of the terrestrial map as a comprehensive description, however–one of the deepest of modern claims of maps as competencies rooted in visual design, rather than nautical knowledge–arose from the combination of registers of terrestrial and nautical cartography, previously separate formats of spatial descriptions if not more significantly incommensurable registers, in a sort of a trading zones of semiotic conventions from varied areas of life, which bridged or linked hitherto incommensurable formats to denote expanse.

As the rich spatial information contained within the medium of the chart was transposed to the surface of terrestrial maps,  something like a wrestling with epistemological claims for knowing space and locations seems apparent in the maps included in treatises of global geography first translated in the fifteenth-century, most particularly in Claudius Ptolemy’s second-century Guide for Drawing Terrestrial Maps, whose maps Renaissance editors of the treatise had increasingly invested with increasingly comprehensive ends–increasingly relying on the toponymically crowded but crisply defined coastlines transmitted in charts to blend seamlessly with inland areas.  The accumulation of local and pictorial detail to combine an over-abundance of signifiers altered the distinction between the land map and nautical chart, raising truth-value claims about the chart as a representation that stood at remove of one from the world that this post can only begin to suggest:  increasingly, the map became a place that could be inscribed with meaning, or became a register from which to relate to foreign lands, if not a substitute for them.  The diminishing authority of the chart lay partly in a limited ability to determine position at sea, but also a limitation of the ability for encoding further information in its content that would satisfy its audience.  Edward Wright observed the errors of sea-charts as a basis for calculating position in 1599:


A word or two about this complex treatise, abundantly overflowing with strange toponyms that elicited readers’ curiosity even if its content were difficult to translate into the standards of eloquent expression to which many of its humanist readers were habituated–leading some to indicate Strabo as–to quote Isaac Casaubon–the “summo scriptore, quod praeter acuratissimam totius orbis nunc cogniti descriptionem, tanta doctrina, tamque varia omnium rerum scientia refertum est, ea denique arte contextum . . .

Ptolemy’s expansive catalogue of locations had long demanded to be given a visual form.  The question of their visual coherence led some of his later editors to rely on nautical charts that included places Ptolemy had not indicated, but the nautical chart provided little analogous framework of coherence by which to grasp their situation in a continuous expanse.  The geographer Angeliki Tsorlini has recently employed digital technologies to map relative locations defined by the terrestrial coordinates in Ptolemy’s treatise in ways that reveal the very compelling map of Mediterranean cities his treatise would have offered.  Most of the cities are ports, located along the shore, to be sure, but a considerable number remain inland cities located with apparent relative precision, with minimal significant distortion for much of Italy, the Adriatic, and Greece.  The copious abundance of familiar locations and interest in their clustering must have increased demand for their depiction.

Place Names from Ptolemy in Modern Map Projection

In the first codex that arrived in Rome, found by Maximous Planudes in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century, the abstract ordering of the situation and topography did not pose an intellectual problem of viewing space (Burney 111; British Library).  Despite the formal appearance of the island of Taprobana, thought to perhaps represent Sri Lanka, the red lines of parallels of latitudes and meridians of longitude in which Ptolemy argued geographic mapmakers could usefully divide the world for readers on measured units, provided limited claims to mediate a naturalistic image of expanse.

Maximous Planoudes' Taprobana

Planoudes was careful to note the precise location of places on spatial coordinates, but the metric values of locations were not presented as lying in exact correspondence to their spatial situation.  The illustration of cartographical images that expanded later codices of Ptolemy’s treatise worked hard to provide maps that were commensurate with the over 1200 place-names–including mouths of rivers, promontories, mountains, or landmarks–contained in his geographic compendia were sought to be illustrated in authoritative form.

As the work reached a large audience in manuscript, terrestrial space was presented in schematic terms, the maps seem to wrestle with the abstraction of space, as if in ways that could not be imagined in visual or pictorial terms as a surface that could be scanned, as is evident in this map of German lands in one codex of the Geography, which enumerated towns and rivers in a new abstract form, listing inhabitants and towns as in the Ptolemaic manner, with minimal recognizable guides or explicit orientational clues about their spatial situation and topographical location, even when that region lay on the margins of the Roman world:
Magna Germania forests in Swabia


Yet the land-locked nature of these regions made the legibility of expanse less concrete.

Even in areas that claimed continuity with the ancient world, the production of Ptolemaic treatises curiously included modern views of Mediterranean cities in several deluxe of codices illuminated in Florence, as if to expand the treatise’s qualitative coverage of European cities in a rhetorically persuasive image for readers–these images had less regard for the systematic terrestrial coordinates Ptolemy proscribed than for preserving noteworthy sites in each place, or offer a ‘chorographic’ complement to Ptolemy’s explicitly geographic concern.



4.  Symbolic Syntheses of Mapped Space

The question of what sort of graphic synthesis was provided in a geographic map is broadly tied to Renaissance visual culture, but posed particularly pressing questions in port cities that compared Ptolemy’s precepts with maps of nautical expanse.  Bernardus Sylvanus assembled engraved maps for his edition of Ptolemy shortly after the plans to print an edition of the treatise in Venice collapsed or failed, for reasons of skill or financing.  But a huge shift occurred in the production of maps that made such authoritative regional claims as depictions had already occurred, reflected in the preponderance of their incision, illumination, and distribution in centers of visual cultures in northern and central Italy, central Germany, and the Netherlands:  the specific forms of overlap between nautical and terrestrial methods in sites from Venice to Rome to Nuremberg created a rich repertory of maps with expansive truth-claims as forms of depiction.  His work came on the heals of an existing experimentation with combining cartographical registers of description in a universal register of mapping habitations of terrestrial space, evident in the 1507-8 world map of the Roman edition of Ptolemy, designed by the northern engraver Johannes Ruysch, and contemporary to the plans for a Venetian edition of Ptolemy’s treatise.

The manner that this 1507 world map mediated the legibility terraqueous expanse as a continuous surface might have offered a model for Sylvanus’  integrating of mapping forms:  for the Ruysch projection is in ways a restatement of cartographic expertise.


Rome 1507

The black-and-white outlines of the copperplate incision helps foreground the legibility of toponyms and textual panels alike that lie on the map’s curved meridian lines, as the stippled surface of oceanic expanse suggests the fact of its comprehension in the map–a comprehension rendered evident to viewers by the unveiling of the new form of a circumnavigable Africa and India, as well as the introduction of the newly discovered capes, rivers, and islands of the Americas:



The historian of cartography David Woodward argued that cartographical competence reveals a growing “rationalization of space” around 1492.  In ways, we have begun to remove cartography from a professional genealogy that places a premium on rationality–such a claim is concealed within the creative combination of forms of diverse sources mapmakers have long imaginatively integrated in synthetic designs.  But the limitations on the ‘rationality’ of the map–or the grounding of its authority in its rationality–demands future research for how mapmakers who amplified the local qualitative content of cartographical media.

Taking a step further backward in time, we can perhaps appreciate how the designers and illuminators of maps of maps included in manuscripts of Ptolemy’s treatise seem ambivalent in their use of parallels and meridians as a framework for defining a cognitive relation to expanse or for recording a cognitive relation to place:  for they treat the graticule of the map more as a frame of reference by which to register terrestrial position, than as an enabling format for graphic representation:  the iconic portrayal of place in early maps as clusters of houses that positioned against the blank ‘space’ framed by coordinate system or patches of forest tries to bridge Ptolemy’s ancient model for denoting a uniform abstraction of terrestrial expanse on Euclidean precepts and the ability to transcribe space.  Illuminators, few of whom are known,  invested maps with very limited mimetic qualities from the 1450s and 1470s to communicate their continuity:   the new interest in regional maps as registers lead illuminators to position clusters of houses with peaked roofs and taller towers in dense proximity to each other to distinguish areas of settlement, beside clustered areas of forest growth–as the Black Forest in Bavaria–that provided some vague reassurance of the correspondence of space.  Some of the owners of such maps added places near their own residence, or areas that they knew, omitted in the printed editions or codices they owned, as if to give the maps an expressive value that they feel they lacked.


Added cities of Hamburg and Lubek

Bohemia in 1477 Ptolemy

Did the second-century geographer’s “handbook for drawing world maps” have different implications in Venice, a city of maritime trade and considerable diversity, where nautical maps were more prevalent than maps of terrestrial expanse by the early sixteenth century?
4.  Back to Bernardus Sylvanus in Venice, ca. 1500
The shift in Venetian culture for locating place in a map’s expanse is reflected in the collation of a set of independent views of neighborhoods to create a dramatic imagined synthetic view of Venice as seen from above in a wall-map composed from six large individual woodblocks and large rag sheets.  The master of perspective Jacopo de’ Barbari designed the detailed view by taking he city’s coasts a a frame in which to distribute its built and inhabited expanse:  heads of winds of each direction frame the view, recalling the spokes of a wind-rose and the disembodied heads of putti who surround most early printed Ptolemaic maps, magnify the city’s coastlines and maritime surroundings, revealing the complexity of its physical plant as if the city were something of a microcosm of the inhabited world, and to showcase the expansive position of Venice on the Adriatic.  The view situates the “forma urbis” not only as a built space but in realtion to the surrounding sea, dotted with individual boats and a regatta:  in the distance, one sees the Alps to the north:  the city appears as a microcosm of global expanse, as the depiction of its inhabitation in each rione of Venice stands as a graphic surrogate for the mapping of a miniature world.
The particular detailing of a sea as continuous with coastlines and inhabited world provides the informed viewer with something of a metaphor for the unity of land and sea in world-mapping, revealed in Jacopo’s attention to both wind-heads round the city and to a regatta that braves Adriatic winds, exploiting his attention to the finely engraved lines of the wavy waters:
Barbari Regata
What sort of view did Jacopo de’ Barbari compose in this elegant multi-sheet wall map?  The view is often compared to the elevated “bird’s-eye” perspectival views of the “forma urbis” of Renaissance cities, but rests on a synthsesis of an imagiend or virtual view from individual surveys of the city:  one recent digitization of the view of “Venetia 1500” helped reveal the synthetic unity Jacopo took pains to created a uniformity of urban space from individual surveys as an illustration of considerable skill of rendering an almost planimetric space for viewers to scan as a continuous surface that extended to the surrounding oceanic sea:
Gridded view of Jacopo's Venice
The multi-sheet map, whose production required three years, exemplifies a Venetian appreciation of elevating a record of collective perceptions by combining map-making and perspective with particular virtuosity.
Each of the six sheets provided detailed records of the city in what Fortini Brown has called an “eye-witness style,” but a imported mapping records to a continuous picture-frame that pushed the cartographic metaphor of transcription to transcend a single fixed perspective.
Barbari Close-Up with Tritone
The luxury print of multiple sheets provide a surface into which the viewer can descend into specific neighborhoods or regions that are immediately recognizable:  the continuity of its content were thematized in another recent digitization of the map created by the Correr Museum:
But the lines of the Venetian lagoon and Adriatic suggest the clearest inclusion of a sense of maritime space in the map–an illusion that was echoed in the corpus of Sylvanus maps.  For Jacobo de’ Barbari created a model for viewing the coherence of urban space that responded to a challenge for ordering the unity of terrestrial and nautical space.  When Bernardus Sylvanus intended to expand the cartographical corpus of Ptolemy’s Geography in Venice around 1508, he consciously and proudly incorporated information from the surface of sailors’ nautical charts into the land-maps denoted by spatial coordinates in earlier editions of Ptolemy’s treatise, creating a unified legible cartographical surface and using printer’s red to place cities in a continuous landscape–if often situating ancient names of place from Ptolemy’s work within the modern coastlines of nautical charts, in ways that went against the scholarly tradition of comparing ancient and modern geography by juxtaposing “ancient” and “modern” maps, but also advanced a single cartographic record as authoritative and unique, shading coastlines to suggest the maritime field in which he placed new nautical discoveries–and limited America, famously, to the Columban islands to the ahistorical exclusion of all North America.


Rather than enabling spatial travel, the world map of two sheets noted place-names in a distinctive printer’s red that stand out from rolling hills, framed by etched lines of waters on their coasts as if in imagined relief:

Sylvanus expanded Mediterranean with nuatical maps

The map’s space was treated as a continuous surface, defined by the coastlines from modern nautical charts, if the toponomy was often ancient in origin, treating the cartographical surface as a uniform register of inhabited lands:

Sylvanus Spain Coast

Little biographic information is known about the production of the maps of Bernardus Sylvanus da Ebola, though he has been possibly identified with an illuminator.  But he clearly exploited, even more than his predecessors, the semiotic synthesis that print allowed in Venice.  This is evident both in its combination of text and woodcut imagery in this two-sheet map, and the overlay of a graticule, equatorial bar, and wind-heads, combining conventions of different mapping media more explicitly than even earlier editions of the existing maps of the Ptolemaic corpus.

The introduction of islands and coastlines not in most all of the maps editors of the previous five printed editions of Ptolemy’s treatise on world-mapping (a sudden burst of editions which we can label Bologna 1477; Rome 1478; Ulm 1482; Berlinghieri 1482; and Rome 1507), presenting more clearly identified coasts and islands–as the ‘isole fortunate’ off of Africa’s western coast, although it omits the New World–but are often of limited geographic accuracy. The distinct use of type to balance the legibility of a map crowded with toponymy by two-color ink adopts the innovation of the material production of books to create a surface easily read by its customers–and he invited readers of the maps he organized as a comparison between the maps Ptolemy described and the versions corrected by modern nautical charts to “compare Ptolemy’s words with navigations themselves” and decide for themselves, using two-color printing to facilitate an intensive reading of the map’s surface, and in the attention that he gave to islands in the Mediterranean, as the Balearic islands off the coast of Spain, where the etching of lines suggest the surrounding seas that hit their rocky shores.


The significance of the line in the medium of engraving has been argued to facilitate the conventions of uniform mapping of terrestrial expanse, allowing engravers to exploit the geometric formats of Ptolemaic mapping in graphic form in particularly expressive ways, the expressive value of the Sylvanus maps derived from their synthesis of conventions of map-making in a continuously readable form–one that created new attentiveness, indeed, to the encryption of information from the surface of the map, both in the map of the world’s surface and the individual tables editors helped prepare for Ptolemy’s treatise.

This must have responded to an increase in what might be called geographic curiosity.

The universal coverage of the maps Sylvanus prepared for Ptolemy’s manual of global geography was constructed from a very local place, and reveals the local availability of island books or isolari in Venice, as well as nautical records of the Mediterranean and Adriatic that were available in abundance in the maritime city, which were carefully integrated within the system of parallels, meridians and equinoctial lines for readers to pour over, with attention to areas like Spain’s Mediterranean coast or Greek islands in the Adriatic, depicted by a similar accuracy reminiscent of charts, as are its inlets and bays.

Greek Island Sylvanus

Sylvanus illustrated the division between Africa and Asia, the origins of the  Nile and shores of the newly-mapped Red Sea for readers to consult, probably in relation to available maps, by means of a similar etching of graphic relief:

Africa and Origins of Nile


The material surface of Bernardus’ maps synthesized a range of semiotic conventions that viewers would have been quick to recognize as a combination of a material landscape and a map:  one of his Italian readers was quick to include images of the towns in the Marches in the map of Italy and the Adriatic, depicting both the towns of Monterubbiano and Moresco i in ways comparable to the iconic perspective views of cities.


Sylvanus' Adriatic


The additions suggest a dramatic increased in the graphic materiality of the map as a pictorial register.  Print are allowed men as Bernardus or fellow-engravers and editors of maps in Florence, Rome, and Antwerp to invest the map’s surface with new claims of legibility as a reproducible record.  But it is also very possible that Bernardus’ sustained engagement with a project of printing he hoped would be far more successful derived from the prominent status maps already enjoyed in other visual media.

The interest of maps as depictions reflected a deep appropriation of Ptolemy’s instructions to his own second-century contemporaries to craft a map “ad oculorum aspectum commensurabilis“–the transmission of this precept to later mapmakers to create a surface that would appeal to their readers’ eyes, if not also the tacit presuppositions for viewing a continuous space in a detailed and harmonious form.

5.  A tradition of fifteenth-century Venetian cartographers had incorporated nautical charts to illustrative or pictorial ends in inventive ways, in attempts to give greater expressivity and comprehensiveness to the Ptolemaic planisphere or nautical chart:   a 1448 world map designed with great care by Giovanni Leardo framed by the months of the year and astrological signs (Verona, Bibl. Civ., Ms 3119); Fra Mauro’s famous circular map uniquely synthesized Portuguese charts, a unique matter given that it was in fact commissioned for Portugal’s monarch, without a graticule; it recalls an ellipsoid world map of 1457 constructed on the principles “of cosmographers” without a uniform graticule, and filled with textual legends, fanciful iconography, and perspective city views.  None privileged the geometrical order of a uniformly continuous surface or a format of projection from terrestrial cartography, however, or bridged different semantic registers in the manner of Sylvanus’ maps.

The Ptolemaic model provided an authoritative basis to fashion a surface that could be readily scanned as a uniform distribution of expanse by around 1500, and in Venice shifted the attitudes of viewers to mapped space.  By the later fifteenth century, the Venetian Senate had commissioned the repainting of territorial maps of the lagoon of Antonio de’ Leonardi from his nephew Sebastian along parallels and meridians by “Ptolemy’s doctrine” that Isabella d’Este and others Isabella d’Este sent painters to copy, marvelling at its proportions and scale.  The painted map received praise as “così perfetta nelle sue misure [so elegant and well-proportioned]” that “diversi Principi [several princes]” had commissioned copies of it for their own enjoyment and pleasure before its 1577 destruction, Sansovino boasted among his catalogue of the city’s artistic treasures.[i]

Although the map is now destroyed, and cannot be pictured, it constituted something of a model for the multiple maps now present in the Palazzo Ducale, painted to replace it, and for the maps of the Veneto that Christoforo da Sorte created in its private chambers–as well as, perhaps, Egnazio Danti’s monumental remapping of the peninsula in colored paint.  The much-admired peninsular map may have provided a model for integrating the format of nautical charts with maps of geographic content by men like Sebastian Cabot, piloto for the Casa de la Contratacion in Seville who created a new world map–or the map-engraver and engineer Giacomo Gastaldi, who from 1546 synthesized multiple elegant wall-maps that refined cartographical expertise; Gastaldi’s work with the geographer Giovan Battista Ramusio led him to design comprehensively detailed pictorial wall-maps as that of South-East Asia.


gastaldi 1548

Gastaldi-prat of Asia

But we might also start from the 1511 modern map of the peninsula that Sylvanus designed:

Sylvanus Sexta Tabula with ms addition of city views

Did this lost expansive painted map of the lagoon that extended to the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian sea, and their islands, provide a model for uniting terrestrial and nautical maps that men such as Bernardus Sylvanus sought to generalize for a larger audience in printed form?

The reader of Sylvanus’ printed maps from Fermo sought to make the text his very own, adding his own qualitative views of the cities that he knew, in ways that register a distinct relation to the map as a continuous surface.

[i] Gallo, “Le mappe geographiche del Palazzo Ducale di Venezia,” Archivio Veneto ser. V, 32 (1943): 47-54. Sansovino, Venetia, citta nobilissima et singolare (Venice:  Iacomo Sansovino, 1581), fol. 122, “era una tavola d’Italia così perfetta nelle sue misure, che diversi Principi ne domandarono l’essemplare.”

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Filed under Angeliki Tsorlini, Carta Marina, engraved maps, Giacomo Gastaldi, globalism, Jacobo de' Barbari, Martin Waldsemüller, portolan charts, Renaissance engraving, two-color typography

Mapping License Plates/Maps in License Plates

The politicization of the design of these most common designators of place on cars, the license plate, is hardly surprising.  After all, the rise of the proprietorial sense of designing ones own plates is not a far jump to that of viewing the format of the license plats as if this designation of plate were not forms of public writing.  Even without considering the broad notion of what sort of writing this constitutes, the readiness to treat license plate design as an avenue for freedom of speech as a form of expression reveals a pronounced shift not only in the aesthetics but in the use and construction of license plate design in the past.

For during the past twenty years, we have come to identify the content of one’s plates as transcends a tag of where one’s from, taking it as an occasion to raise state revenues and provide vanity illustrations of individualization on the highway and driveway at considerable costs.  Perhaps it is worth asking how this relates not only to freedom of expression, but to our sense of place.  It is perhaps on account of the massive growth of graphic designers and graphic arts, as well as the ease of printing airbrush designs on metallic surfaces, that the license plate, that modest of all surfaces, has recently become something of an advertisement–along the lines of U-Haul moves; the images on license plates have become evocative landscapes that almost embed viewers in their content, depicting a sense of place that seems more alluring than neutrally mapped.  Indeed, despite the radically limited cartographical content of the raised state pictured on the New York State license plate, a considerable effort was invested in affirming the iconic centrality of the state, even it it is a barely recognizable or distinguished blob of paint when raised metal when at close hand.

Although these dramatically reduced maps as tokens, occurring as a visual pause between digits, numbers, or letters, have lost the geographic identifying functions for most states, the token placement of small, raised maps in several northeast states–New York; New Jersey; Connecticut; and, to an extent, but in a different fashion, Pennsylvania–suggests a survival of the cartographical as a remainder of which some states are not ready to let go or consign to the dustbin of history, even in an age of GPS and digitized maps.  Not really a visual fetish, but a designator of place, distinguished by an exaggerated appendix of Long Island, the New York image is no doubt the most familiar and recognizable, even if its edges are quite abstractly smoothed so that they provide little resemblance to an actual map.


NY state blip on license plate.png


While the map is paired by a similar centrality of New Jersey in license plates in the greater metropolitan area–and in the image of the ‘keystone state’ that is used to punctuate Pennsylvania plates, the diminished centrality of the map in license plates suggests a certain sense of loss, and a sense of bolstering the symbolic meaning of the map.




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Oakland Represented Variously: What We See When We Map Oakland’s Inhabitants

The range of ‘open’ online data that is available for a city such as San Francisco showcases the city’s clear definition of a public space.  Although there are plenty of spaces of local meaning and importance in Oakland, from the site of Occupy near the mayor’s office to nearby Chinatown and Lake Merritt, or from Fruitvale Station to west Oakland urban farms and on to Alameda, the fragmented nature of public space is difficult to map coherently.

When it comes to public space, the East Bay and Oakland–despite a rich variety of parks, an estuary, and increasing vitality of Jack London Square–is a polycentric sprawl, its former downtown interrupted by freeways, and open boulevards dotted with closed commercial centers, beauty supply zones, or dense interchanges.  This is in part due to how little the diverse areas and neighborhoods of the city know themselves.  How to map the inhabitants of Oakland, CA, given the considerable diversity across neighborhoods?  Does it exist as a unified social space, or what image of the city emerges?  By looking at some of the census maps of the city, and mining the range of information compiled in them by displaying their data in mapped form, we can process and digest the complexly variegated nature to view its population’s profile.  (Indeed, the problems of politically representing the complex composition of a somewhat divided city were revealed in the most recent mayoral election of 2014.)

The sprawling city challenges the abilities of the social cartographer as much as the post-modern space of Los Angeles, even in this real-estate view.  Maps of any scale organize social space by relevance, preparing a selective record of its inhabitation and revealing networks for ready consultation.  Maps of any scale create a simulacrum or construct of social reality, as much as simply orient their readers:  the city’s salient features highlighted and network of organization explained, omitting other spaces and residents. We might start by acknowledging how the below bird’s-eye view of Oakland from c. 1900, of unknown origin, celebrating the city’s settlement and early Bay Area Real Estate:  the engraving showcases an open urban grid as an area becoming future realtors to its shores:  if mostly green and largely uninhabited, presents a prospective view of the city-port as a commercial center, showcasing notable houses of prosperous residents that distinguished Oakland’s built environment, and beckoning viewers to its estuary and the man-made shores of its new Lake as if to shift our attention from the city of San Francisco.

Oakland 1900

Elevated or “bird’s eye” views praising urban identity and architecture such as this anonymous print had a long tradition.  Such imagined constructions that gained currency as encomiastic forms, often complemented by poetic paens to their social harmony.  If the artist who engraved and designed the elevated map is not known, the presentation of the city’s growing physical plant and street structure echoed the architectural elegance of earlier urban views, as the visual encomia to the elegance of architectonic form of Venice in the virtuosic perspective designed by Jacopo de’ Barbari circa 1500 of his own creation.  De’ Barbari exploited skills of perspective to craft a graphic and pictorial encomia to his native city’s architecture and burgeoning wealth to trumpet its social distinction; an earlier elevated view of Florence, sold by the cartographer and engraver Francesco Rosselli similarly celebrated and displayed the architecture of his native city.  De Barbari famously employed to evoke the harmonious order of his city, also lying in close proximity to surrounding wetlands, by displaying its distinctive harmony–vaunting its delicate socio-political balance figuratively by deploying his mastery of creating a previously unimaginable perspective to considerable effect, showing the density of its architecture in the watery surroundings.


Even if much of present Oakland seems a bit of a blank slate, whose territory expands from its port and the man-made lake built to beautify its urban estuary, the print of c. 1900 divides plots and settled acreage, as the surrounding images of buildings that testify.  This is not only a pictorial space, but an attempt–as the Rosselli and de’ Barbari maps–to show the social space as harmoniously mapped to a pictorial space of representation, and distinguish the city as a microcosm of the world.  Both maps offer  sophisticated visual glosses on the ancient notion of a “chorography” or qualitative view of a community, elegantly overlaying and equating their imaginary perspectival space with he social spaces of each city.

Can we create a modern chorography of Oakland that both displays and comprehends its dynamic heterogeneity, or would the city split into social divides?  Google Maps clearly fails to do so, but what would a comparable mapping of Oakland’s populations look like, perhaps mapped from the ground up–in the manner that Jacopo labored to achieve?

OAK Topographical

There was clear redlining of much of the East Bay’s residential areas in real estate maps for the East Bay cities dating from the Depression, in which Home Owners Loan Corporation rated neighborhoods for the refinancing of mortgages  that amounts to a reflection of the value of property in the East Bay, and reveal an odd mosaic of the city that privileged some regions, but also include a clear redlining of those regions by the Bay and the main arteries of transportation that continue to define Oakland’s port.  The red-lining of the city’s residential areas in the New Deal structured the city’s social geography in  imaginary construction ofways that reflect the continued exclusion of African Americans and blacks from the market of legitimate home mortgage in much of America through the 1960s, described so compellingly by Ta- Nehisi Coates, and in Oakland not only reflect the deep divides in residential ownership but created social disparities but record scars that make the city’s future harmony particularly difficult to re-imagine.  The zones of imbalanced opportunities for home ownership that long existed in the city created perpetuated deep social divides among its residents, often left without the chances of refinancing that were available to many other residents from the 1930s in the United States, as its port and low-lying areas became victims to a classic image of “blight” with roots in its deep abandonment by the public good in ways not yet overcome.


From the first settling after the San Francisco earthquake of the Oakland hills, the demographic divides Oakland’s settlement seem to have been reflected in the value of residential ownership in its neighborhoods in ways revealed in the fractures lines of the map of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, and which have continued to divide its neighborhoods even after a period of urban growth.  The absence of clear neighborhoods or community organizations around the major traffic arteries that Oakland has long been defined by at its port and older shipping canals created something like a social divide not only in this early HOLC map, but that has been perpetuated within the socioeconomic divisions that were so starkly reflected in the “red-lining” of urban real estate.

Redlining By the Shore

Even if Oakland has been billed a “livable city,” the “split personality” is revealed in the divides starkly illuminated by a map of social lifestyles generated by an ESRI tapestry charting dominant lifestyles–purple noting High Society; blue “upscale avenues;” teal “Metropolis;” light bright blue “metro trendsetters;” green “seniors;” and tan and brown “inner city,” “highrise,” or “up and coming.”

The map shows the city’s split personality:

esri dominant lifestyle est bay

In a year that boasted crowd-sourced mapping of the San Francisco Bay, organizing the demographic divides that continue to shape Oakland deserves our sustained attention–and the varieties of viewing the divisions and distributions in the settlement of Oakland’s space.  Unlike San Francisco, dominated by some 359 skyscrapers in its downtown and other regions, Oakland is far more geographically disperse and diffuse, with only a small number of buildings over fifty meters all clustered by Lake Merritt–including those noted in blue, under consideration or construction.
Skyscrapers in Oakland-  50 meters

The recent ambitious and brave investment intended to equalize these clear socioeconomic divisions and to prevent them from being perpetuated by public services from schooling to economic opportunity is a step in the right direction and, based on a back-of-the-envelop calculation, seems to have its priorities and direction of resources fairly straight in how it has decided to invest in Oakland’s neighborhoods’ futures.

OaklandOpportunityImpactOverview-1024x663Distribution of San Francisco Foundation’s Investment in Oakland

But how to frame and orient the viewer of a map of the city’s demographic divisions is fraught, given the difficulty of uniting Oakland as a whole, or even in abstracting an analogously unified image that connects its disparate inhabitants.  The network that bounds the city was advanced rather optimistically in a map that elegantly promoted the lost or abandoned system of Key Cars whose web linked downtown Oakland to the Temescal and Alameda–the infrastructure for the local economy that it did up until its complete dismantling by 1959.

Map of Oakland and Vicinity- Key Car System

The serviced networks that any map foregrounds, even one of transit routes, engage their readers by networks of inter-relationships.   The above map affirms a network of transportation for their rider, suggesting the ways that the infrastructure by which the Key-Car systems united downtown Oakland and the vicinity–much in the manner current BART maps promise to link everywhere in the East Bay in a radius to Point Richmond, Brentwood, and San Jose.  The current BART network may link the Bay Area, indeed, as Oakland seems to be forsaken as being the economic it was by transit authorities and Bay Area residents.

But Oakland is also a city whose social space was long both divided and eviscerated, as the network of streetcar transit was dismantled, the railroad stations that centered the town from the 1880s declined or closed, preparing for the razing of the West Oakland residences of many porters for the MacArthur maze, long before the collapse of the I-880 Cypress Freeway in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake–and the subsequent massive shifts in home-ownership as a large number of houses went underwater after 2007 led to a wave of foreclosures that was almost distributed across the city, and which redefined its social space once again.


The divides and diversity in Oakland make the mapping of the city of particular interest as tools to understand its social reality.  In a society where we are regularly mapped and surrounded by maps, the critical of reading maps is recognized as an important tool to negotiate and mediate lived social space.  What sorts of divides and continuities emerge in a city like Oakland, historically defined by considerable racial diversity and income disparity?  How to map so many variations in one place?

When Denis Wood and John Fels described the map as an ideological construction of space or territory, they took time to examine the surrounding ‘paratext’ to maps as keys or markers that revealed the ideological construction of the space within the “nature” of the map, created by interpretive legends and iconography, as well as the semiotic conventions of the map itself:  yet interactive urban maps provide much more of a creative cartographical conventions and treat the map as something like an open text.

In their critical examination of the authority inherent in the medium of the map, The Nature of Maps, Wood and Fels argue that the relation between a map and territory exists through how cartography–as much as cartographers–“constructs the natural world” in relation to other sign systems, construing the relation of a ‘map’ to ‘territory’ by how maps inescapably make their subject ideological.  Taking as their case in point maps of nature, they argue the order of maps demand assent from readers through what they call the ‘postings’ and the relays that the map creates to the world it ostensibly depicts, and the new understandings of space it creates.  Wood and Fels argue “relays” in maps, tied to the texts inherent in them or positioning in books or  paratexts, which uniquely promote the construction of meaning, effectively organizing complex mental spaces to understand nature in maps, whose structure demands assent to create truth-claims about nature, and transform the space of the natural world into a structure by which nature is spatialized as known.  The Barbari and Rosselli views assert an ideology of the local, spatializing the city as it is best viewed and encomiastically celebrated as a microcosm, even though the “paratexts” by which one reads a map are left tacit for their viewers.

Yet the map does not begin from an empty space, so much as it is rooted in a space that is inhabited:  it indeed tracks multiple networks of inhabitation.

Oak 1871 Birds Eye View

Tempting as it is to argue that social space fills in the empty space of a geographic region, the maps of Oakland’s inhabitants suggest a remaking of the city’s social space–and present an image of the remaking of that space viewed from the ground up.  For rather than providing a fixed or authoritative transcription of space that promotes “a standard scientific model” that creates a “mirror of nature . . . through geometry and measurement,” as Harley wrote was endemic to the discipline of cartography, or invest authority in a single map, the variety of Google Maps templates to plot data from the US Census for the years 2005-9 create a set of multiple maps in themselves each provisional, which they invite viewers to act by ordering their content.  It is perhaps no surprise that, in an age when maps proliferate, and we are both regularly mapped and surrounded by maps, the appeal of the website is that it provides tools to select variables and determine geographic parameters about the city that we can know:  indeed, their interactive nature provide a shifting notion of a map as a graphic fixity.  Wood and Fells primarily examined the organization of space within the printed map, critically reading map’s insertion in printed texts and their relation to the semiotics of written legends.

The compilations of maps based on census data offer, at a far greater granularity than other maps, to divide space by variable criteria of income, race, or level of education to offer what might be treated as elements of a composite picture of the city’s inhabitants–from the ground up–rather than demanding assent to a given cartographical record.  In a sense, the interactive maps below start a discussion about the nature of mapped space from which one can begin to examine the city’s social space.  The interactive map creates an open text whose variables and criteria users can create.

They provide a basis to question, critique and re-evaluate question the dominance of stereotypical categories of local violence or gangs as relevant descriptors of the city, but provide a bit more complex picture of its social composition.  For the interest of these maps lie in how viewers map them as simulacra against their mental maps, rather than in their mimetic claims:  ‘simulacra’ since all maps are both filters of information that parse the relevance of social space and embody a coherent order of space, providing deeply social tools for reading.   Rather assigning integrity to the map as a unique document, we can understand its ‘social life’ through how each creates and constitutes its own social reality for readers:  the Google Maps templates offer a basis to refract socio-economic distributions in the city, rather than fetishize the authority of the given map as a form that commands assent; the familiar templates increase the improvised nature of the comparative mapping exercise.  But Matthew Block, Shan Carter, and Alan Maclean are also particularly inventive graphic artists in how they use of Google Maps–especially in comparison to how it is usually used by others.

The interactive maps created from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey provide tools to track social realities across the nation, and filters to view specific variables in each zip-code and neighborhood.  I’m interested how maps embody Oakland as a coherent entity, and in Oakland a test-case to examine maps as embodiments of space and to illustrate spatial divides, as well as to filter different aspects of social space.  The interactive maps devised by Block, Carter, and Maclean employ Google Maps templates to invite viewers to process the coherence and divides within data from the US Census in spatial terms, using data for the years 2005-9 to create multiple maps, generated on demand, that refract or mediate statistical realities in visual formats which provide compelling ways to embody and understand social realities from the ground up. The statistical “maps” map at stunningly finer grain that reality–by “Mapping America: Every City, Every Block,” as they boast–that use tools of mapping creative interventions to analyze the Bay Area and its inhabited landscape; the mapping forms offer tools more than vehicles to demonstrate variables of race, income, education, or presence of recent immigrants, offering alternative models by which the region might both be mapped and, by extension, surrogate realities by which its composition might be known.  As much as surrogate realities, they refract pieces of that reality that we must juggle and assemble for ourselves, less attentive to the semantics of the Google Maps frame than their content. One might compare them to conventional maps based on skimpier data, to which their detail and agility provide a sort of foil–starting from the graphic charting crime-density in the Bay Area based on the police blotter.

Berkeley:Oakland Crime Density

The map is surprising for how the area immediately around the campus is a thick blotch of indelible red, bleeding into its nearby areas and along Telegraph Avenue like indelible ink.  Most of this “crime” is based on calls to the Police Dept., including a significant number of calls about problems of noise around fraternity row:  the impermeable barrier both around campus can be explained by the different policing agency that supervises the university’s campus, and the boundary of the Berkeley Hills to the East.  Crime is mapped not only indiscriminately, but distributed to reflect the contours of public complaints, as much as actual crimes.  Although the red splotches and streaks around much of Oakland and focused in its downtown seems in keeping with the difficulty of maintaining control over the dispersive city, while around UC Berkeley are dense stains of intense crimson that corresponds to the frequency of calls that the local police receive near campus.  It is interesting to contrast the map to that of San Francisco–where a huge amount of crime is clustered in the downtown, near the Embarcadero, Tenderloin, and Mission and some pockets around Van Ness–in a broad field of relatively crime-free green.

SF Crime Density

And so, if we shift mapping forms to a sort of heat-sensitive map of the violence committed and reported, the hot-spots of Oakland are more readily apparent–almost as a diffuse miasma of violence spread over neighborhoods like a viral form whose trajectory is difficult to explain or track:  heat-sensitivity is an apt cartographical metaphor of the subject charted:

eastbay_violent crime

The map of hot-spots of violent crime provides a different picture, if a tragic one, extending along the city’s major streets deep into East Oakland.  One might ask how this maps onto the city’s racial diversity. Given common predispositions, it might make sense to reflect on the city’s composition with greater granularity.  Does violence correlates to the complex ethnic or racial distribution of the city?  or to income?  or to gangs, as often suggested?  The interest of the interactive maps lies how viewers map these simulacra against their own individual mental maps, as much as in their mimetic claims:  ‘simulacra’ since all maps are both filters of information that parse the relevance of social space, providing deeply social tools for reading.   Rather assigning integrity to the map as a unique document, we can understand its ‘social life’ through how each creates and constitutes its own social reality for readers. Aside from the heat-spots in West Oakland, race is not a determining factor in a clear a way at all, although the ethnic diversity of Oakland–a historically African American city with a rapidly shrinking number of areas dominated by African American populations.  It’s in fact striking that the greatest mix of black and hispanic Oaklanders in any neighborhood occurs on the edges of Oakland:  and that the island of Piedmont is the only area that’s white.


Census Block legend

The same data can readily be re-mapped to present a distinctly different picture of the city, emphasizing urban diversity, by using the US Census Bureau’s data from 2005-9, using the American Community Survey.  Block, Carter and Maclean exploit the Google Maps platform to embed Census data in color-coded terms, which shows small pockets of African American concentration by light blue, but relative integration with the greatest concentration of Asians near Chinatown downtown.  The below aggregates units of fifty people, rather than proportional composition, to provide finer granularity of the population and of each neighborhood in Oakland, if in a less than dynamic manner:

Race in Oakland Google Mapped

Oakland’s complex diversity might well be compared to the clearer clustering in other urban regions of the Bay Area, where whites are more concentrated in clearly bound neighborhoods, and Asians similarly concentrated in areas around Golden Gate park (Inner and Outer Sunset)–if with considerable overlap of Asian and Hispanic populations in the Mission:

Mapping Race across Bay Area

%22Greater Mission%22

Far more sharply defined geographies of racial separation define New York City, where property values create the starkly demarcated racial composition of  Manhattan, and concentrations of blacks in outlying peripheries in the Bronx, New Jersey, Queens, and Brooklyn, as well as part of Harlem:

NYC Racial Map from 20005-9 census

We see a different picture of Oakland if we look at outside racial self-identification, but examine economic diversity at a finer grain in its neighborhoods.

Back to the Bay Area, stark income divides define the landscape of Oakland in this map of median family incomes in the same dataset, more than race:

Oakland Household Income Mean

More specifically, the map reveals clear divides and income troughs where median incomes have sunk below $25,000, often reflecting food deserts and islands of an evil toxic brew of desperation, hungry desire, and distraction:

Below 25,000

For Oakland, the website Spotcrime employs catchy icons to track arrests (handcuffs); arson (flames); assaults (fists); burglaries (masked faces under hats); robberies (men running with money-bags); shootings (cross-hairs); thefts (purple silhouettes of men running); and vandalisms (green cans of spray paint spraying red), creating a detailed map to set off mental alarms in the name of a call to “know your neighborhood’s dangers”:

Assaults, Arrests, Arson, Burglary, Robbery, Shooting, Theft, Vandalism

Even if the violence and theft are predominantly in low-income areas, where the map dutifully foregrounds these impressive icons, doesn’t it remove a lot about what good happens in the same low-income areas?  After counting 1, 077 shooting incidents in Oakland in 2011 with 1, 594 victims of guns–the largest category among which (140) belonged to minors, and the greatest sub-group 16-year-olds (40) and 17-year-olds (38)–John Osborne used Google Maps to represent in a fairly schematic way the urban distribution of fatal shootings by neighborhood:

Shooting Map in Oakalnd 2012

The terrifying concentration of aggregates off International Boulevard, a major thoroughfare in East Oakland, past Fruitvale Avenue, the overwhelming majority of whose suspects are male.  In abstracting each as discrete, of course, the map is less successful underlying ties to both prostitution rings or drug deals, so much as a platform to make claims about gangs or organized crime.  The following map of victims of shootings reveals an even somewhat scarier density in the identical area of West Oakland:

Victims in oakland 2011

What kind of image of Oakland emerges?  It’s difficult to map it clearly.  One striking effect of the greater scale and definition of the maps based on the 2010 census is that the considerable proportion of resident immigrants in the city, which reveals a considerably high percentage–often more than half and up to 70% if not almost 80% in West Oakland, across from Alameda–of foreign-born residents, which demonstrates a considerable geographic mobility among residents that seems specific to the area:  Oakland has long been a cosmopolitan center that attracted the displaced to its margins.

Oakland Foreign Born Map

Immigration is not criminality, but suggests the margins of the city are where the displaced arrive:  displacement might be something of a thread in Oakland’s history, from the arrival of (far more wealthy) San Franciscans after the 1906 earthquake in Piedmont to the Chinese-American railroad laborers who settled downtown, the railway porters whose families created a large community in West Oakland from the 1880s, and workers for the shipyards, or rich communities of Eritreans, Africans, Native Americans (Lakota or Dakota), Hispanic, Hmong, Vietnamese, Somalians and Congolese who most live in cheaper housing and are likely to be taken advantage of in varied ways.  As of 2004, Oakland somehow ranked tenth in the US for the largest number of immigrants, according to the 2006 Census, despite a less vigorous local economy, and almost 30% of its entire population is foreign-born.   The margins of the city somehow remain greater and far larger than its center.

But Oakland remains known, despite this mobility, despite the presence of city gangs, a more deep-seated and almost endemic presence and prime descriptor of the city.  One can–and many do–blame gang-violence, or the competition for turf; but the violence is difficult to separate from prostitution and drug-related crime, not necessarily competition between gangs or gang-related activities, even though gangs do suggest a culture of violence.

Gangs in Oakland

Gangs are difficult to measure, although the intensity of turf-wars would seem to make it easy to use the map as an indicator of violence.

Yet if one looks at a broader map of “gangs,” the variables seem impossible to keep constant, even in a hand-drawn map of gangs in East LA from 1978 purporting to decode ‘insider knowledge’ about a topography of violence, but provides only the sketchiest of tools:


The difficulty of attributing meaning to the mapping of gangs is more apparent if one notes their widespread presence, given this–perhaps unreliable–map taken off of a “National Gang Map” which reveals a dramatic concentration of gangs and gang members in the Westernmost states:

National Gang Map

Perhaps their presence itself reveals an attempt to make meaning from life or to carve it out of one’s social terrain to the greatest extent that is possible. One compelling map maps educational attainment–with the brightest yellow indicating an inability or difficulty to complete High School at 70%–with less than high school completion hovering around 40% among families.

Education--Less than high School degree

In the Bay Area at large, the failure of education in the Foothill-International area is striking, and is doubtless also some degree of failure in socialization if not of public education, and maps a continuing challenge for the city’s School Board and public schools.

70% no HS Bzy Area

And a corresponding map of college-educated Oakland reveals a bounded drop in below 20%, more roughly characterized at 5-14% with a BA, with large numbers of closely bordering districts hovering between 5-8%:  this might be one measure of the cultural insulation and isolation of the region, if not a clear barrier to what is often described as an ‘achievement gap.’

College-Educated Oakland

Those empty tan regions are a measure of the difficulty of shifting a divide between different Oaklands, because it maps a cross-generational or at least temporal divide in the given area over time.  The heterogeneity of Oakland is nonetheless striking even in its inequalities, to turn back to map racial diversity of Bay Area generated in bright colors on the NYT website of Block, Carter and McLean, since it suggests a picture of considerable promise.

Racial Composition OAK in Bay Area

But of course a map is not a picture.   It is a picture of variability, which can shift depending on one’s chosen criteria.  In the distribution of income levels in North Oakland, aggregating incomes of twelve families reveals a telling integration of an income-mix more striking and apparent than the in the above demographic models:  despite a scattering of upper-income levels across this North Oakland area from Emeryville, across San Pablo, and up to Broadway Terrace and Grand Avenue, lower income levels are present virtually throughout the region, with the exception of East of Broadway, although Broadway provides a clear dividing line of high incomes and lower ones, and the 880 corridor below MacArthur dotted with light blue markers.


The color-coded map of relative incomes provides us with some possibly meaningful correspondences to the hot-spots in crime.  But I wouldn’t advance the sort of argument that maps crime–or gun-violence–onto variations in household income.  The pictures of the city offer limited tools that suggest possible sites of research that might help to connect these dots.  But they offer useful, ground-up mappings of the city’s inhabitants.

Processing the relations among inhabitants of Oakland offers a way to renegotiate your relation to the city as a whole.  Mapping is about navigating, as well as processing, a surfeit of information, and about making the connections among it, grosso modo, that exist.  The fine grain of the census maps provides both a corrective to our preconceptions, and the start of something like a more fair–and illuminating–map of the city’s social space.


Filed under Oakland, Oakland CA, open data, Racial Diversity, US Census

The Recent Resurgence of Manually Made Maps

A somewhat celebratory survey of the recent rage for manually designed maps affords a veritable visual smörgåsbord of aesthetic pleasure and innovative graphical design.  It is interesting and tempting to compare them to the craftsmanship of manuscript maps, a subject discussed in an early post in this blog.  But the survey oddly makes little reference to the notion of the ‘counter-map’ that resists the omnipresence of the digitized map, and the manner we have come to be immersed in the traffic and generation of digitized maps.  To be sure, these are images suitable for framing.  But the appeal is in part a knee-jerk reaction to the satellite photo or the schematic land view.

In mediating a more fully stylized map of first-hand knowledge of urban areas clearly reacts to the increased hegemony of Google Maps–add your own business here!  map your way to work!  note your favorite coffee shop or restaurant near work!–as a plastic form of collective memory.  And, of course, a data resource on which Google can draw  in its own work.  The hand-drawn map is the map stripped of metadata and made without surveying instruments.  For the self-made map re-invests the format of mapping with a vibrancy and immediacy to enliven inhabited space once more–and indeed enliven the medium of the map that seems to slip out of our grasp as it turns up on our hand-helds, and even tracks our own habits of shopping, physical movement, data usage and cel phone use.  When we see the self-made map–and we buy them because of this–on Etsy or in the house of hipsters, we re-recognize places, and subscribe to how they define our emotional relation to space in ways that many other web-based maps make us feel more alientated.

If our memories are recorded in our maps, which note centers of interest, sites of pilgrimage, historical buildings, or public parks, the processing of how we track places worldwide in Google Maps is not somehow wrong or diminished, but has the sad effect of erasing any sense of specificity.  There is a display value of the map that is diminished from its reappearance on a tablet or smart phone, but also a dramatically reduced range of semantics or iconography:  it’s hard to imagine Charles Sanders Pierce, who enjoyed his spell of work on the conventions of map making and determination of spatial coordinates for the US Geodetic Survey, dressed in a neon shirt emblazoned with a corporate logo, using his expertise to boast of the benefits of Google Maps in tutorials.  The semantics of the Google Maps project is geared not toward innovation, but streamlined synthesis and ready access, after all.

And there is something of an erosion of display-value of the digitized map approximating Walter Benjamin’s concept of aura, since the refinement of data in digitized form approximates a concept of disembodied mechanical reproduction:  the emotional tie to the map is in a sense severed, the trace of the hand absent, the physical touching of the map’s surface gone.  These maps provide the clues and signs to reconstruct a mental map of place in one’s mind’s eye, rather than synthesizing the authoritative satellite composites whose clicks release downloaded data, but draw fewer associations from synaptic ties.  The focus of enriching the map’s metadata removes any trace of the hand.

Mapmakers like the artist Jenny Sparks set out to recuperate the specificity in place that still exists and see the map as a medium to invite the viewer to explore.  While there’s a tendency to map a uniform green, Sparks’ comprehensive imaginary but copiously detailed ichnographic stark rendering of the collective architecture of elevated skyscrapers in New York in 3D, in ways that collapse street-view into a crisp crowding of built boxes.  The map, interspersed with memories and words, includes Bob Dylan on 4th Street; Beatniks in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square; and the Farmer’s Market on Astor Place, and is interactively enriched with text.   Sparks winks at the zoom function of Google in the elevated buildings  of Manhattan, each carefully drawn, and words that unpack the cornucopia of memories that the built space of the city holds, as some sort of metonymy for its residents.


New York map by Jenni Sparks


The pop-up three dimensionality of the map plays with the flattened two-dimensional view of maps, but suggests a bird’s eye view into which viewers can peer.  A few close-up details of Sparks’ self-made map of reveal how the skilled placement of words among 3-D buildings in her imagined elevated view draws you into a space linked or bound by the colored avenues of underground subway lines, peering into its so densely cluttered detail:


Close-up of New York map by Jenni Sparks

The closer one looks, the easier to see an image of place saturated with the visual interest that Google Maps just fail to afford, as one falls into the map in order to get to know its neighborhoods, suggesting a unique zoom-in function that the clumsy navigability of Street View only approximates:

Sparks' NYC


The rise of the hand-drawn map not only is a testament to design or a rebirth of a craft, but uses precepts of design to counter the vagaries of digitization Google so actively promotes, in championing the synthetic properties of a register of businesses, places, and personal routes.  I’ve written elsewhere, earlier in the year, about Becky Cooper’s recent anthology of the recent efflorescence of maps that personalize one’s relation to place, almost a collection of tools to encode personal meanings for a broader audience.  These images recuperate the aura of the map and its materiality, its hand-made status and both the physical practices of encoding place and decoding space.

Something similar is going on in how Stephen Wiltshire draws Manhattan’s skyline from memory, lovingly attending the scale, proportions, and perspective views of each of the many skyscrapers whose sight so impressed Wiltshire on his first trip out of England that he promised to move to New York “in the future,” and claimed to have already designed his Park Avenue penthouse.  Wiltshire’s retention of and fascination with urban environments has been discussed by Oliver Sacks, and is the subject of Cities (1989) or Floating Cities (1991).  But his drawings are the intuitive opposite of a map’s abstraction of place by selectivity and spatial remove.




Unlike Wiltshire’s intuitive renderings of urban space, the abstraction of space of a place underlies these hand-made maps, which sketch something like a hierarchy of relevance within their totality.  There’s a huge appeal in reclaiming the map as an intimate record of place, as well as an art of encoding meanings that encourage further examination, as this “mash-up map” based on the personal experience of Shawn Watts, and might be best described as his spatial experience of a long-distance relationship, compiling the places they had been together not only in his native Montreal, but in Athens, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia, as well as Montesquieu, France, and reflects his own deep pleasure in “hiding secrets in maps” as opposed to publishing information, and a pleasure in using the map’s form to map or be the surrogate for an interior emotional state:


Shawn Watt's Shutterbug


For Watts, the density of meaning in maps becomes a way to unravel and eloquently express one’s own state of mind in public form, and to invite the viewer to partake in the pleasure of decoding its contents.


Hope Mapped


This somewhat but only partly legible hand-made silkscreen map of London comes in varied colors, populating areas with figures and words to approximate a paper cut-out hanging as much as a map:



If these maps treat the map as an artwork, the trace of the hand on the map is even more present in the medium of linotype map, recalling Renaissance single-point engravings or woodblocks.  The linotype word-map Marc Webber designed of Amsterdam, a historical center or clearing-house for engraved maps, places front and center the words often absent from Google Earth or many digitized maps to use them to fashion a sculpted cityscape, whose linotype words offer something of an alternate surface to see the city in one’s mind’s eye:




In Webber’s ‘map’ of Amsterdam, the written landscape becomes a site to explore and its very surface a sight to ponder; the texture of its woodblock words gains new textural richness as it is seen from different angles, from which the materiality of place-names on its linoleum-like surface increases in impact:


Amst Linotype-Looking at Map's Surface


Moving in to examine details more closely, the map assumes status as a surrogate for the world, as if the one-to-one map of which Borges dreamed or described is suddenly translated to words that substitute for things, as well as to the notion of a word-map:




The Central Station assumes a newfound concrete prominence that transcends its place-name, without the curled Stedelijk Museum beside it, from a distorted view of this mapped space:


Somwhat more derivative or second-generation forms of manual mapping already exist on the market, as the sort of silkscreen word-maps popular in New York that maps the city’s neighborhoods, many of which are as much destinations as the city itself–and might provide a tourist map of realty.  If it is meant to evoke neighborhoods, it oddly recalls  real estate, even as its cartographical transcendence of space seeks to create something like a cascade of memories whose every words might serve as triggers, rooted within lived experience.


Manhattan word map


If the map seems a bit of a bare-bones realty map to the uninitiated in New York life, it is far less elegant and inviting than pictorial perspective views realtors employed of San Francisco to enjoin viewers to become settlers.


Vene! Vidi!  Vicet!


There’s far more detail in a linotype word-map of New York City.  The silkscreened map plays with the legibility with which maps use words to arrange space by surrounding Manhattan island with big, looming, isolated blocked fonts–inserting recognizable neighborhoods and cultural monuments in an what seems a more improvised mish-mosh of fonts from a printer’s tray, rather than from a pull-down menu, arranging the text to replicate what might better correspond to the place of regions within our mental geography, all the while emphasizing the extremeley crowded nature of inhabited space in New York boroughs:




Sensitive as always to the particularity of place, Marc Webber’s quirkily detailed ‘word-map’ of Paris is more elegantly artisanal in how it fills the surface of the map, exploiting a range of fonts to arrange historical layers and tiers of class and style from the staid if impressive Opera to the lounging letters of Montparnasse, moving rangily down large streets.

Paris map by Mark Webber

The written city is more demanding of a mastery of fonts, to be sure, since it also depends on the arts of assemblage; the word maps sold in the Bay Area provide a nice counterpart since its patchwork of its complicated topography is so impressively dense, and the only area of uniformity seem the Presidio or the landfill regions of Bayview:


An alternative to this sort of mapping, illuminating the micro level of street-names, graces the design of one of Upper Playground’s t-shirts, suggesting the relative size of individual streets by their prominence in a list of names, that lends currency to the idea of the wearable “map”:

Upper Playground Tees SF name map

The diversity and unity of nearby Oakland is aptly captured in this patchwork roughly-hewn word map by Oakland native Ozan Berke of its 146 neighborhoods:  the jumbled density is almost rendered illegible by crowding, but with such dexterity that the artist/mapmaker uses to capture its diversity.  The density of some neighborhoods balance the urban intensity of some areas with the far more light settlement of the hills (Montclair, Sequoia; Claremont Hills; Skyline; Joaquin Miller):

Oakland Word Map



Writing the unity of the city in a sequence of place-names reconstitute the whole in a new form, as if by magical transmutation or an alchemy of type: this artist adroitly resolves the absence of the seceded largely ‘white’ village Piedmont from the city with the contribution that this town-within-a-city continues to make, writing its “name” as a neighborhood in mirror-writing, the “OMD” among the largest and most eye-catching in the map.

The declarative blending of words with place resonate with the politics of remapping popularized in the urgent signs displayed in the recent Occupy Movement outside Oakland’s downtown City Hall in Frank Ogawa Plaza to the iconography of the protest movement–mapping the helicopters that whirled overhead, but minimalizing their police surveillance to the upper corner of the map, and giving prominence to the placards that protesters held in front of City Hall–the scene at which these maps were sold:


Hella Occupy System Sucks

It is fitting to contrast the map to the elegance of San Francisco should be captured in the distinct media of a paper-cutting map, adapting the Chinese art of  Jianzhi (剪纸):

Paper Cut Out SF

The remove that all place cartographical practice from digital media or design is central, I would argue:  the artist reclaims their own synthesis of a unified whole as the subject of the map.  All evoke the late Saul Steinberg’s over-reproduced map of New York, famous as a poster and originally a New Yorker cover, used to suggest the limited global perspectives of its residents or the centrality of the city in a mental map of the world.  That map has its response in the recent satire of Mad magazine’s “Slimeball” mismapping mediated by and poking fun at the recent failures of Apple Maps.  The revision of the classic Steinberg view of the New Yorker’s View of the World  plays with the spate of failures that app by calling attention to the radical disconnect between even a familair place and digitally mediated map, as if to suggest the depths at which we’ve been had!




The growth of such a range of hand-drawn maps seems to me a reclaiming of place–as well as of mapping skills–that has come to gain a special niche of its own in the craft economy.  We are discontent with the proliferation of maps from which we are increasingly alienated–and which abstract information in ways confined to, say, only three viewing preferences.

There is still a possibility of changing less the digitized reconstruction of space than the notion of what Google defines as information, of course:   and perhaps the range of hand-drawn maps suggests some ways that this might be done.  The above view of New York, or rather its prototype, makes me wonder about maps that reprioritize the structure of information imposed on the templates of Google Maps:  a map, say, that would not note the Russian Tea Room or Trump Center and Empire State, but create historical layers of Automats, bodegas, Chock Full o’ Nuts, and 5-and-10 stores or the shifting confines of invisible ethnic neighborhoods in the city, and the impact of waves of migration.  This falls back on a map of memories.  And then, after all, it probably wouldn’t be hand drawn any more.


Filed under Aura, Charles Sanders Pierce, digitized maps, hand-drawn maps, Jenny Sparks, Jianzhi, linotype map, Marc Webber, Oliver Sacks, Saul Steinberg, Shawn Watts, Stephen Wiltshire, Street View, Walter Benjamin

The Will to Map: GPS and its Discontents

Navigating the necklace of highways that hug the Santa Cruz Mountains beyond San Jose with a GPS map affixed to the windshield, you become both disoriented from the panorama before your eyes and quickly aware of the token roadmap GPS offers.  What is the map on the screen doing in the car and when do we need to look at its content?    The question emerges since it’s not clearly a partner to the voice-directions; the interface between isn’t evident or apparent:  the overlay of data on the terrain graphic of a Google Maps backdrop seems interactive, but shows a route, and not a guide or a means to explore paths of other possible travels.  There’s a need to offer a map in our map-saturated culture–but the map is no longer a clear way to translate familiarity with space to their readers, so much as an added document.

The difficulty of internalizing directions from the onscreen map derives from its limited use to orienting oneself, and is unlike the roadmaps that readers internalize over time.  It is not only ready-made and disposable, but seems to exist to satisfy customer expectations for a visual record more than offer users an actual guide.  It has limited relation to the injunctive directions declaimed by a Siri-like voice, and seems a source of ornament despite an absence of actual visual interest, as if it was designed to meet nostalgia for the visual records of automotive navigation on highways and interstates or for a time when we needed maps.  Some drivers might object to directions from a disembodied voice, instead of someone informed about the topography or terrain.

Without those over-creased highway maps in our glove compartment, one grapples with the minimalist Google Maps graphics before surrendering passively to the intoned directions, still frustrated that we can’t  transpose directions from the map, and conscious of being cognitively challenged, but perhaps pleased to contemplate a landscape of trees overhanging on each side of the mountain roads and to follow a course traced from on high.


Boulder Creek Map Traffic


The mechanics of the synthesis of a digitized map is of course completely different compilation of meaning.  But it is most striking that the map didn’t need to be there, and wasn’t that likely to be consulted as a navigational tool and of limited use if one strayed off course the curvy roads in the Santa Cruz mountains; if so, we’d be more likely to look at a paper map anyway, for the image provided little easily-consumed information of fine grain about the mountain roads; the verbal directions were so removed from the map as if to devalue the long history and use of maps as autonomous media: rather than provide the purification of spatial experience often attributed to maps, the schematic Mapquest image distances experience so abstracted from an actual route of travel to minimize our sense of reading space.

As well as a shift in how mapped information is synthesized, digitized maps mark a shift in reading terrestrial expanse and reading one’s place in maps, diminishing the relevance of a coordinate system or apprehension of spatial inter-relations.  Whereas the Mapquest route that defined a path of travel, navigation by GPS seems a new relation between map-use and environment.



The relation to its pixellated surface is rooted in fascination with the image that adjusts on one’s screen synchronized to one’s actual bearings, rather than reading one’s course and the options that it presents.  GPS was not made for wanderers.  The screen notes a route on a formal schema abstracted local terrain, which is replaced by a generic image, its data mediated at a remove from the world as if “flattened” to two dimensions, rather than the sort of surface that invited multiple possibilities.   The map produced on demand places cartography with limited sense of permanence; the personalized nature of the map it creates, as in a service economy, offers an image of terrestrial location that dazzles, but is only commensurate with a specific viewer’s specific needs, and as it is part of a system that provides on-demand maps that can be immediately generated for any global region.

Santa Cruz Mountains

The place of reading a GPS map in a car or a mobile phone is independent from the expectations for both providing and decoding the map.  How maps are read over time offers perspective on how maps address their readers by embodying a relation to space through their synthesis of spatial information.

Such an emphasis is distinct from, say, one on the mathematics by which cartographical projections synthesize data on a uniform graticule or techniques of transferring the curved surface of the world:  one can appreciate these precepts only in a very vague sort of way, similar to ignorance of how GPS generates a map, to read its organization.  As the video by which Google promotes Trekker as a natural extension of a user’s relation to their environment during a walk in the woods.  The mechanics by which the cameras stuffed into a bulky backpack remain both mystified and  outside of the average viewer’s appreciation or ken, but the user is amazed at how the digitized synthesis takes us through a mind-bogglingly detailed record of space.

One is awed by the alternative surrogate awesomeness that the map provides of the Grand Canyon.  The data such maps compile for readers implies a very different sort of map-reading from te far smaller-scale trail maps of a similar region which offers clues to travel on foot, rather than car, whose color-coded signs of elevation, trail lines, and symbols of orientation offer a semantic register to decode.


The legibility of the above map engages different cognitive skills to decipher our position than the plastic formats of mapping in GPS, which derives from a  dramatically different context of the corporate investment in map making, less dependent on attracting viewers than provide comprehensive access.

Google Earth’s data collection and synthesis is unlike that of the National Geodetic Survey’s mandate to maintain “a consistent coordinate system that defines latitude, longitude, height, scale, gravity, and orientation throughout the United States” for the public, by which “everyone accurately knows where they are and where other things are anytime, anyplace.”  Criteria for mapping are now market-driven and based on providing information for consumers in an explosion of available maps.  Google acquired the digital mapping company Keyhole back in 2004, allegedly when Sergey Brin claims to have been so wowed by digitized maps of bombing Iraq he saw on television.  The digitized satellite maps that Keyhole provided afforded a new way of defining one’s relation to an over-mapped world:  Google’s vice-president, Jonathan Rosenberg, celebrated how the military-grade map-provider used by the Department of Defence was repositioned as it became “a valuable addition to Google’s efforts to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” allowing users to “fly like a superhero from your computer at home to a street corner somewhere in the world–or . . . map a road trip” by tapping information collected via satellite and airplanes through easy-to-use software.  The rhetoric was fulsome as the acquisition was completed: “The sun is shining brightly in Mountain View,” read the press release, describing Keyhole employees as “all smiles” and Google employees as “all open arms,” as the same software used by the US government to track the arrival of smart bombs to Iraq via a multi-terabyte database (and begun by a venture capital firm backed by the CIA) was re-deployed to dramatically expand the wide, wide world of GPS.

Driving through the region near Mountain View, one couldn’t help think of how the removed view on the GPS screen was a diminished share of the mapping tools Google had purchased.  It’s striking that even in 2004, Google felt the need to calm anxieties about the potentially intrusive nature of such satellite technology that would cover the United States, but was energized by the belief it could unseat Time-Warner’s Mapquest–as it has– in providing its users with a far more robust mapping technology to orient themselves.  “It’s not like you are going to be able to read a license plate on a car or see what an individual was doing when a particular image was taken” in ways that would violate their privacy,” Keyhole’s General Manager, John Hanke reassured the public.  The photographs, after all, were from a database generally six to twelve months old, rather than being real time.  But recent indications about intrusive surveillance suggests that such a project might not have been far from the CIA’s mind in funding the project, which Google rolled out as an innovation in both convenience and reach to craft high-tech maps for viewers from satellite views by its powerful search engine.

GPS  situated its customers into a culture already bombarded by images by granting vicarious participation in a Brave New World of digitized maps.  What is striking in the maps is the near-absence not only of textual but semantic content, which are dramatically reduced in its imagery to increase its ready legibility.  The ways maps were understood in specific sites of reading, argues the medievalist Patrick Gauthier Dalché, who examined the questions that readers from Italian humanists, monks, or the readers of marine charts had for maps, and called attention to the ways of reading maps as much as their semantic construction.

Considering the combinations and forms reading practices a printed map engaged opens interesting possibilities to understand relations of text and image in early printed maps whose readership is not known; it documents the cultural translation of mapped information from manuscript to print, and raises questions for the materials of reading we wax nostalgic when using GPS systems.  It is common to compare the shift in mapping space that digital  interfaces allow to the shift from manuscript and print in the European Renaissance, both as an increased legibility of space that maps diffused and the greater circulation of  maps as reproducible engravings.  We might take time to reconsider the different semantic varieties of map-reading print encouraged,  examining how early printed maps ask viewers to engage a representation of expanse to understand them as forms of spatial literacy.


Ptolemaeus Teutsch


Few land-masses are evident to modern viewers of this printed map of apparently spherical form, an early German translation of Ptolemaic precepts that transposes the form and outlines of a manuscript projection. Most likely adapting the semantic forms originating from a Ptolemaic codex its printer or engraver transposed the map onto the gridded surface of a globe to create the illusion of a mathematically derived spherical projection.  Although the spherical projection is but an illusion, the transposition of a Ptolemaic projection to a spherical grid provided a new way to read its place-names:  a few place-names on the surface of this printed map–“Europa,” “Asia,” “Ethiopia,” and a “Mare Indicum.”  Although the map echoed the tripartite organization of mappaemundi, numbers keyed locations to written descriptions unlike the ancient places listed in manuscripts of Ptolemy’s geographic manual:  the names were not only abstractions, but numbers provided tools to gloss a sophisticated primer of geographic knowledge, using Euclidean precepts to render global expanse on a uniform plane.  Readers would have seen the map and its accompanying German text–the map appeared as the fold-out endpaper of a book titled Ptolemaeus Teutsch–as mediating the ancient classical treatise of world-geography to a broader audience than a tradition of learned geography.

The map abstracted expanse as if to address readers familiar with single-line engraving by compacting of terrestrial relations–although it does not seem to have been as successful as a commodity as its printer hoped.  The limited success of the booklet may reflect the extent to which it dramatically and rather drastically condenses geographic data to symbolize measured expanse in a spherical format that imitated how globes prepared a surface for readers to  actively gloss, interpret, and reflect on its symbolization of expanse, and a dynamic tool to render and encode the distribution of worldly expanse.



The reduced size of the engraving encouraged its engraver to use numbers instead of bulky toponyms, in order to create an easily consultable spatial template for placing the known regions on a ruled plane surface which comprehended–and mimicked–the terrestrial globe.


Globe of Ptol Teutsche


If the GPS system made me think of the manner information was processed and distilled on the screen in a passive form of readership, the positioning of place on the globe suggested a combination of tools of single-line engraving and a facility to abstract a geometric record of spatial relations, often tied to a unique exchange between humanist and artists in Nuremberg’s visual culture that printers eagerly exploited to expand the book market.

The map recalls its rough contemporary, Martin Behaim’s Globe, celebrated for concretizing a “mental image” of a new relation to space and place in Nuremberg around 1490. Although it omits America,  the globe’s surface assembled an image of oceanic expanse that confirmed Behaim as master of crafting a modern relation to a  legible space from nautical charts circa 1492.


Behaim Vorstellung


This modern recreation of the Behaim globe’s underlying map suggests how the engraved spherical map reflects the status of globes as material records of regional relations, representing terrestrial curvature as much as to measure spatial relationships with precision or provide a guide for travel, and indeed to arrange the disposition of place on a globe.

The engraving reproduced skills of reading the commodity Behaim presented Maximilian I in 1492; it indicated appreciation of the material construction of the globe in imitating the epistemic claims and encyclopedic intent by combining visual and written on its surface, if in far compacted form.


Behaim's Globe


Behaim had earlier sailed with Portuguese vessels for several years, where he gained access to supposedly secret charts, and fashioned the globe from them, working with the painter, woodblock cutter, and printer Georg Glockendon to assimilate an abundant and expressive tradition of written geography even as they embodying expanse in a new form of material media. Earlier  publishers of colored maps for translations of Ptolemy’s ancient Geography unsuccessfully attempted to reach broad audiences; Behaim’s erdapfel provided a  materially impressive way to depict a comprehensive record of the inhabited world; if it exaggerated the world’s oceanic expanse, it  profited from empty oceans to inscribe written accounts of travelers from Marco Polo to Mandeville, in ways readily readable at a reader’s eye-level.



The self-standing globe attempted to replace written geographic media it amply cited in as a materialization of global expanse, as much as completing empty spaces on the map’s surface:  it suggested empty spaces as a way to pique interest among its readers.  Unlike scholarly editions of Ptolemy, the material condensation of Behaim’s erdapfel was a powerful painted media, juxtaposing huge continents with islands that spill across its surface, making less reference to meridians or parallels than texts to orient its audience and invite them to pour over its content.

Globe's Written Surface


The globe echoes imperial regalia.  Designed for the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, the modernity of the globe is thematized in a 1939 film about Behaim as a man of action, “Das unsterblich Herz,” portraying Behaim as a  precursor to Columbus, and a Germanic figure of modernity (rather than, say, Luther), whose will to map the world and African coast modernized the imperial heritage of Holy Roman Emperors:  no doubt his globe was imagined as something like a precursor to the Third Reich.  The cinematic retelling of how Behaim fashioned a globe of comprehensive coverage for Kaiser Maximilian I glorified the mapmaker’s imperial service.

The master of kraft, roughly contemporary to Columbus, is presented as conscious of the strategic deployment of maps as tools of dominance that broke with the medieval past:  this Behaim recognized the inaccuracy of sundials or timepieces at sea, and his decisive realization of the need for portable clocks enabled him to map the shore of western Africa, filling uncharted regions of the globe on account of his dedicated perseverance.  The film celebrated Behaim as a man of action and genius, representing the globe-maker’s craftwork and the material globe as an icon of modernity.  The Nuremberger’s skilled instrument making is indeed juxtaposed in the film with two other measures or standards of modernity, clocks and ammunition, which define a modern conception of time and finality that fundamentally broke from medieval conceptions of time and space; the globe-maker seems a figure who rises above medieval conceptions of the closure of the world’s confines, if not of the confines of an imperial expanse–if he also seems a bit manic in his vision than one might suppose of the historical Behaim.


Behaim--Unsterblich herz


The historical Behaim is far more complex, and so is his modernity.  Although the film lionizes a globe-maker who epitomized a way of being-in-the-world for its audience, Behaim worked from manuscript nautical charts to make his globe, and if he fashioned the globe was a modern way of interfacing with space by embodying it in concrete form, the globe provided a medium for reading space informed by multiple sources that its surface effectively synthesized.

Modern reconstructions of the globe and close-up photographs demonstrate how the globe creates a legible surface, a site of reading where place and space not primarily mediated  by meridians or parallels, as much as a grandiose modern conceptions.  Islands as those here around Taprobana suggest less of a unified than fragmentary regions for their reader to imagine, haphazardly situated on  the surface of the far-off the unknown shore of Asia, and as incomplete as closed.  Panels of text seem to anticipate the reading of a new notion of expanse, but treat the globe’s surface more as a composed text than a pictorial cartographical record.


Globe's Written Surface


The organization of meaning on the globe was no doubt in many ways understood as a site of writing, as well as a surface on which to trace extensive rivers, discovery lakes, or find move from the landscape to surrounding written texts.  Conceptually familiar sites like the rubicund Red Sea  provided reminders as much as depicting actual oceanic conditions–as is evident in this lovingly crafted modern facsimile of the globe in Alberta (Canada)–as much as a uniformly distributed graticule; the globe reveals the epistemic difficulty of synthesizing nautical and terrestrial maps even as it provides a surface for reading both in relation to one another.


Globe of Behaim- Africa

Interrogating the map as a scene of reading afford a lens to read the map than evaluating it as a purely formal geometric projection of expanse, but as a material interface.  Behaim’s stationary globe and the printed spherical projection both vaunted the map as a form of reading that its printers believed would reach a large audience.

The German translation seems less profitable as a printing enterprise, and survives in but two editions–only one of which includes the map, now stored in the New York Public Library which was discovered and squirreled out of wartime Europe by the book collector Erwin Rosenthal.  But it suggests a new consciousness of the map as a form of reading space, one that might be reproduced in the form of a German-language primer for a large audience of readers.  The preservation of a measurement of terrestrial relations is often argued to have redefined the map as an autonomous register.  But the sense of the globe as a legible space is even more apparent.  It’s not a coincidence that some of the first globes were donated to libraries, synthesizing written information that parallel the growth of early modern libraries; early globe-makers donated terrestrial and celestial globes to the Vatican libraries–still private, but a world-famous repository of manuscripts and codices.  If print was an early information overload in demand of new expertise to process, the globe was both an abundantly copious container of meaning and a particularly modern means for ordering terrestrial expanse.

Questions of legibility provided the engine for the reproduction of early modern maps.  Even as lines of parallels and meridians were foregrounded in this map by Peter Appian, amplified by Vespucci’s maps and those to include the Americas, reading a globe-like surface was more important for consumers than being able to trace terrestrial locations, although it clearly vaunted the indexicality of place as a basis to better organize place-names or textual content–which now seems subordinate to the disposition of a mapped expanse within a frame in this image based on Martin Waldseemüller’s 1506 wall map, which first named “America,” vaunting a new ability by which a framed expanse could be read, over which our eyes could skim in super-human ways, much as maps offer the neat trick of both embodying  space and allowing us to escape our own embodiment.


Iuxta Ptolemei Cosmographi Traditionem

It’s difficult to recast maps as other than sites of intensive reading. The digitized screen of GPS seems strangely disembodied because it lacks similar tools of decoding. For rather than a dynamic semantic surface, GPS provides limited visual navigational tools that interface with the viewer, even seeming to diminish its readers cognitive skills by replacing a legible register of space.  That is why the map is hard to replace as a material object or legible register.

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Filed under Google Maps, GPS, GPS maps, Keyhole, Mapquest, Martin Behaim, National Geodetic Survey, Siri, Trekker, user interface