Mapping Civilizations

by Vincent Virga, Library of Congress, Ronald E. Grim and James H. Billington

Hardcover, 266 pages, Little Brown & Co, List Price: $60 |


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Book Summary

An illustrated tour of some of the most significant and history-making maps ever made is culled from Library of Congress archives and offers insight into the role of maps as living histories.

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Excerpt: Cartographia


Little, Brown and Company

Copyright © 2007 Vincent Virga
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-316-99766-9


Theater of the World

On the old highway maps of America, the main routes were red and the back roads blue. Now even the colors are changing. But in those brevities just before dawn and a little after dark-times neither day nor night-the old roads return to the sky some of its color. Then, in truth, they cast a mysterious shadow of blue, and it's that time when the pull of the blue highway is strongest, when the open road is a beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself. -William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways

He does smile his face into more lines than is in the new map with the augmentation of the Indies. -Malvolio, in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

As William Least Heat-Moon revealed in his travels across America in Blue Highways: A Journey into America, a map can be more than a guide to find one's route from one point to another. Through his attraction to the scenic blue high ways he found on a road map, Least Heat-Moon discovered an America where he could lose himself. He also learned that a map can be a storyteller, not only about the places documented on the map but also about the people who populate those places.

Like Least Heat-Moon's blue highways, the maps in the pages of Cartographia not only tell the story but themselves become the story. Maps, atlases, and related images serve as primary documents on a continent-by-continent exploration of the world. As each chapter traces the broad sweep of human history, the maps center on individual but representative images that illustrate major themes in the development of significant cultures and political empires. The maps are examined not only as a record of a specific place at a particular time but also as documents that have a story to tell, both about how and why the maps were created and about what the maps have to say regarding the culture in which they were created.

Cartographia begins by exploring the remnants of maps that have survived from the ancient civilizations that surrounded the Mediterranean Sea, setting the stage and establishing the base of geographical knowledge that was available to Abraham Ortelius and his sixteenth-century contemporaries as they entered a new era of gathering and disseminating geographic knowledge. These early geographers made not only Europe but also the other continents-the eastern parts of Asia, the southern parts of Africa, and the newly "discovered" Americas-part of Europeans' geographical consciousness.

Ortelius's Theatrum Orbis Terrarum is one of the earliest landmarks in the history of cartography and world geography. First published in Latin in 1570 in Antwerp (when Shakespeare was six years old), Ortelius's map book was subsequently translated into six other languages-German, Dutch, French, Spanish, Italian, and English. Cartographically it is a landmark because it is recognized as the first modern atlas. This was the first time that a set of maps contemporary to the time of publication was designed, drawn, and engraved in a coherent style with the intention of publishing them in a bound book. Geographically it was important because it represents one of the first attempts to compile a composite treatise on the geographical knowledge of the world, incorporating the new geographical data that was becoming available to Europeans during the sixteenth century.

But Ortelius's Theatrum Orbis Terrarum also represents a significant cultural development: the merger of two very important historical processes during the Renaissance-the advent of the printing press and the dawn of the European age of discoveries and exploration. Using a technology that was not quite a hundred years old, Ortelius employed movable type and copper-engraved plates and melded text with a uniformly designed set of maps that brought together the known geographic information about Europe and neighboring lands, as well as the Europeans' recently acquired knowledge of the Americas, southern Africa, and southern and eastern Asia. Through this technological development, Ortelius's atlas captured a period of transition and uncertainty as European culture attempted to synthesize and reconcile the information about the discovery of newfound lands. Geographic concepts that had been commonly accepted during the Middle Ages, such as a "flat earth" and "three continents," were suddenly challenged.

This first "atlas" is also important, symbolically, for Cartographia, and provides a conceptual framework for its story. Both the title and the title page of Ortelius's compendium use textual and pictorial icons, which were well known to the European audience, to symbolize the contents of the book. Ortelius's atlas, first published in 1570, was reissued in more than thirty editions over the next forty years. The title page's iconography was introduced in the first edition and remained the same throughout all the editions. Likewise, these icons highlight the theoretical basis of Cartographia-that maps are powerful storytellers, providing graphic documentation of human activity as it unfolded on the planet Earth.

Ortelius selected the title Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, meaning Theater of the World, possibly reflecting a custom in European Renaissance cities, where the city fathers staged pageants and parades with costumed figures representing the countries of the world. Applying the word "theater" to his book of maps, Ortelius suggests that it too was a microcosm representing the diverse parts of the world in a similar fashion. The decorative elements of the title page use an architectural framework, echoing the proscenium arch of the theater's stage. This massive structure is adorned with four female figures personifying the continents-civilized Europe at the top, ruling over the rest of the world, exotic Asia and Africa on the supporting pillars, and the savage Americas at the base, portrayed as cannibals. There is also a fifth incomplete figure, a truncated bust next to the Americas, representing Magellanica (Tierra del Fuego), or the unknown lands that were not yet explored. Such iconography epitomized the Europeans' worldview at that time, as well as the contents of the atlas. While the atlas included maps of the individual continents, the preponderance of the maps were of European countries and regions.

Applying the image of theater to Cartographia implies that the physical earth provides a stage for human action. It also allows the introduction of a concept from human or cultural geography: the cultural landscape. The action of the play's story unfolds amid an array of appropriate props and backdrops that enhance the setting. The action is cumulative, building on previous actions within the confines of the setting, until the play's story is told and the curtain falls. Similarly, human activity unfolds within the con fines of a physical setting or landscape. As each new generation and culture enters that setting, there are human modifications to it-the addition of roads, houses, fields, towns, place names, and political boundaries. These changes are cumulative, building on the past, saving some elements and replacing others. These manifestations of culture (the totality of human activity) leave an imprint on the physical landscape. As successive peoples inhabit a particular geographical area, they leave behind layers of their cultural heritage. Fortunately maps become one of the primary sources for reading through the palimpsest created by these cultural landscapes.

Ortelius's personification of the continents implies the need for regionalization, a major device used by modern-day geographers to organize and generalize data. In other words, how will we divide up the earth to talk about it in a coherent and meaningful manner? Region, simply defined, refers to a geographic area that displays common characteristics. Regions can be large or small depending on the generality or specificity of the criteria defining the area. Regions can have precisely defined boundaries, such as a state or country designating a geographic area where inhabitants are governed by the same laws, or may have ill-defined boundaries that fade imperceptibly into a neighboring region. Over the years geographers have developed innumerable regional constructs, many of which have entered into common usage-the South, the West, the Great Plains, the Middle East, or the Far East. Most people have a general concept of what geographic area and what cultural traits help define these particular regions. But on the other hand, it will be almost impossible to get any two people to agree on the specific boundaries or the exact geographic extent of any one of these regions.

One of the regional constructs that geographers and educators have used most successfully over the years is the idea of "continents," particularly as an organizing concept when talking about the earth at its grossest or most general scale. Continents, representing the earth's major landmasses, were a tried-and-true teaching device from the age of European discoveries until the end of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century.

In the twentieth century, as geographers became more interested in the human role in shaping the face of the earth, the continental concept of classifying geographical knowledge became less relevant and less useful. The concept of continents, which is based on a physical attribute, namely large, easily identified landmasses surrounded by water, was increasingly questioned. Is Antarctica really a continent, or is it a series of islands joined only by a massive ice shield? Aren't Europe and Asia actually one landmass? Their boundary was an arbitrary convention rather than a line following a recognizable natural feature. Then, from the 1950s to the 1970s, as the detailed mapping of the ocean floors progressed, the theory of plate tectonics was confirmed, providing a more precise definition of continental plates which established the geological basis for our supposed continental landmasses.

Is there a better way of regionalizing geographic data at a global level? Certainly, and geographers have proposed numerous schemes, many of which are based on single themes or topics such as climate, vegetation, or economic activity. Another scheme, which takes into account the totality of human activity, is cultural realms. In this categorization the focus is on identifying large groups of people with similar cultures, as defined by religion, language families, economic activity, and predominant settlement patterns. In this context, the Americas are divided into an Anglo-speaking realm (basically north of the Rio Grande) and a Latin-speaking world to the south. Or an Arabic-Islamic world occupies northern Africa and southwestern Asia, while sub-Saharan Africa forms another unit. Such a conceptualization is not without its problems, however. It was certainly a valid categorization until the middle of the twentieth century; but as society moves into the new millennium and the computer age, and as the world becomes more urbanized, modernized, and homogenized, it is less meaningful.

Despite the limitations of a continental categorization, Cartographia uses a combination of continents and cultural realms as its organizational device. This traditional approach to world history and geography works because the cartographic record from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, which serves as the anchor for our journey through the world of maps, strongly supports it. Whereas the first chapter focuses on the Mediterranean world before the age of European discoveries and the Renaissance, the succeeding chapters deal with the individual continents-Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. A fourth chapter deals with Ortelius's implied fifth part of the world, the lands that were primarily discovered and explored in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries-Australia, Antarctica, and the Pacific islands. However, throughout Cartographia, attention is paid to the major cultural realms represented in those areas, because the central point of our discussion is how maps help us read the ever-changing story of world civilization.

Ortelius's placement and portrayal of the continents on his title page, giving them superior and inferior positions on its architectural framework, suggests that there is a perspective or bias to the "story" he is about to present. A map by definition is a selective graphic representation, implying that the cartographer exercises a certain amount of judgment and bias, no matter how scientific the presentation purports to be. As in the case of Ortelius, the examination of this judgment and bias will guide the reader on a journey around the world through the maps presented in Cartographia. This examination will also lead the reader to find a beckoning, sometimes a strangeness, and always a place to lose oneself.

Ronald E. Grim, curator, retired, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress


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