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'Cartographia' Showcases Maps as History, Art

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Vincent Virga's Cartographia is a rare collection of 250 color maps and illustrations drawn from the world's largest cartographic collection at the Library of Congress. The collection spans everything from maps of ancient Mesopotamia, to maps of Columbus' discoveries, to contemporary satellite images and maps of the human genome.

Virga says that maps are like time machines — they reveal as much about the society that created them as they do about the geography of the places they describe.

Virga discusses the collection, which he culled from the Library of Congress' millions of maps and tens of thousands of atlases.

"Maps always have and always will help us communicate our physical, mental, and spiritual journeys," Virga says.

'Cartographia' a Map of Human Imagination

Cartographia cover i
Cartographia cover
A 1662 map of the Netherlands. i

A 1662 map of the Netherlands. From 'Cartographia,' by Vincent Virga and the Library of Congress hide caption

toggle caption From 'Cartographia,' by Vincent Virga and the Library of Congress
A 1662 map of the Netherlands.

A 1662 map of the Netherlands.

From 'Cartographia,' by Vincent Virga and the Library of Congress

The subtitle of Cartographia: Mapping Civilizations makes it sound like a conventional history of exploration and trade routes. But having pored over the Library of Congress' 4.8 million maps and 60,000 atlases — the largest cartographic collection in the world — picture editor Vincent Virga discovers maps to be more subversive, more individual, more revealing than mere navigational aids. Cartographia surprises in many ways: It's an oversized history, a fascinating map of the human imagination, of the ways we've learned to orient ourselves.

Virga points out that when Mohammed Bello, sultan of the western Sahara, gave British explorer Hugh Clapperton a misleading chart of the Niger River, the gift was a typical example of "Map as Obfuscation." Cartographia also offers us Map as Unwelcome Truth, Map as Spirit of the Age, Map as Respect for Authority, and dozens of other chart-making archetypes. In short, over the centuries, maps have been microcosmic representations of more than just land or water; sometimes, it has been political power or climate or spiritual cosmology. The more than 200 illustrations in this lavish, wide-ranging volume may not guide anyone to the right freeway exit, but they'll show readers William Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County, the layout of the human genome and the five entry points of the soul.

Book critic Jerome Weeks blogs at Book/Daddy

Books Featured In This Story


Mapping Civilizations

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

Hardcover, 266 pages |


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