Category Archives: engraved maps

Sleeping Roads, Ancient Highways, and Paper Towns

What’s the significance of names on a map?  Do they register roads that belong to the territory or only reflect continued use?  What sort of authority does a mapped road, byway, or highway retain in common law–and for how long must it be recognized as a road?  The existence of place-names and routes on a map have become an increasingly contested way to preserve a sense of place, and the survival of the “sleeping roads” of Vermont, threatened in an age of the division of the long predominantly rural state as a  market of construction threatens to obscure local knowledge and a long-valued sense of place.  The deep sense of injustice in the prospect of loosing the legal status of “ancient” and long-pathways preserved in records of in local townships face possible obliteration in the legal memory as such unpaved roads–often more tacitly known than still used for commerce–are going to be reclassified.  Indeed, as the state’s legislature has decided to reclassify common law roads to homogenize property records across the state, the outburst of local mapping seems not an act of antiquarian obscurantism, but a defense of local knowledge in an age of globalism and satellite mapping, where few of the older roads might appear from the sort of satellite-based mapping systems on which we increasingly depend.

The plan for a massive reclassification of “ancient” highways on the books but actually dormant in much of the state of Vermont may be a pro-development land grab, but suggests that the struggle for designating once common lands as private property (and resistance to it) are waged on maps.  The recent promise to reclassify registered but unnamed byways in the state–a mass of roads which were at one time used or previously surveyed as common-law byways, but have since fallen out of use to different degrees–has unintentionally generated a set of local storms about public memory.  In a state where many current town roads remain unpaved, and many more have faded into the largely forested landscape.  The drive to reclassify the diversity of unpaved roads and common law byways once preserved in local jurisdictions reveals the rise of property development for whom the retention of old spatial classifications obfuscates the exchange of private lands.

The local resistance to such a reclassification of roads in the rural state, which has attracted its share of fierce defenders of the local rights of communities long granted precedents to federal or state law, make the proposed elimination of “Ancient Highways” from local law a matter of contention.  The proposed reclassification of a multiplicity of roads poses a problem of having ceased to reflect the sort of use of landscape that developers want to encourage and private home-owners want to ensure.  Given the shifting nature of land use in Vermont, where older houses are increasingly on the market, as smaller agricultural farms close and die out, a premium has developed for the clear definition of ownership without any liens or qualifications.  Hence the increasing tensions between local municipalities in the state and any move by state government to abolish roads they long oversaw.  In a sense, the increased interest in helping demand for fungible residential properties that can be sold without qualification have run up against the multiplicity of roads that have continued to remain on the books.

As the real estate market in Vermont seems poised to heat up in much of the state, and smaller towns face a demand for brisk sales and a large pool of properties arrive on the market, the state seeks to remove any obstacles to development or become notorious for arcane property laws, remapping the “ancient” roads of Vermont opts to treat them as ancient, and, far more than unpaved, not part of its future landscape.  Yet the quilt of county regulations of roads that existed for most of the eighteenth century and was retained in most local maps before World War II reflected a local landscape of counties and townships rarely challenged before the arrival of interstate federal highways across the state during the 1970s, erasing the varied paths, trails, and common-law roads, long overseen by local city Selectboards and regarded as parts of the local landscape.


A Quilt of Counties


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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

Cartography, Personification, Figuration

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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



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

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


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

England's Land


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




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

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


Ortelius' Continents-Ftspiece


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


Europe with Globes


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

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


Leo Belgicus.jpgDavid Rumsey Map Center, Stanford University Libraries


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


HEAD of LION.png


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





Bucolic NL.pngDavid Rumsey Map Center, Stanford University Libraries


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




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

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

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

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

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

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






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





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




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

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

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


Napoleon's personalMap of French EmpirePierre-Jean Chalencon


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

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

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


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


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

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


Napoleon's personalMap of French Empire


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

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

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

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

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


Napoleon Views Europe

(Ben Weider Collection, Napoleon Museum, Montreal)

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



The Map of Europe Nap Holds


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


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