Monuments in New Worlds: Placing Columbus in the Americas

7. Maps, as well as landscapes, provided cognitive forms able to mediate that discovery:  they allow a story to be told, without the expressive limits that that promoter of meaningful visualizations, Edward Tufte, so famously identified in how Microsoft’s PowerPoint’s power destroy “the capacity for sustained, critical thought” by insisting on a static template to deliver and order information for viewers.  Tufts argued that PowerPoint’s failure lay precisely in obscuring the unpacking of relations between parts and wholes–with potentially disastrous consequence of impairing analytical reasoning. 

The manner in which maps lead viewers to enunciate about discoveries unlike a stone pillar–and effectively stake claims to space–is too often naturalized as a creation of design, however, removed from visual cultures of reading and recognizing landscape, and the distinct relation between viewer and space landscape animates.  While Powerpoint despatializes, abstracting the floating image to be passively received, the first images that opened the New World landscape created a focus of cognitive attention and interrogation.  Whereas PowerPoint’s prevalence suggests the diffusion of a salient “co-authoring” distributed across the tempo and pace of delivery of a talk that it structures, maps lacked clear styles of formatting informational content or clear coordination of visual and textual content.

Although numerous presentations crafted on PowerPoint describe Columbus’ discoveries, it’s difficult not to note that the very first version PowerPoint was first shipped–pre-Microsoft–included a handy template openly modeled on what it took to be Columbus’ proposal to the Spanish monarchs, in which a world map occupied less prominence in what was playfully cast as Columbus’ mock “Business Proposal” or streamlined personal “Mission Statement”–in order to suggest, one presumes, how much more effective Columbus would have been at making his case if he had at his fingertips the persuasive value of a performing a PowerPoint demonstration before Ferdinand and Isabella, the better and more compellingly to make his case.

Columbus' Powerpoint Demo.png

The PowerPoint slides render the proposed project of sailing to New World as chiefly possessing advantages as an opportune route of trade where a fleet of ships were to set course to be guided by the opportune man who was able to command a clearly organized expeditionary fleet able to best enact his plan of sailing to the Indies–and, simplicity, as the prime example of a man whose presentation made the most convincing case to his patrons–and suggest the value of PowerPoint as a versatile and personalized expressive tool.  But the map is less part of this toolkit–and is in fact only a basis to project the nature of the voyage, rather than a medium that creates a network of power–or as doing work by convincing his audience of the landscapes he has seen.

New World of Powerpoint

PowerPoint Visualization (1987)

The limited space that was granted back in 1987 to the individual map as a persuasive tool or an expressive format within this imagined business presentation is particularly striking since it denies how the historically crucial format of the map operated as as a form of distributed reading–and placed saw the need for an argument as lying in the planning of the voyage, rather than in explaining what was seen.   As such, the small role that the map holds in the PowerPoint also denies the power of the map as a medium, or its improvised nature.

8.  The speed with which the discoveries of the New World traveled and were quickly translated into mapping form raise questions about how the mapping of the unknown regions offered a format for effectively processing a distribution of power over and across space. Because the distribution was rapidly unfolding with the discovery of islands known as the Indies, this New World was long associated with them as they were presumed to be islands of the Indian ocean. Before the semantic value of maps had purchasing power for a large audience as a stage to create a network of meaning about the new land, images helped to rehearse the relation of the removed monarch to it, rather than only show the region as a ‘place’:   the woodcut created an interlocking network of practices and sites that were never earlier shown in relation to one another, and articulating a relation of places and performances that were only able over time to be inscribed in a map.  If practices of mapping contained many silent agents, distributed over space in their preparation, the performance of the map–where the map gains the sense of completing, making perfect, and making whole–began in a sense from the articulation of exchange across sites, and the creation of a site that was able to be mapped.

For even if the letter did not include a map, it boasts a map-like ability to frame and unite spatially removed places within a single form.  The image that prefaced the “letter” about the discoveries, De Insulis super in mari Indico repertis (1494), proclaimed a new relation to space that maps allowed one to imagine:  it shows a Spanish monarch surveying the geographically removed unclothed inhabitants, who move among themselves in a rhythmic pattern, as if dancing, from atop his throne, his gaze almost actively bridging two continents.  The image locates the robed sovereign’s relation to a geographically removed landscape, as a way to link the reader to a place outside the known world.  Did this collapse of space, partly mediated by four sailors in one boat, and collapse of two different cultures within one frame, joined by the arrival of caravels, provide a symbolic unification of a new mode of dispersed power, able to link spaces in ways earlier difficult to conceive?

Ferd II of Spain observes New World

The image of a robed monarch gesturing with one index finger to space while lightly holding his scepter, served to create a sense of location that would be instantaneously legible, and able to be interpreted by readers of the  booklet, as much as the luxuriant palms of the islands located outside known nautical space served to whet the viewers’ appetite.  Today, we mark terrestrial positions by GPS, relaying an immediately calculated place to establish relations between center and periphery instantaneously within a terrestrial matrix of terrestrial coordinates, separate from any representational space and indeed from terrestrial measurement.  While we live in a world where position is calculated immediately, with the readiness of reading the time of day, in ways that resolve the problem of time-keepers as chronometers or oscillators, and the notion of contrary timepieces seems charmingly antiquated, so instinctual is the smooth uniformity of space and time, the extreme lumpiness of the symbolic space of early modern Europe is difficult to imagine–or reconcile with the symbolism of the continuous distribution of a reticulated grid of a Ptolemaic map.

The anonymously engraved image of the enthroned monarch gesturing across the ocean in which three caravels lie on the waves, close to land, performed important work of linking a more spatially removed place than could be imagined.  Whereas GPS calculates position independent of cartographical tools of triangulation or astronomical observation, location is announced and constantly updated:  we may select “Terrain View” as one option among other base maps of a region, but largely as a cognitive aid to situate locations measured by a network of relay stations, independently from local observations:  the satellite view is one option that assists us to process and understand their relations, interchangeable with other options.  The translation of place is less part of the operations of mapping, than a format that allows us to invest a separately existing system of coordinates with the representational attributes of legibility that we’ve come to expect.

Ferd II of Spain observes New World

9. There are few engraved maps of the New World islands that communicated the location of the discovered lands in ways that viewers might situate in space, although they were organized and distributed along recognized mathematical principles.  These maps did however attempt to domesticate their discovery and create a contact to the mental categories of sovereignty or classical images provided the most common rationale for their construction–as the copperplate engraving of the Florentine mapmaker Amerigo Vespucci interpreting the astrological sign of a stellar cross in the night sky, in order to translate an astronomically derived sense of location to a map that would successfully mediate an unimaginably removed location, but which, once transcribed to a map, could be made legible to his audience.



Today, we interpret relations between center and periphery that are instantaneously calculated by Geographical Information Systems, in ways that are for the first time independent of a representational matrix:  we are apt to select “Terrain View” as but one option among others to create a base maps of a region, but do so as a cognitive aid to situate locations that are measured independtly form it:  the view is but an option, interchangeable with other background options, that allows us to interpret their coherence.  The translation of place is less part of the operations within Google Maps or other servers, than a network we can invest a range of representational attributes.  

We read maps with the thrill of recognizing places, pausing over the places we have visited to return to them in our minds, or navigate the places to find their bearings on maps, rarely finding ourselves suspended between the correspondence between where we are located on the screen of a handheld device and a sheet of paper in our hand.  We rely on a GIS system of coordinates, established separate from a representational space, and let Google lead us to where it directs as if it is where we want to go, in an illustration of the authority of Geographical Information Systems as a construction of space, which sometimes seems an abdication of map-reading skills.  But the fascination of the early modern map as a way of disentangling man from nature, and lending concreteness to the far-off remove of place, was no mean or easy operation. Do we have a diminished sense of rediscovering places when scanning the screens of Google Earth?

The problem of placing was particularly acute in defining sites of discovery in the early printed book.

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Filed under American history, Columbus, commemoration, Voyage of Discovery, whiteness

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