by Roderick Conway Morris

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British Library, London
Matthew Paris's Itinerary map starting from London (bottom left) to Naples, 1250-59

Earth Dreams: The World According to Maps

By Roderick Conway Morris
MILAN 24 November 2001


'Geography is about maps,' the writer E.C. Bentley opined. A closer look at the subject reveals that maps are not exclusively about geography, but record much wider vistas of human experience, aspiration, theory and imagination.

More than 2,500 years of man's endeavors to interpret and chart this planet and the heavens is sumptuously surveyed in 'Signs and Dreams of the Earth,' at the Palazzo Reale here. The show - which brings together a superb display of loans from the world's great collections (many of which for conservation reasons cannot be on permanent view) - is being held to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of Italy's leading geographical publisher De Agostini. It continues until Jan. 6.

Ancient Greek and Roman maps, as far as can be judged by the evidence that has come down to us, were primarily descriptive in purpose. But the medieval map developed in a very different direction - one examined in a richly illustrated opening section, 'Legend, Knowledge and Religious Vision,' organized by Peter Barber, head of the British Library's map department.

A classic format for the world map became a circle divided by a watery 'T,' separating the three known continents, usually with Asia at the top, Europe to the lower left and Africa to its right. This configuration, the origins of which stretched back to ancient Egypt, fitted the notion that the world had been repopulated after the Flood by the three sons of Noah: Shem in Asia, Japheth in Europe and Ham in Africa, representations of whom are sometimes shown as figures on their respective continents.

Thus, this type of medieval map tells us more about beliefs than reality and, as Barber points out in the catalogue, maps of this kind would be grasped more readily by ancient Aztecs, Indians and Chinese than they are by us today.

As maps became larger they contained more and more figurative and written information, most of it theological, biblical and mythical, rather than geographical. Odd elements from lost ancient maps persisted, nonetheless. In the Anglo-Saxon or Cottonian World Map, from around 1025 to 1050, the isles of Greece are relatively accurately depicted, and Delos is placed at the center of the map, reflecting the ancient Greek belief that this island was the center of the Cyclades and Greece the center of the world, and the borders of the long-defunct Roman Empire are still traced. But nascent empirical tendencies can also be detected: the British Isles, where the map was made, being shown with more care and direct knowledge than many other areas of the map.

This sharpened interest in what was closer to home physically, ideologically and even commercially, is strikingly evident in the famous 14th-century Evesham World Map, from the period of the Hundred Years War. Calais, recently seized by the English, is shown as bigger than Rome; Bruges and Cologne, valued trading partners, are given special emphasis, and the tiny Devon village of Taddiport gets disproportionate prominence, probably because the mapmaker came from there.

It was only around 1100, at the time of the First Crusade, that Jerusalem literally moved center stage, now being placed in the middle of world maps, with clear propaganda intent. On the other hand, the Crusades (along with the expansion of sea trade in the eastern Mediterranean) greatly accelerated the production and quality of portolan, or navigation maps, which were practical rather than ideological tools. And, considering the limited nautical instruments available, these became astonishingly accurate, while often being beautifully executed.

Pilgrimage gave rise to some of the first detailed road maps - one of the most celebrated being Matthew Paris's 13th-century, multipage itinerary, giving the entire route from London to Brindisi in southern Italy, from where pious travelers could take ship for the Holy Land. Another wonderful example of the linear road map to be seen here is a colorfully painted Indian cloth scroll a little less than a foot wide (25 centimeters) and more than 60 feet long (20 meters), covering the route from Delhi to Kandahar.

Elaborate maps were always potent symbols of wealth and prestige, and the more accurate they became the more indispensable they were to kings, princes and governments. Already in the 14th century, Italian merchants were commissioning from the cartographers and illuminators of Barcelona lavishly decorated maps, but with key coastlines and ports meticulously indicated, to present to English and French kings as a means of gaining privileges. This practice reached a peak in 1660, when the merchants of Amsterdam presented Charles II a copy of the jumbo-size 'Klencke Atlas' (which remains the biggest in terms of dimensions ever made) to mark his restoration to the English throne.

By this time the Dutch had dominated the map market for close to a century, in the course of which the number of maps included in deluxe atlases increased dramatically. Mercatore's 'Atlas' of 1607-1608 contained 146; 40 years later, Henricus Hondius and Johannes Janssonius's four-volume 'Atlas Novus' had 357; the figure rising to 593 in Joan Blaeu's 11-volume 'Atlas Major' in 1662.

The French kings made concerted efforts to establish a domestic mapmaking industry, with impressive results, witnessed by the section devoted to 'Cartography and Power.'

An amusing incident related here is of the Delisle, a leading family of mapmakers, and their finely executed chart of North America. At the time of its publication, the northeast of the continent remained unexplored, but Guillaume Delisle thought there was a good chance that there was a sea channel running all the way through to the Pacific. But in the absence of hard evidence and lest France's rivals should benefit, Delisle omitted this conjecture from the printed map. Meanwhile, an engraver and print seller, Jean-Baptiste Nolin, got wind of the idea and in 1700 issued his own map, showing this Northwest Passage. Delisle took Nolin to court, and after a six-year battle, the family's rights to the hypothesis were officially recognized.

The New World is also the source of one of the most curious exhibits: a map drawn on birch bark, left attached to a tree by a party of unknown Indians in about 1841, to indicate the route, on foot and by canoe, for those following them, spotted by a sharp-eyed British officer in the region of Lake Huron. He dispatched it home, 'in the hope that it may show young officers how small an effort is needed to acquire that most useful art, Military Sketching, since even savages can make an intelligible plan.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023