Mapping the world


World map from the Ulm edition of Ptolemy's Geographia 1482 (public domain image)
World map from the Ulm edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia 1482 (public domain image)

Ashley and Miles Baynton-Williams
New Worlds: Maps from the Age of Discovery
Quercus 2008

It’s a rare being who is not fascinated by maps. Tourists and visitors, walkers, fans of epic fantasy, students and readers of self-help books with mind-maps all appreciate a bit of good cartography, and the modern virtual world is awash with them as the options on any search engine will demonstrate. Their function is to be informative of course, but they can also be works of art in their own right and items of interest to antiquarians, collectors, lawyers, historians and a whole host of other specialists. Not forgetting any old Tom, Dick or Harriet now profiting from this general availability online — just as in the Renaissance period a rich middle class were profiting from more easily acquired maps due to the invention of printing.

Claude Ptolemy, floruit 150 CE
Claudius Ptolemy floruit 150CE

New Worlds is a collection of some one hundred and twenty printed maps spanning four and a quarter centuries, in full colour, each example with its own set of notes. The earliest dates from 1475, a schematic diagram still reliant on the medieval concept of the mappa mundi, with Jerusalem plumb centre and literally oriented with the east at the top. Soon, however, maps were being  printed based on the writings of Ptolemy in the 2nd century, much closer to modern conceptions in having north at the top and rudimentary outlines of Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia. What lingers from the medieval mindset is the use of representational images, such as anthropomorphic zephyrs providing winds from twelve different directions. The discovery of the New World in the last decade of the 15th century meant that new ways of representing a spherical world on a two-dimensional plane were urgently needed.

In the early 16th century there were experiments with various projections, most notably with cordiform and double-cordiform (heart-shaped) maps, in an effort to incorporate details of both eastern and western hemispheres as they became known. Unfortunately, in their zeal to fill up all the available space much creativity was employed. Not just decorative cartouches were in evidence but also figurative illustrations — benighted natives from exotic climes were very popular, as were exotic beasts, both imaginatively and usually inaccurately portrayed. Worst of all, geographical details were invented. Typically these included a postulated southern continent which somehow incorporated all of Antarctica and Australia, and an Arctic continent which Gerard Mercator depicted surrounding a physical North Pole in an inland sea from which four rivers flowed in Biblical fashion. Swift excoriated much of the cartography of the period with a famous rhyming jibe (which the authors quote) and even included such idiosyncrasies in his Gulliver’s Travels.

So Geographers in Afric-maps / With Savage Pictures fill their Gaps;
And o’er uninhabitable Downs / Place Elephants for want of Towns.

But as time went on accuracy improved even as the pictorial elements remained to enliven the publication and attract buyers. Unlike later atlases these maps were largely for display purposes, and needed to draw the eye. That visual appeal meant that we have bird’s eye or panoramic views of settlements and towns in potential colonies; troop dispositions at key battles; coats of arms of leading families in English county maps; fantastical sea creatures, mythological figures and sailing ships in those huge expanses of oceans; and local scenes — real or imagined — for maps of exotic places. Everywhere there are cartouches, explanatory sections contained within a scroll- or shield-like border which also served the purpose of hiding lands unknown. Above all the huge sweep of European expansionism — for better or worse — is emphasised again and again.


We are also introduced to novelty maps — alegorical delineations of countries such as a harp for Ireland, whimsical Maps of Matrimony, and playing card maps. But my favourite aspects of these maps are features that could come straight out of The Dictionary of Imaginary Places. Sheer inaccuracies or anachronisms abound that lend these early maps a huge fascination for me. These include California as a island, even when earlier maps show it clearly as a peninsula; phantom islands in the Atlantic such as Frisland, Estotiland, Brasil and the Island of St Brendan; and a river that flows unimpeded from the west to the east coast of Africa — or possibly the other way round.

It’s difficult to do more than give a flavour of this book. Like its subject it’s visually attractive in its guise as a coffee-table book, but it also has the detail that reveals the authors know whereof they speak. Included are the expected contents list and introduction, with a bibliography, index and picture credits at the back. Sandwiched in between are those maps in chronological order so that developments in cartography can be appreciated as well as changes in styles of presentation. It’s also worth having a magnifying glass at hand to appreciate the finer detail, but the sheer gorgeousness of the individual examples is what impresses each time the book is opened.

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