Tag Archives: nautical charts

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 Greek astrologer and mathematician Claudios Ptolemaios [Κλαύδιος Πτολεμαῖος], bequeathed to us as simply Ptolemy, provided a template to illustrate the expanded edges of the inhabited world in the editions successively translated in early modern Europe considerably before maps of land were fully integrated with maps of sea.  Translation of the forms by which Ptolemy mapped an inhabited terrestrial expanse not only to superseded the inhabited world as Ptolemy had described it and imagined it, but broached a different model of continuity within visual form:  epistemologically distinct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.  In Venice, perhaps, more than in other sites, the city offered a site connected by sea to other regions, and was a bit of an active trading zone of linking maps of water and land as Ptolemaic maps attempted, less constrained by territorial bounds, and more attentive to unifying the different metrics and scales of global mapping than many other engravers of global maps.

The image of the Venetian ties to the Mediterranean world and Gulf of Venice were rearticulated in maps, ordering a relation to a global expanse by nautical charts that had enjoyed broad currency in the city, and provided a cosmographic authority to articulate Ptolemy’s authority as a description of a terraqueous expanse.


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?  The ordering of Venice’s position in relation to a gulf, and to the expansive genre of island books or isolari printed in Venice and in Italy, provided a new way of describing Venice’s position in the world, and global continuity at a relatively early age.


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. 

When the great cartographer Vincenzo Coronelli mapped the geographical situation of Venice in a broader gulf from the mid-seventeenth century, he described the place of Venice in the expanded gulf in his 1688 global atlas–placing Venice in relation across the Gulf of the Adriatic to the islands of its empire, which bordered on the expanding Ottoman by shifting boundaries, as if to affirm its own domain of the seas that opened along its shores.

Golfo di Venezia

As if overseeing an expanse that might be translated into varied scales, the dominion of Venice was defined across maritime expanse, not by territorial bounds, but in the cartouche from which the emblem of the lion of San Marco serenely oversaw its content.  From the margins of the map, the winged lion that Coronelli cleverly located in the cartouche that looked over the expanse of the Gulf, overseeing the expanse from beneath its dogal crown, beneath six bars of scale of mapping that alligned each of five standards with maritime leagues.



[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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Cartographic Craftsmanship, or the Social Life of Maps

When he left Lisbon in 1502, the secret agent Alberto Cantino found a way of smuggling an elegant planisphere when he left Portugal for Ferrara, probably rolled up in his suitcase, that evaded the censors of that day’s TSA. Perhaps he rolled it up his sleeve. For the planisphere–a representation of the entire surface of the world–contained relatively classified information about the discoveries in the New World of import to the Portuguese that Cantino seems to have gleaned from mapmakers in Lisbon while he was visiting, and is the first chart to show the coast of Brazil and islands known as Fortunate, and the clear path around the Cape of Good Hope to the Indian Ocean:  he hoped that it was “in such high quality . . . and drawn in a manner that pleases your Excellency [è di tal sorte, e spero che tal manera piacerà a V. Exa],” suggesting the care with which the Este spy had procured the nautical chart.  I’ve discussed the aura of maps and charts in an earlier post; the delicate greens and red, and delineated shores, conjure the removed oceans with an aura of announcement, fitting new knowledge into a basic schema defined by lines of latitudes, not present in charts, as well as rhumb lines for nautical guidelines, whose points of reference were defined by a compass rose from which they radiated:

Cantino Map

The astounding accuracy of many of the coasts of this chart profited from a long tradition and protocol of nautical charting, with a peculiar manner of noting nautical expanse.  The chart reveals the discoveries of Pedro Álvares Cabral, a nautical explorer, who Cantino probably did not know.   Cabral had recently returned to Lisbon, and when Cantino arrived there, with the pretense of seeking to trade horses for the Este court, he must have sought him out on his secret mission to procure maps of the discoveries for the Este family.  The map might have copied the secret master-map the Portuguese maintained, or Padrão Real, of Portuguese discoveries; they were magnified unintentionally beautiful “Carta de navigar per le Isole novam trovate in le parte di India” which misidentified its subject, but provided the first geographic knowledge of Brazil.  But it clearly either superimposed or referenced the directional wind-roses of nautical charting, ostensibly for reading orientating directions at sea, although perhaps as befits a planisphere of the entire earth, is constructed about two “focal circles” of thirty-two points each:


The planisphere arrived in Italy as a sort of wonder of mapping multiple forms of knowledge, as well as a synthesis of expanse.  The recent 1494 Treaty noted as bisecting the Brazilian coast, had given part of the landmass known now as South America to the Portuguese monarchy which the map shows as the most exotic area it depicted–the map seems to trumpet the luxury of an area that the Portugese sovereign Jaoa II had concealed from Ferdinand I.

Isole Fortunate

How did it speak to its new audience?  The craftsmanship of an unknown Portuguese painter or cartographer may be surprising given the high stakes of its procurement from a government particularly secretive about recent discoveries in the New World.  The geographer and historian of maps George Kish described an early fifteenth-century contract for the depiction of a portolan chart, a genre of coastal mapping that developed in Europe in the early fourteenth century, that specified the involvement of both painters and mappers; the partnership seemed natural in so valuable a creation as a map or portolan chart: the hide on which it was drawn was itself grounds for the further investment in pigments and decorative motifs, as in the illustration of inhabitants of Sierra Leone.  Part of this was also because of the riches that these maps suggest in far-off lands, and part because the tradition of nautical charts was only to mention the names of ports that dot the regions’ shores, rather than their interiors–which remain blank:  other terrestrial place are limited to Jerusalem and the ports of departure and arrival, and space expanded over the seas rather than the terrestrial expanse they enclosed.



The protocols of charting are unclear, as is their orienting function.  The use of these protocols in drafting the Cantino chart may have shifted as charts gained a display value of their own and adressed audiences distinct from the commercial trading houses who earlier seem to have kept them.  Although  associated with nautical routes, charts gained a distinct display value as audiences sought to process discoveries for audiences less familiar with nautical travel, or with commercial exchanges over oceans.  In the sixteenth century, as Angelo Frabeto has shown, nautical charts gained a popularity and interest in Italian courts of central Italian courts in the mostly landlocked Romagna, near Ferrara.  The already fanciful components of nautical charting expanded in these charts, which were less dense and stark than predecessors, and suggest an early tradition of combining artifice and cartography that predate printed maps.  The map Cantino brought contained a specific treasure-chest of disjointed bits of information and lore, discontinuous but joined by being enclosed in the velvet case constituted by the map itself, from the mountains of northern Africa to the birds of Sierra Leone, and the image of the city of Jerusalem, all shown without particular care for scale.


Affrica and castles in Guinea

The genre suggests not a limited ability to consider other expanses, so much as a disinterest in picturing them.  The manuscript reproduction of these charts reflected an interest in the most recent ‘news,’ and the colored vellum  charted voyages that were not made, much as, ahistorically recalling the later uncanny adoption  the motif of the ‘wind-rose’ that defined orientations of travel or the winds, Joseph Cornell’s “Object (Roses des vents)” (1942-53); Cornell placed fragments of a map of the remote Great Australian Bight amidst shrunken coastlines that Cornell had never seen, planets that were as far away, and emblems of imaginary voyages, and the compasses that might take him there:

Rose des Vents


As Cornell’s box, the fragments of green shoreline in Brazil in Cantino’s map assemble the scattered expanse over which the Portuguese had travelled in a semblance of unity–the unity of an expanding expanse.  Whereas the fragility of all worldly phenomena–as of the crafted miniature of the universe’s expanse–a subject that was thematized in Cornell’s perverse if beautiful boxes, the fragmentary pieces of lunar or terrestrial maps serve as pivots of perspectives of viewers, as well as a nostalgia for the aspirations toward total visual knowledge that echo Cornell’s childhood and adult consumption of engravings in nineteenth century books of science.

The Cantino map expanded the protocols of nautical charting, which it combined with other forms of mapping to offer a range of curiosities couched in the surface of the map, together with convention from nautical charting of coloring the Red Sea red, or painting an exotic bestiary of parrots on Brazil’s verdant shore, and locating, crisply,  the islands’ shores themselves– although the eager cartographer magnified their own coastlines out of scale and proportions, despite his inclusion of a line of longitude and bar of scale.


Cantino selection

The expansion of a tradition of nautical charting to a hybrid form distinguishes the Cantino map, which faced a very different audience of readers once this ostensible copy of a secret map reached Italian shores.  The Este family  interest in this chart lay in how it revealed far-off lands that associated with ocean travel by the Portuguese, who had mapped islands in the Pacific beyond Cape Verde and the Azores in the early fifteenth century. When Cantino smuggled the chart to Ferrara in 1502, he saw it as completing the mission on which Ercole had sent him to procure secret information about “the new islands” discovered by the Portuguese, and the result of his discussions with several Portuguese explorers who had traveled to search for a Northwest Passage to Asia.  It was copied into new engraved maps of the Americas, and provided a protoype for the printed 1516 Carta Nautica.

The map centrally communicated, from the Portuguese perspective, the legitimacy of possessions in the New World, demaracted at the boundary line adjudicated and confirmed at Tordesillas, which leads one to imagine it derived from a seat of central authority.  Two disembodied bars of scale on the map’s surface suggest the measurement of terrestrial inter-relations, and its preparation for careful scrutiny of a studied eye.

Isole Fortunate

The Cantino map hence played with the protocols of charting.  Rather than insist on uniform coloration of the ocean, to prevent obscuring rhumb lines, but to maintain its elegance, as the cartographer colored certain regions a light green, by confining the blue paint to the Mediterranean, Baltic, and unbounded Caspian sea, the map combined a pictorial artifice with the practice of charting or representing oceanic space–the Mediterranean had its own portolan chart, and perhaps didn’t demand that its expanse be represented in a similar style.  The combination of artifice and nautical protocols exemplifies the huge expansion of the purview, as well as containing the first news of the Brazil in Italy, which was soon diffused in other charts and maps.

The Cantino chart might be measured against the sort of artifice in earlier fifteenth century charts, popular chartings of the Portuguese voyages to the African coast.  The chart that arrived in Ferrara from Seville dramatically expanded the purview,  toponomy, and perspective of nautical charts the Este  knew, to be sure, such as Grazioso Benincasa’s detailed 1494 mapping of the African shore:



Benincasa’s 1482 nautical chart densely collated costal ports but adopted the similar carefree style of decoration–probably the work of a painter–to the mythical monarchs that inhabit an imagined uncharted terrestrial expanse.  The image seems more fanciful, and designed with the desire to appeal to audiences by its  and was the culmination of a series of portolan charts and nautical atlases of the prolific Anconitan mapmaker, following his study of Mediterranean cities that from the 1460s to included western African ports, as well as mythical islands, and dense textual legends of geographic information.  Inland areas are blankly traversed by the same rhumb lines, which echo compass lines, and the truth-claims were much more limited, and land-masses probably entrusted to painters with limited first-hand knowledge of the region.  Benincasa’s chart colors the Red Sea red , too, following a tradition of charts, and Jerusalem and several biblical cities in iconic miniature.

The Cantino map offered a new way of reading the map–one which mimimized these curiosities.  For one, the thick and prominent line of longitude in the “Cantino” map has received significant attention, together with its depiction of the Fortunate Islands, Antilles, and Azores, for this defines and demarcated the new region of sovereign possession.


Line from Tordesillas and parrots



The changed social life of these maps suggests new uses of the map as a field for understanding space–perhaps less ready to note fanciful riverine paths and foreign sovereigns or kingdoms, and more to conform to criteria of inclusion.  If one considers the new circumstances of reading the portolan that arrived in Ferrara, and its use to imagine and consider space, we might offer a reading revealing more than the differences in place-names it includes, or the conventions of mapping.  Although the format of mapping seems the same, the “manner” and “quality” of the map addressed a different sort of audience, despite the common origins of its prototypes.

The aura of the map was not limited to its conventions.  The material objects of wonder from the New World that populated the Cantino map are most striking, however, in how they illustrate an early interest in items of exchange.  The unity of the portolan chart is very different, of course, because it includes the Fortunate Islands of the sovereign of Castille, as well as the Brazilian shore, and a chunk of its richly green interior, cut off from the unknown mainland and in Portuguese possession, as if to show off the charmed jewel of the new lands that the chart encompassed.  The chart’s inclusion of a disconnected shoreline of Brazil assembles a makeshift sense of unity by noting the broken fragment of the New World to the lower left, foregrounding it as both a sort of promises of new riches, and a means to stake possession of a territory by no means yet entirely concrete, the feathers of whose birds might be better known than any other aspect of the chart.

Parrots in Brazil

The chart was kept in the Este library in Modena, but stolen when anti-Austrian Modenese looted the palace in 1859.  The map remained temporarily lost, before being found later that year in curious circumstances of re-use as the folding screen or door in a sausage store or butcher shop.  (Some portolan charts became book-covers; others were cut into strips as bookmarks or otherwise recycled.)  The Cantino planisphere, reused as a screen, was temporarily stripped of its attraction as a promise of new possessions.

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Filed under cartographic accuracy, Joseph Cornell, Mapping the New World, Nautical Charts

Map-Inspired Madness: Mapping the Great White in the Solitude of Ahab's Cabin

The terrifying search for the whale Moby Dick runs almost vertiginously off the known map.  The absence of bearings are particularly apparent in an era of increased map-printing and the growing claims of map authorship, often insecure of the origins or coherence of their captain’s narrative design.  The quest for the elusive Great White takes readers literally off the map, as The Pequod leads readers off of the map, in frequently disorienting ways; the apparently unreliable narrative carries readers on a quest for Moby-Dick into unknown areas less mapped as the almost  primal site of whale spawning, unknown to most, where the craft, itself adorned with whale bones—“tricking herself forth in the bones of her natural enemies,” bulwarks adorned with sperm whale teeth, rudder made from a whale jaw bone, seems to seek to arrive by human artifice, as if to persuade the whale to reveal itself by charms–or be all too similarly cannibalized by its craft. 

As the voyage progresses across the seas, Ahab descends to madness as he falls into maps in his desire for stability and power.  The book is an epic of consciousness, of Shakespearean scale, and a study in a landscape of psychic interiority.   As if conjuring the character of Ahab, on the final flyleaf of a volume of Shakespeare’s works, Melville echoed the words that Captain Ahab deleriously howls as he mock-sanctifies the harpoon he feels destined to kill Moby Dick.  The devlish incantation sums up his monomaniacal absorption, inverting the sacred ritual of baptism of a Christian soul, “Ego non baptizo te in nomine Patris et/Filii et Spiritus Sancti–sed in nomine/Diaboli”–after which Melville added:  “madness is undefinable” in its hubristic drive for “converse with the Intelligence, Power, the Angel.”   If Melville was raised in the austere Calvinist, learning the catechism in the Dutch Reform Church, taught to  “acquiesce in God’s will, no matter how unjust or cruel it might seem,” without recrimination for the divine plan, Ahab’s attempt to conjure the Great White whale moves not by summoning angels or demons but by conjuring his location on maps, as if to trying to conjure the whale by imprecations, charms and talismans.  The charms, we learn in Chapter 100, begin first and foremost in his obsessive reading of nautical charts and maps. Ahab’s mad drive is no where more unbalanced than on his obsessive poring over maps to reveal the location of the whale, as if he might geolocate his position by latitudes and longitudes. Ahab’s investment of maps with mystical powers is almost a clear echo of the Theurgic magic that Melville saw as the belief in his ability to conjure the whale he so obsessively seeks.

Of course, as Melville would remind us, the map is all in the eye of its reader.  Maps, in contrast, provide a sense of stability to Ishmael, and were the basis of historical orientation to the seas.   ‘It is not down in any map; true places never are,’ Ishmael descriptively evokes the mysterious origins of his fellow sailor and companion, Queequeg, whom he praises as “George Washington cannibalistically developed.”   Queequeg hails from the South Seas, and his unknown origins betrays the fascination of unmapped spaces and the allure of being “off” the map.  The sailors’ concern with mapping places haunting the narrator of the novel obsesses the monomaniacal ship’s captain who leads his ship to the same area of the globe in search of the lone whale he seeks to lead an increasingly wary crew.  Melville wrote with a particular sense of spatiousness in a chapter that first tells the story of the Great White Whale–“Moby-Dick” (Chapter XLI)–poses the question of preserving collective knowledge to gain bearings on the location of the White Whale, that suggests the onset of the first mapped knowledge of whale routes.  If providing pictures of  the specter of the whale from from the point of view of the whale-man, the encounter of ships at sea at the start of the hundredth chapter betrays a  desperation to orient his ship on the high seas, but which the conjurer Ahab invests with devilish properties as if they had the Theurgic properties he so diabolically desired.

At the start of the hundredth chapter of the massive narrative, an obsessive Ahab cries hopefully to crews of a passing English ship monomaniacally—“Ahoy!   Hast thou seen the Great White?”   Ahab cries in biblical syntax in desperation to the approaching English ship’s captain and crew, showing his ivory leg to the ship whose captain barely seems to understand him, but improbably turns out to be his twin, having lost an arm last year to the very same white whale:  in a macabre recognition scene, the ships joined the two disfigured by the same whale clink ivory limbs, arm and leg, bound by both how their lives found new orientation after their encounters with the great white whale.  Ahab has prepared to track the whale’s course on a map, however, and in ways not often historicized in the mapping of whales, a sort of hubristic act in the case of the Great White that Ahab tracks, and yet a cartographic image of location of the great white whale’s course that Ahab seems perversely and maniacally determined to be able to conjure by a map–perhaps an intimation of madness. As much as revealing the hubris of such determination, Melville’s description of Ahab’s madness is historicized, in a telling footnote, in contemporary maps of whale routes, whose potential promise, limits, and benefits he would have known well as a man of the seas.   

While legends of sightings are dispersed among whaling ships “sprinkled over the entire watery circumference” in disorderly fashion, each “pushing their quest along solitary latitudes,” sharing knowledge about whales’ locations was prevented given the “inordinate length of each separate voyage” and “long obstructed the spread through the whole world-wide whaling fleet of the special individualizing tidings concerning Moby Dick.”  The sightings of sperm whales of uncommon magnitude provoked rumors and fears of encounters with the whale, as one might expect, even if they were recored at a fixed time or meridian.  For, Melville reminds us again of the unique space of the open seas, “in maritime life, far more than that of terra firma wild rumors abound, wherever there is any adequate reality for them to cling to;” in the “remotest waters” or “widest watery spaces,” whalemen are subject to “influences all tending to make his fancy pregnant with many a mighty birth.”  

Such an expansion of legends of the White Whale on the open seas contrast to the single-minded focus of Ahab’s tracking of Moby Dick, and the certainty that the Captain possesses of his ability to find Moby Dick on the open seas .  Such a fixation is opaque at the book’s start, but is perhaps most manifest in his obsessive desire to track the individual whale by the sea charts kept in his cabin, to which he retires to read each night, and seem to provide the first point of entrance into his psyche–and what Melville calls his “monomania.”  As the ship moves over the seas, Ahab returns often to his cabin to read charts, maps, and logs, as map-reading becomes a keen emblem of monomaniacal fixation–as the belief that maps will help him track the whale that he is committed to kill.  The maps may magnify the sense of monomania, the psychological diagnosis of an undue expansion of mental attention on one object; if repeated reading the maps serves as an emblem of the growth of his fixation despite the survival of his intellect; trying to pursue the whale on charts seems to serve to focus his vindictiveness, as if materializing how the “White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all this malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating at them, till they are left living with half a heart and half a lung.”  Ahab’s fixation on the yellowed charts he unrolled on his cabin table express the monomaniacal tendencies defined in nineteenth century psychiatry of how an inordinate fixation persists in an otherwise rational mind; the fixation on mapping the course of the whale obsesses his attentive mind.  

Is the hope of locating the White Whale by the rutters of past whaling ships and collation of mapped observations an emblem of nourishing an undue fixation of his pathological preoccupation, despite his apparent ability to reason the possible path of the whale’s path?  The extended narrative of the ongoing quest for Moby Dick on which Ahab leads Pequod that fills the content of the novel becomes a sort of psychic profile of the obsessiveness with which Ahab takes the Pequod, and the novel’s narrator Ishmael, to encounter Moby Dick in the South Seas–the site of whale -spawning where the novel culminates.  The retiring of Ahab to the solitude of his cabin matches his withdrawal into his mind and serves to nurse his preoccupations.  What provides a more gripping image of Ahab’s inner psyche than the obsessive attention that he gives to tracking the White Whale by maps?   Ahab retires to consult log-books and charts to cull sightings of sperm whales that almost substitute for an actual map or rutter–and for the trust that sailors might place in maps and charts to guide the ship.  The problem of locating the whale s underscored by mention of the “wild suggestions” of many ships that have given the whale chase of an “unearthly conceit that “Moby Dick was ubiquitous; . . .  had actually been encountered in opposite latitudes at one and the same instant of time;” if”the secrets of the currents in the seas have never yet been divulged, even to the most erudite research,” Ahab seeks to challenge this sense of ubiquity through his obsessive consultation of charts, by following of the outlines of naval courses.  His intensity comes to transform his very brown and visage into a lined map, tracing out courses, so that his forehead comes to resemble a chart; reading maps with such obsessiveness to track his prey seems to remove Ahab’s single-minded pursuit from any oceanic transit, and from the common good of the ship that he commands.

Ahab’s monomania may seem sui generis.  But it is closely tied to the mapping project of Mathew Fontaine Maury and the contemporary project of collating open data on whale migration in Melville’s time, and the promise of investing legibility in a global space of whale migration.  Even more than the bodily injury of the loss of his leg that left him tormented with visions of the White Whale, the obsessive tracking and persistent consultation of charts and maps with other records manifests the idée fixe by which Captain Ahab is obsessed, and indeed the solitary consultation of these charts while his crew sleeps at night stand for the single-minded madness of tracking one whale on the open seas.  The folly of tracking the White Whale on a map embodies Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit of a way to track its course by a paper map.   So fully does map-reading come to consume both his mind and his body as he ponders charts every night in his cabin, drawing new lines and courses by pencil, and revising them, “threading a maze of currents and eddies, with a veiew to the more certain accomplishment of that monomaniac though of his soul, so focussed on a map that, in a brilliant image, his tormented face even becomes a map, bearing the traces of the pencil lines traced on the charts, as if the subject of his fixation rises to the surface of his skin, so entirely consumed his mind by the conceit of mapping the course of Moby Dick.  The appearance of these self-inflicted lines as if engraved on Ahab’s brow–Melville’s image–echo the captain’s fixation with obsessively tracing multiple marine courses on the charts he keeps in his cabin; the courses that are so intensely pondered seem to rise to lines inscribed on his own skin as if in as a consequence of the imprint that tracing possible courses  of the leviathan has brought.  

The conceit of the tracking of whales on maps appears an emblem of Ahab’s madness, if it almost echoes contemporary techniques of Global Positioning Systems.  The utter hopelessness of locating one whale in an ocean map seems apparent; Ahab has indeed so often red maps to transform himself into a map hoping to locate Moby Dick, and the conceit of mapping whales has filled his mind.  Yet, as the “hidden ways of the Sperm Whale when beneath the surface remain, in great part, unaccountable to his pursuers, . . . the most curious and contradictory speculations regarding them, especially concerning [how] he transports himself with such vast swiftness to the most widely distant points”    Melville presents the problem of mapping the course of whales as one by which the crazed Captain Ahab is increasingly consumed, pouring over charts in the captain’s cabin, increasingly isolated at a remove from the crew including Queequeg and Ishmael, and the fate of his ship.  Although whalemen by their expert knowledge often came to the conclusion after the White Whale so often escaped their capture “Moby Dick not only ubiquitous, but immortal,” the presumption of mapping the course of the White Whale’s course is perhaps the clearest illustration and emblem of Ahab’s hubris, and monomaniac obsession with tracking the whale above the expert knowledge of his crew, as he “led upon the whale’s white hump as the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race,” so violently did he come to see personified in the whale that had once torn off his leg all evil in the world, and pit himself against it.  Maps provide Ahab with a basis to nourish and expand the “monomania  in him [that] took its instant rise at the precise time of his bodily dismemberment.”  If such a mania began he returned home, stretched in a hammock on his homeward voyage, swaying in a straitjacket in the rocking boat returning across the tranquil tropics, as “his special lunacy having stormed his general sanity,” he obsessed after returning to Nantucket with the one aim of hunting the White Whale.  Monomania had almost fallen out of favor as a diagnosis by 1850, when Melville wrote, but novelists from Balzac to Bronte adopted the image of mental fixation and unhinged rationality that Ahab’s reading of maps convey.  

Nothing in Mellville’s novel is so great an emblem indicating Captain Ahab’s madness than his obsessive consultation of nautical charts and maps of which he is a jealous custodian, and which provide the basis to nourish his determination to locate Moby Dick.  Maps may feed Ahab’s relentless compulsion to track the White Whale.  Ahab’s obsession with maps reflects contemporary attempts to map the open seas:  indeed, the superstitious value of the leviathan held a special place in the “wild, strange tales of Southern whaling,” and the deep sympathy of whaling men for their prey, who they know far better than those naturalists who have perpetuated false legends of their fierce animosity for humans, from Palsson to Cuvier, distorting the actual awesomenes of pursuing any whale tracking the Great White.  

Ahab’s obsessive reading of maps to track Moby Dick seems a figure for his monomania, but reflects an actual mapping project tracking whales on the open seas, which Melville knew well, and a project of mapping the logs of whaling ships in legible cartographic form.  Ahab’s use of maps to track Moby Dick mirrors the cartographical project of Matthew Fontaine Maury, the nineteenth-century Virginian polymath and early hero of open data, who in 1851 sought to map migratory routes of Sperm and Right whales or the benefit of the whaling economy.   If Melville often consulted histories of arctic searches for Northern Whales published from the 1820s, the appearance of an authoritative map of the courses of whales that Maury had accumulated from ships’ logs provided a model that attempted to impose human reason and fixed continuity on a whale’s migrating itineraries and paths, in order best to predict its actual location.

Ahab’s obsessive hope to track the course of the great white whale Moby Dick in the ship the Pequod may mirror the scope and ambition of M.F. Maury’s project–a project that led to one of the odder maps of marine population and migration that appears below, but which is one of the monuments of open data.   For Melville, however, Ahab’s mania seems driven by the hope the map carried for being  able to track  the course of the great white whale that his prey, and to arrive at the moment of confrontation that will in fact never appear on any map.  For unlike the observations Maury graphically collated, the specificity of Ahab’s tie to Moby Dick is not on the map at all.

Whale Chart 1851Maury’s Whaling Map; Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

Ahab’s self-imposed sequestering on the voyage of the Pequod in his cabin, surrounded by a variety of charts, seems emblematic of his single-minded obsession to track the elusive Moby Dick.  It is emblematic of a uniquely obsessive sort of map-reading emblematic of his particular sort of hubris:  as he will never know the true path of the majestic whale, his study of the map symbolizes a contest between the mapping abilities of man and whale.

The private consultation of the map in the the secret space of the captain’s cabin reveals the sharp contrast between the whale as an innate cartographer who migrated across seas and the knowledge of routes inscribed in lifeless nautical charts, and the inability to plot or plan the intense longing for his confrontation with Moby Dick within the range of observations of all whales by traveling whale ships.  But it also offers an amazing fantasia of the reading maps and nautical maps as if they were guides to habitation, and a reflection on the nature of map-reading and the comprehensive claims of encompassing known space within engraved maps, and specifically of the colored charts of sea routes, whaling and sighted whales that the oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury produced in the 1850s compiling nautical logs of whaling ships, after having remapped the coastline of the United States from the geodetic Survey of the Coast by the Swiss Ferdnand Hassler, which had tried to fulfill the Jeffersonian dream of a nation facing two oceans, before joining the Confederate cause.

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We have little sense of the amassing of data that existed in Ahab’s cabin, so much as the intense relation that the captain develops to his charts.  Melville describes how Ahab retires to his cabin to open “large wrinkled roll of yellowish sea charts, spread them before him on his screwed-down table,” ready to set himself to “intently study the various lines and shadings which there met his eye,” and escape into the paths that they trace.  The memorable episode in Ahab’s own cabin focusses attention on how the captain’s obsessive consultation of the maps, as a sort of emblem of his search to capture the whale in them.   Ahab processed information in the map as best he could, and “with slow but steady pencil trace additional courses over spaces that before were blank,” while consulting log-books of previous voyages and noted sightings of sperm whales in a desperate attempt to locate the migratory path of the white sperm whale Moby Dick–whose own route he so obsessively seeks to understand and on which he fixates so obstinately. The reading activity is isolated and isolation, because the map is essentially mute, a second order of spatial knowledge with which he has no literal traffic or exchange, but becomes a way to wrap himself in further isolation from the mammal that communes with the productive fecund waters of the sea.  “While he himself was marking outlines and courses on the wrinkled charts, some invisible pencil was also tracing lines and courses upon the deeply marked chart of his forehead,” as every night, “in the solitude of his cabin, Ahab thus pondered over his charts, . . . threading a maze of currents and eddys, with a view to the more certain accomplishment of that monomaniac thought of his soul.”

Such a collective map of the sightings of whales is both the focus and talisman of Ahab’s monomaniacal will:  both as the transcription of the paths of hidden submarine itineraries, “with the charts of all four oceans before him,” and the hubris of understanding the concealed migratory course of that noble whale with which he is so obsessed and that has long evaded his search.  For Melville confides that “it might seem an absurdly hopeless task thus to seek out one solitary creature in the unhooped oceans of this planet” to many; “But not so did it seem to Ahab, who knew the set of all tides and currents; thereby calculating the driftings of the sperm whale’s food, which whales were imagined to follow; and, also, calling to mind the regular, ascertained seasons for hunting him in particular latitudes; could arrive at reasonable surmises, almost approaching to certainties, concerning the timeliest day to be upon this or that ground in search of his prey.”  The privacy of the consultation of the tables that allow him to try to read this map, and to establish the position of the whale he seeks, becomes the basis for the captain’s obsessive hope to track the progress of the whale, better to interpret its location.

The intensive reading of ocean charts becomes a site of reading that obsesses Ahab as a means to determine and decipher the logic of its movement stand at odds with the description of the sublime nature of the sperm whale, whose own head cannot even be read without wondering at the majesty of the form of the “head of this Leviathan,” truly “an anomalous creature,” impossible to interpret or decipher, whose imposing grandeur is of such “god-like dignity” to defy human interpretation.  As the wonderfully described problem of the legibility of the “plaited forehead” of the Sperm Whale is a living surface that defies interpretation, inscribed with “innumerable strange devices for [its] emblematical adornment,” following not Euclidean mathematics, but rather “pure nautical mathematics,” the mapping of the course of the whale seems to defy tracking by Euclidean tools also defies reading, much as Melville described the sperm whale’s forehead forms a “mystically carved container,” the lines of whose face defy clear reading, as the “bumps on the head of this Leviathan” is a surface whose interpretation “no Physiognomist or Phrenologist has as yet undertaken,” and would challenge the abilities of Lavater–despite his study of animal faces–or Spurzheim or Gall, suggesting the intractable indecipherability of the whale, but whose “sublime aspect” and “added grandeur” Melville attempted, in the brow in which “mighty god-like dignity” is indeed “inherent” in a brow “plaited with riddles,” presenting Lavater’s mark of genius in the depressed crescent at its middle, in a brow “so amplified . . . you feel the Deity and the dread powers more forcefully than in any other object in living nature.”

As the brow of the leviathan remains challenging to be read, any hope of reading the map of the path it takes seems, despite Ahab’s desire and Maury’s map, Melville appears to assure his readers, as futile as a way locating the actual whale Moby Dick, but becomes an obsessing act of tracing, retracing, and location, that becomes Ahab’s main interpretive project in Melville’s book.

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Filed under American literature, data visualization, Herman Melville, Moby Dick, open data