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Bibliographic Essay: History of Cartography

by Evelyn Edson, professor of history at Piedmont Virginia Community College

[Posted here on 31 January 2002, with kind permission of the author and CHOICE: current reviews for academic libraries (Middletown, CT: Association of College and Research Libraries) July/August 2001, Vol. 38, No.11/12, pp. 1899-1909 (copyright by the American Library Association)]

Author's Note: The following essay was written for Choice, the journal of the American Library Association, and includes books in the English language only. Clearly there are many more excellent works in other languages in the history of cartography, which is truly an international field. Interested readers should search the bibliographies of Imago Mundi for references to these, or consult the bibliographies on the Education pages of the Groupe des Cartothécaires of LIBER.

This essay provides an over-view of recent developments in the history of cartography, beginning with general works and resources, followed by an account of the age of discoveries, a watershed in the history of maps. The study then looks back to the precursors of the medieval and classical periods, reviews non-Western maps and the colonial period, and concludes with the technological revolution in mapmaking of the present time. Most works are drawn from the last fifteen years, which have been dominated by the publication of the multivolume The History of Cartography, edited by J. Brian Harley and David Woodward.


Maps are now such commonplace objects and geographical forms so standardized in our minds that it is hard to imagine a world in which this was not so. For example, we recognize the shape of a familiar landmass like Africa, whether it appears on a map, a coffee mug or on the back of a teenager's partly shaved head. When our standard view is challenged, we are disturbed and angry. Showing the Australian map of the world with south on top provokes a roar of outrage from a college history class: "Turn it right side up!" But there is a history of cartography, a history of the development of mapping, and it is not a simple story of forward progress. And there will be a history of future mapping, which may take forms as yet unimagined by us.

The field of the history of cartography has been transformed in the past two decades. A map has been traditionally defined by geographers as a "representation of things in space," a definition that implies a certain level of physical correspondence. A new definition, according to Harley and Woodward, reads thus: "Maps are graphic representations that facilitate a spatial understanding of things, concepts, conditions, processes, or events in the human world." This definition takes one away from seeing maps as objective representations of physical space into considering them as human documents with all their attendant biases and failings. Such artifacts as diagrams of imaginary cosmographies, landscape paintings, and "mental maps" may now be considered maps. The working out of this definition is seen in its widest form in Cartography in the Traditional African, American, Arctic, Australian and Pacific Societies (volume 2, book 3 of History of Cartography), which discusses the dreaming diagrams of the Australian aborigines, the cosmographic calendars of the Mayans, and ritual sand paintings of the Navajos. These works are not "maps" in the traditional sense, but they do incorporate spatial relationships and individual places, often in terms of spiritual significance.

Traditionally, the history of cartography had been dominated by geographers and was viewed as a triumphal march toward the increasingly accurate, measured maps of the present. Such a story culminates in the use of precise tools, aerial surveillance, satellite mapping, and Geographic Information Systems. The maps of the past tended to be discounted as crude and clumsy approximations of "real" space. Not that these early map historians were slipshod-despite the changes in the orientation of the field, classics, such as books by Raymond Beazley (The Dawn of Modern Geography), George Kimble (Geography in the Middle Ages), and John Wright (The Geographical Lore of the Time of the Crusades), still have much to teach us in their careful examinations of individual maps.

As historians of cartography have moved away from geographical accuracy as the chief quality of a map, they examine instead maps in themselves. What was the mapmaker intending to show? Is it possible that measurement was not particularly important and that some other consideration shaped the map in question? Editors Harley and Woodward address these questions in Cartography in Prehistoric, Ancient, and Medieval Europe and the Mediterranean (volume 1 of The History of Cartography), which appeared in 1987 and pulls together the research of many scholars of the preceding decades. Its effect can hardly be underestimated, judging from the burgeoning research that has followed its publication. Volume 2 is published in three parts: Cartography in the Traditional Islamic and South Asian Societies, Cartography in Traditional East and Southeast Asian Societies, and the book on traditional non-European societies cited above. Volume 3, on the cartography of the European Renaissance, will be issued shortly. Subsequent volumes will take the history up to the present time.

The field of the history of cartography has attracted scholars from a number of academic fields. Art historians, literary theorists, and political historians have joined geographers in studying and analyzing maps of the past. Art and Cartography, a selection of essays edited by Woodward, is a particularly interesting illustration of the cross-fertilization of academic fields.

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General Works

At present there is no comprehensive one-volume history of cartography. Leo Bagrow's classic History of Cartography, enlarged and revised by R. A. Skelton in 1966, was the last attempt, and now the multivolume History of Cartography, cited above, appears to be its replacement. The best brief introduction is by Norman J. W. Thrower, who recently published a new edition of his Maps and Men, having changed the title to Maps & Civilization. Thrower, a geographer and cartographer, is most insightful on the modern period, where his mastery of the techniques of mapmaking is supreme. The book includes a helpful appendix with a glossary of mapping terms. Peter Whitfield's The Image of the World: 20 Centuries of World Maps is less scholarly but has an excellent selection of color illustrations.

John Snyder's Flattening the Earth: Two Thousand Years of Map Projections is a general book about a more specialized subject. Snyder deals with the eternal problem of representing a more or less spherical Earth on a plane surface and describes various solutions that have been found. This is an excellent introduction to an important subject in cartography, since the type of projection chosen can radically alter the appearance and meaning of the map. Catherine Delano-Smith and Roger Kain's English Maps: A History serves as a good overview of the field, although its subject is limited to maps made in England or for English use. The authors offer a comprehensive view of mapmaking and map use from the Middle Ages to the early twentieth century, putting maps into their cultural and political context.

For reference there is the useful Cartographical Innovations: An International Handbook of Mapping Terms to 1900, edited by Helen Wallis and Arthur Robinson. The book is made up of a series of brief essays on the terms, each followed by a bibliography. General categories include types of maps, maps of human occupations and activities, maps of natural phenomena, reference systems and geodetic concepts, symbolism, techniques and media, methods of duplication, and atlases. Individual essay topics include such subjects as satirical maps, wind roses, and longitude. Another good reference book is the regularly updated Who's Who in the History of Cartography, edited by Mary Alice Lowenthal. Primarily a guide to people working in the field, it also includes a useful introductory section, including a general bibliography, a list of important research centers and map collections, and a list of journals. Since the history of cartography is an international field, one expects many of these sources to be in languages other than English.

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Journals and Web Sites

The flagship journal in the field is the venerable Imago Mundi, founded in 1935 and now into its 53rd volume. Published annually, it includes scholarly articles, book reviews, an annual bibliography, and a calendar of events in the field, such as lectures, conferences and exhibits. A list of the contents throughout its history can be found at the Imago Mundi Web site. Among other useful journals is Terrae Incognitae, published by the Society for the History of Discoveries. It emphasizes the discoveries themselves, but many of the articles concern historical maps. The product of the Smith Center at the Newberry Library in Chicago, Mapline carries brief articles along with news about lecture series and information on the library's collections. The Washington Map Society publishes The Portolan, which is issued three times a year, and includes longer articles and an excellent annual bibliography. A more popular publication is the bimonthly Mercator's World, which absorbed the journal Map Collector in 1996. It publishes nonacademic (i.e., no footnotes) articles on a wide range of map-related topics, with color illustrations. Though the publication has an impressive board of directors, the articles are not always carefully edited-caveat lector! Mercator's World is directed at collectors as well as scholars and contains information on map auctions and sales, an important inclusion since map collectors play a significant role in the field of the history of cartography. Some are scholars in their own right, and some have generously supported the academic world with lecture series, fellowships, and gifts to map libraries.

The main discussion list on the Internet is MapHist, founded in 1994 and monitored by David Cobb, librarian at Harvard University. Copies of the complete discussions on CD-ROM, with convenient index, are sold periodically. {Afternote: in February 2002 the list moved to Utrecht. For subscription and other information see the MapHist homepage}. The list broadcasts announcements of conferences, fellowships, and new books, as well as lively debates on map-related topics. Participants include map dealers, librarians, college and university professors, graduate students, and amateur enthusiasts.

The Web has two principal gatekeeper sites that provide links to many other sources. The first, Map History/History of Cartography, is established at the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London. This site includes a general introduction to the subject as well as news and guides to library collections and map dealers. A recently added link directs one to articles and books posted on the Web. There is also an e-journal, MapForum, which has published ten issues so far. The other site, <Odden's Bookmarks, operates out of the University of Utrecht. Though these are excellent sites, the problem inherent in studying the history of cartography on the Internet is the generally poor quality of map reproductions. Perhaps this will change in the future, but at the moment one should not depend on Internet images, which take a long time to download and are usually blurred and often unreadable. Some sites are experimenting with new technology, but the software (even if free) takes hours to download and may tax the memories of some computers. Some sites, such as the Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas, forbid printing, making the maps difficult to study. At present there is no substitute for seeing a map in the original or in good facsimile.

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Cartographic Theory

New theoretical approaches to the history of cartography can be found in The History of Cartography, particularly Harley's opening essay in volume 1. Harley is also the author of "Maps, Knowledge and Power" in The Iconography of Landscape, edited by Denis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels. Here he makes clear the way that maps, rather than being objective sources of information, can be used to establish control, a theme now being expanded on by writers in specialized historical fields. Books by Mark Monmonier (How to Lie with Maps, Drawing the Line) apply these ideas with mostly modern examples, written in a breezy, popular style. Mappings, edited by Denis Cosgrove, includes a selection of articles across the historical spectrum, mostly incorporating postmodernist theory. Soon to appear in English translation from the University of Chicago Press is Christian Jacob's L'Empire des Cartes: Approche théorique de la cartographie à travers l'histoire [Editor's update, May 2008 - the details are: Christian Jacob, The Sovereign Map: Theoretical Approaches in Cartography throughout History. Translated by Tom Conley. Edited by Edward H. Dahl. (University of Chicago Press, 2006)]. Trained as a classicist, Jacob ranges over the entire field of cartography, drawing examples from every period of history.

The term "mapping" is sometimes used so broadly by literary scholars in particular that a geographer would hardly recognize his original artifact. An example is Tom Conley's The Self-Made Map. This work, set in early modern France, does discuss such cartographers as Oronce Finé, but it ranges into the cartographic writing of Rabelais, the arrangement of words on a page in printed texts, and the design of capital letters.

An event that did much to establish a new view of map history was an exhibition titled "The Power of Maps," by the Smithsonian Institution in 1992-93 and curated by Lucy Fellowes and Denis Wood. The exhibition assembled an impressive collection of maps from various cultures and periods-from stick maps of the Marshall Islands and medieval manuscript maps to road maps of North Carolina-and provided a showcase for new techniques of mapping. A memorable display was an animated sequence showing the sea bottom beneath the polar ice sheets. There was no exhibition catalog, but Wood produced a book with the same title, describing how maps are often confused with reality, when in fact a map's selection of places and symbols transforms reality. Unfortunately, the book, a rambling personal essay, is poorly illustrated, always a drawback for a book about maps. The postmodernist approach of Wood and others was criticized as an oversimplification by Jeremy Black in Maps and Politics.

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Mapping the Discoveries

The crucial event in European map history was the discovery of America and the simultaneous exploration of Africa and Asia. European geographers and mapmakers found it necessary to revise their view of the world. In the preceding century, several forces had come together (the rediscovery of Ptolemy's work, the refinement of nautical maps, the improvement of measuring techniques) to give intimations of a more scientific approach to cartography. Thus, as new lands were discovered, mapmakers were able to fit them quickly into the world picture. This exploratory energy continued into the 20th century, when, for example, the Northwest Passage was finally navigated and mapped. Peter Whitfield's New Found Lands, after a brief account of ancient and medieval explorers, swings into high gear in the fifteenth century, carrying the story up to the end of the nineteenth century. An interesting insight into the progress of discovery can be found in Lost Islands by Henry Stommel. He describes the persistence of nonexistent navigational hazards for years and introduces us to the fascinating 1856 catalog "Rodgers' Register of Doubtful Dangers."

Harley's Maps and the Columbian Encounter accompanied an exhibition commemorating the year 1492. Harley also produced a video of the same title, which drives home the point that Western maps were a factor in the domination and elimination of Native American cultures, overwhelming Native mapping traditions and place-names, and legitimizing conquest. Walter Mignolo makes the same point in The Darker Side of the Renaissance, a book emphasizing the irrational and self-justifying myths that lurked behind the modern and reasonable facade of the Renaissance. Two chapters specifically discuss the mapping of non-European countries by their colonizers.

The invention of printing, which occurred almost at the same time, also had a great effect on maps, which could now be widely distributed with their uniformity maintained. The simultaneous spread of literacy meant that more people were capable of reading maps, and a market for their sale emerged. Five Centuries of Map Printing, edited by David Woodward, is a technical overview, issued on the 500th anniversary of the first printed map. Woodward observes that, while map printing led to an explosion in map availabil-ity, the process also limited the mapmaker in such areas as color and pictorial elements. Excellent studies of early printed maps include Rodney W. Shirley's Mapping of the World: Early Printed World Maps, 1472-1700, and Tony Campbell's Earliest Printed Maps, 1472-1500. The first is a cartobibliography of maps of the world, while the latter includes all types of maps. Cartobibliographies are organized with an entry for each map. In Shirley's work, for example, each entry includes the name of the mapmaker (if known), the place and date of publication, the size, the title of the book, a brief description, and a photograph. These are indispensable tools for the researcher.

Sea Charts of the Early Explorers, a beautifully illustrated volume by Michel Mollat du Jourdin and Monique de la Roncière, begins with the first appearance of nautical charts in the West in the thirteenth century and shows how they were modified up through the seventeenth century. R.A. Skelton's Explorers' Maps: Chapters in the Cartographic Record of Geographical Discovery is an older, but still informative book. Skelton closely links the various voyages to the maps that were used and those that resulted. His notes and observations on the individual maps are always valuable.

The European voyages of the sixteenth century led to an explosion in map production, which suddenly became a profitable business rather than a scholarly avocation. Two of the most famous sixteenth-century mapmakers, Abraham Ortelius (d. 1598) and Gerard Mercator (d. 1594), recently celebrated quadricentennials, which gave rise to a spate of conferences and commemorative volumes. Ortelius's work is described in essays written by Marcel van der Broecke and others in Abraham Ortelius and the First Atlas. Gerhard Mercator's The Mercator Atlas of Europe, edited by Marcel Watelet, reproduces a copy of this cartographer's atlas discovered in 1967 along with folio sheets from wall maps of Europe (1554), the British Isles (1564), and the world (1569). An accompanying text volume provides a group of interpretive essays. This is a beautiful, but rather expensive, book. Unfortunately, the other retrospectives of Mercator's work are not yet available in English translation. The mapmakers of the sixteenth century are cataloged in Robert Karrow's Mapmakers of the Sixteenth Century and Their Maps: Bio-Bibliographies of the Cartographers of Abraham Ortelius, 1570. Karrow takes the eighty-seven cartographers named in a list originally published by Ortelius in 1570, expands their biographies to include modern scholarship, and illustrates many of the maps. Two thousand maps are cataloged in this useful work.

Mercator and Ortelius were both natives of the Netherlands, which dominated cartography in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Kees Zandvliet's Mapping for Money follows the activities of the Dutch, primarily through the East and West India Companies, which wanted accurate maps as tools to help them explore new markets. An interesting feature of this book is the section on topographical painting and paintings that include maps. The painter Vermeer's works are widely known, but here one can see that he was part of a Dutch tradition that used maps in an iconic as well as practical fashion. In From Graven Images: Patterns of Modern Materialism, Chandra Mukerji discusses the map of the early capitalist period as both a consumer good and a capital good, an item for display and an item for business use. An ongoing series by Günter Schilder, Monumenta Cartographica Neerlandica, offers complete coverage to selected maps from this era, with text in both Dutch and English. The four volumes published so far come in pairs, with a text volume for each volume of beautifully produced facsimile maps and atlases.

Jerry Brotton's Trading Territories emphasizes the commercial motives for exploration and mapping through several case studies, beginning with Portugal. The book opens with an analysis of a tapestry made to commemorate the wedding of Catherine of Austria to João III of Portugal in 1525. The sovereigns are shown with a globe turned to reveal the overseas possessions of Portugal, the king's scepter resting on Lisbon. This book also emphasizes the role of the Ottoman Turks in the evolution of sixteenth-century maps.

Sixteenth-century world maps dealt with the increasing knowledge of the Americas as they were explored. Many books cover this interesting phenomenon, showing how the now-familiar geographical shapes of the Western hemisphere emerged from the fog of the unknown. Worthy of special mention is Philip D. Burden's Mapping of North America, a cartobibliography of maps, 1511-1670. A projected second volume will include maps from 1671 to 1700. Seymour I. Schwartz and Ralph E. Ehrenberg's The Mapping of America is less inclusive but covers the entire period from 1500 to the present. This is an excellent general overview. A more specialized work, William P. Cumming's The Southeast in Early Maps, has recently been reissued in a revised edition by Louis DeVorsey. This book, with 450 maps, covers the period from discovery to the American Revolution and the area between the northern border of Florida and the southern border of Virginia. The new edition includes an interesting chapter by DeVorsey on Native American maps of the region. Dora Beale Polk's The Island of California: A History of the Myth examines the perennially interesting problem of mapping the California coast. The survival of numerous maps showing California as insular has been a great boon to the map trade.

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Maps and the Early Modern State

Governments began to use maps as tools not only for foreign conquest and economic exploitation but to establish control at home and for purposes of national defense. Monarchs, Ministers and Maps: The Emergence of Cartography as a Tool of Government in Early Modern Europe, edited by David Buisseret, is a collection of articles dealing with England, France, Spain, Austria, Italy, and Poland. This is the published version of the 1982 Nebenzahl Lectures, held annually at the Newberry Library in Chicago. The essays explore, as the subtitle indicates, the increasing use of maps for political purposes. Josef W. Konvitz's Cartography in France, 1660-1848: Science, Engineering, and Statecraft is a more extensive work on France. Konvitz traces the state sponsorship of cartography from the administration of Colbert under Louis XIV, through the eighteenth century, when France completed the first national mapping project in Europe, conducted by successive members of the Cassini family. Konvitz shows how maps began to be used for military purposes, for designing canals and roads, and for economic and social programs. As governments took over the making of maps, the maps became secret documents, forbidden to fall into the hands of the enemy. Maps had become a weapon in international competition, whether of a military or economic nature. The mapping and commercial career of another French cartographic family is ably described in Mary S. Pedley's Bel et Utile: The Work of Robert de Vaugondy Family of Mapmakers.

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Before Columbus: Medieval Maps

The maps that preceded the age of discoveries have been treated as curiosities, studied originally for their distortion of the world as we now perceive it. In the works of Raymond Beazley, George Kimble, and John Wright (mentioned above), medieval maps were ridiculed for their simplicity and religiosity. More recently, the same maps have been analyzed in their own terms and found to be eloquent expressions of a worldview that might inform our own. Chapters by David Woodward, Paul D.A. Harvey, and Tony Campbell in volume 1 of The History of Cartography, edited by Harley and Woodward, are a good place to start. Paul Harvey also wrote Medieval Maps and Mappa Mundi: The Hereford World Map, which are brief, well-illustrated essays that provide a good overview. The new encyclopedia Trade, Travel and Exploration in the Middle Ages, edited by J. B. Friedman and others, includes many map-related entries. Evelyn Edson's Mapping Time and Space covers the early period to 1300, examining the way medieval maps are often constructed to represent time (historical, theological) as well as space. A general work on the subject of measurement is Alfred W. Crosby's The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600. Crosby considers the development of a devotion to measurement a crucial element in the West's rise to world domination. Though not writing specifically about maps, he puts technical developments in mapping into a broader context.

Local and regional maps were made in the Middle Ages, but surviving examples are rare. In Imaginary Cartographies: Possession and Identity in Late Medieval Marseille, Daniel Smail laments that the medieval archive of Marseille contains not a single image even remotely like a map. He goes on to describe, however, the development of a mental ("imaginary") cartography that becomes more uniform as the centuries progress. His work is based on the records maintained by notaries who recorded deeds, wills, and other property-related documents. He shows how local identifications of place were originally based on neighborhoods or landmarks but were eventually replaced by the image of the city as a network of streets, leading to the standardized street address of modern times. Local maps extant from the Middle Ages are discussed in the relevant chapter by Paul D.A. Harvey in The History of Cartography, volume 1.

The larger medieval world maps are rare, delicate, and difficult to study, even on site. To remedy this problem some are now being reproduced on CD-ROMs. The Bibliothèque Nationale of France has issued the multilingual Mapamondi: Une carte du monde au XIVe siècle, featuring the Catalan Atlas, a large world map made in Majorca in 1375, reputedly by Abraham Cresques. The visuals are good, but the CD-ROM is difficult to navigate. Essays on various topics are unattributed, and there is no index of place-names. It is more suitable for browsing than research, and dedicated students would do well to seek out the deluxe book by the fourteenth-century Abraham Cresques, Mapamundi, the Catalan Atlas of the Year 1375, edited by Georges Grosjean. The Hereford Cathedral map of c.1290 is the subject of Naomi Kline's A Wheel of Memory, a CD-ROM of the Hereford Mappamundi, from the University of Michigan. Rumor has it that the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice will soon issue a CD-ROM on their treasure, the Fra Mauro world map of 1450.

Jeffrey Burton Russell takes on one of the most common misconceptions about the Middle Ages: that most people subscribed to the flat earth theory. His book, Inventing the Flat Earth, proves convincingly that the earth was viewed as a sphere from the 6th century BCE forward. He traces the flat earth idea to Washington Irving's hagiographical treatment of Columbus in 1828, Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. Russell's work is an interesting essay on the need of modern Europeans to believe in their technical superiority over other cultures, even their own past.

The appearance of the Vinland map, which has produced so much controversy in the last 35 years, provided the impetus for some excellent scholarship. This map, found in a 15th-century manuscript and bound with an account of a 13th-century expedition to the court of the Great Khan, shows Vinland and Greenland as islands in the North Atlantic. Although the Norse discovery of Vinland about the year 1000 is not in doubt, no early maps by these seafarers have ever been found. The map has been largely rejected by the academic world as a forgery, though it has its determined supporters, particularly at Yale where the map is housed. R.A. Skelton, Thomas E. Marston, and George D. Painter's The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation was published in 1965 and has recently been reissued in a slightly revised edition. Skelton's lengthy essay on the map and its antecedents is a fine introduction to medieval cartography. The book contains a good facsimile of the disputed map.

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Greek and Roman Maps

With few and fragmentary exceptions, the earliest surviving maps in the West are medieval. Hence there has been great speculation over the nature of the maps that preceded these, the maps of Greek and Roman civilization, and to what extent their form and content were reflected in medieval maps. Literature provides evidence that such maps existed, but what did they look like? Claude Nicolet, in Space, Geography, and Politics in the Early Roman Empire, has argued that the Roman Empire needed maps in order to administer its wide-ranging domains. At issue here are maps of large areas, such as the "Agrippa map," a public monument erected in Rome during Augustus's reign. This work is described with tantalizing vagueness by Pliny (in his Natural History, 1469), with little indication of its physical appearance. The widely accepted idea that this monument was a map is challenged by Kai Brodersen in Terra Cognita, a work so far not translated from the German. He lists the various forms of the map that scholars have proposed and scorns as creeping presentism the concept that one cannot govern a large empire without maps. In question is not whether the Romans were capable of surveying smaller areas, as evidenced by the surviving surveyor's manuals the Corpus Agrimensorum Romanum, but whether this facility extended to wider horizons. For more on Roman surveyors, see Oswald A.W. Dilke's The Roman Land Surveyors.

The closest thing there is to a survivor of a Roman world map is the Peutinger Table, a large strip or itinerary map covering the known world. There is, in the National Library of Vienna, a twelfth-century copy of a fourth-century copy of a first-century original. The Tabula has been discussed by O.A.W. Dilke in Greek and Roman Maps, but for a set of good color illustrations, one should pore over the volume of plates accompanying Tabula Peutingeriana: Codex Vindobonensis 324 with commentary by Ekkehard Weber. Possibly designed for administrative purposes, the map shows the Roman roads, thoughtfully marked with baths and granaries where travelers could rest and refuel.

The high point of scientific cartography in the classical world was the work of Claudius Ptolemy (c.90-160 CE). In his Cosmographia he discussed various methods of map projection and gave instructions for making a map based on a grid of latitude and longitude lines. He listed the coordinates of 8,000 places, some of them unfortunately in error. No maps survive from his day, but the maps were reconstructed in the late medieval period, both in Constantinople, where his work had survived, and in the Latin West to which it was imported and translated in the early fifteenth century. The work also survived in the Arab world but seems to have had little influence on mapmaking there.

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Renaissance Cartography

Ptolemy's work had a profound impact on Renaissance cartography, revolutionizing mapmaking and pointing it toward the more physically oriented maps of the future. A translation of his Geographia, as The Geography, is available with black-and-white reproductions of the maps in an edition by Edward L. Stevenson. For color reproductions (without the text) there is Ptolemy's Geographia: Tabulae, Claudii Ptolomaei (Cosmography: Maps from Ptolemy's Geography) with an introduction by Lelio Pagani. Both of these editions are based on fifteenth-century manuscripts. Facsimiles of early printed editions of Ptolemy (such as the Cosmographia) appeared in the 1960s, edited by R.A. Skelton. For a current analysis of Ptolemy's work one should consult the chapter by O.A.W. Dilke in volume 1 of The History of Cartography, edited by Harley and Woodward.

Cartography became a hobby of Renaissance statesmen and artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci. The rulers of Italian and German cities were particularly interested in pictorial maps of their own cities. Between 1572 and 1618 a collection of 530 city maps was published in Cologne by George Braun and Frans Hogenberg. A selection of these maps is nicely reprinted by John Goss in George Braun's City Maps of Europe: 16th Century Town Plans from Braun & Hogenberg. The British Library's The City in Maps: Urban Mapping to 1900, by James Elliott, offers a more general overview of city maps, including those of Braun and Hogenberg. One spectacular product of Renaissance cartography is the gallery of maps in the Vatican, designed by Egnazio Danti in 1580. Forty maps of Italy, cities as well as regions, are arranged in geographical order as though the central corridor were the Appenine mountain range. Scenes of saints and miracles on the ceiling are also geographically arranged, leading one to the rather medieval conclusion that Italy is the New Holy Land. Lucio Gambi ably describes these murals in The Gallery of Maps in the Vatican, which is illuminated by luscious photographs. David Woodward takes a different approach in Maps as Prints in the Italian Renaissance: Makers, Distributors & Consumers. He is interested not only in how maps were made but in who sold them and who bought them and why.

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The Non-Western World

The maps of the non-Western world are the subject of the books making up volume 2 of The History of Cartography, edited by Harley and Woodward. The Western mapping tradition, with its emphasis on measurement, rapidly came to dominate the cultural dialogue over the representation of space during the imperial era. Some extremely interesting recent works examine this process. In her book The Mapping of New Spain, Barbara Mundy studies a survey ordered in 1580 by the Spanish Viceroy of New Spain, an area covering central Mexico. A wide-ranging questionnaire was sent out to local officials, who were also asked to provide maps of their territory. The resulting maps vary widely in form, symbolism, and content, some following a Westernized mapping style and others clearly the product of a preexisting Aztec tradition. Mundy's analysis is supported with good illustrations. Another important work is Thongchai Winichakul's Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation, which describes the intersection of traditional Thai with Western colonial concepts of nationhood in the nineteenth century, resulting in a delineation of Siam's boundaries and the formation of what the author calls the "geo-body" of Thailand. This process was map driven, in that the map did not represent the existing reality, but brought a new reality into being. The traditional idea of Siam was based on a hierarchy of rulers rather than a delimited territory. The kingdom was focused on the center with vaguely determined edges. Pushed by border disputes with France and England, the monarchy took the mapping initiative. In the process of redefining Siam, the victims were the small semiautonomous border states with shifting and multiple allegiances. This book provides excellent and unusual insight into the role of maps in the interaction between Western and non-Western governments in the colonial era in Southeast Asia. Better illustrations, in color, of the Thai maps can be found in Thomas Suárez's Early Mapping of Southeast Asia. Although European maps are the primary focus of Suárez's book, there is a brief introductory section on native Asian maps. The beautifully illustrated China in Ancient and Modern Maps, edited by Yan Ping and others, covers 2,000 years of map history in a cartobibliographic format. Richard J. Smith's Chinese Maps: Images of All under Heaven is produced in a very small format and the illustrations are almost impossible to see, but the text is extremely interesting. Smith's text and Yan's pictures are a good introduction to the field, more fully covered in The History of Cartography, volume 2, book 2.

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Colonial Mapping

Matthew H. Edney's Mapping an Empire: The Geographical Construction of British India, 1765-1843 deals with imperialist issues from the European side. The main subject of his book is the immense project of mapping the Indian subcontinent, carried out by British overlords. Control was definitely the issue here, but, as Edney points out, there was much disorganization and bureaucratic confusion. He also puts the mapping project in the context of the Enlightenment, with its positivist approach to knowledge of the physical world, a subject treated more extensively in Geography and Enlightenment, edited by David Livingstone and Charles Withers. In conjunction with Edney's book, one might watch "Measuring India," the eighth segment in the film series Shape of the World from the 1991 production by Granada TV. Simon Berthon and Andrew Robinson wrote a book based on the film series. Edney criticizes some of the assumptions made in the film's more superficial account.

The mapping of Europe's colonies inspired similar projects at home. Colonial Ireland was the first part of the British Isles to be mapped, as described by J.H. Andrews in A Paper Landscape: The Ordnance Survey in Nineteenth-Century Ireland, followed by England's admirable Ordnance Survey maps. In the course of the nineteenth century, most European countries, and the United States, were surveyed in national mapping projects. At the same time, new types of maps that were useful to reforming governments were emerging. Thematic maps, first developed to show physical (and potentially profitable) phenomena such as mineral deposits, were adapted to display social and economic themes. Maps became an effective way to present the data gathered by census takers. Arthur H. Robinson's Early Thematic Mapping in the History of Cartography is the rather pedestrian title of a most interesting and readable book. The author argues that the development of thematic mapping in the early nineteenth century was a revolution in the history of cartography comparable to the rediscovery of Ptolemy in the fifteenth century. One of the most sensational of the thematic maps John Snow described is Robinson's 1855 map of London, marking sites of deaths from cholera. Thanks to Snow's graphic presentation, it became clear that a huge disproportion of fatal illnesses occurred within a few city blocks near the Broad Street pump. This work led directly not only to the closing of the offending pump but also to the understanding of the role of contaminated water in spreading the disease. Since the nineteenth century, the subject matter for thematic maps has continued to expand. Such maps are used to illustrate the geographical distribution of various phenomena, such as religions, languages, employment, plant species, earthquakes, and zoning regulations.

By the eighteenth century, new surveying techniques made it possible to produce accurate relief maps for the first time, showing the earth's surface in three dimensions. A dispute arose over the most effective way of presenting this information, whether with some type of shading (intuitively comprehensive) or by the use of contour lines (more accurate). P.D.A. Harvey's The History of Topographical Maps: Symbols, Pictures and Surveys presents developments from early pictorial maps through the various technical changes. Besides the expected coverage of European maps, he includes examples from Mexico, India, China, and Japan. Infinite Perspectives, a recent book by brothers Brian M. Ambroziak and Jeffrey R. Ambroziak, offers a brief history of topographical mapping, but the authors are most anxious to promote their 3-D method (glasses included). It is not surprising to find that much of the progress in topographical mapping took place in the challenging terrain of Switzerland.

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The 19th Century: Education and Literacy

The expansion of public education in the nineteenth century and the consequent increase in literacy led to greater familiarity with and use of maps. Whereas a map in the Middle Ages would have been a relatively rare document, seen by few people, a map now became a common item, seen and used by many. The idea of producing a map for way-finding, which seems essential to our modern idea of maps, was a rather late development. Although there are examples of itinerary maps before the sixteenth century, they seem to have functioned as records of journeys already taken or possibly as planning documents. The invention of printing, however, was soon followed by the production of small, folding maps that could be carried in one's saddlebag, and eventually one's glove compartment. In 1996, the Nebenzahl Lectures at the Newberry Library featured "Maps on the Move," and a book of the lectures, offered by James Akerman, is slated to appear in the coming year. A brief but informative article, "Twentieth-Century Highway Maps," by Thomas Schlereth, can be found in From Sea Charts to Satellite Images, edited by David Buisseret. Douglas A. Yorke and John Margolies's Hitting the Road: The Art of the American Road Map examines the art work that appeared on road maps, with numerous colored illustrations.

Maps were apparently used in schools from ancient times, and several geographical texts from the Middle Ages seem to have been lectures delivered while standing in front of a map. Jeremy Black's Maps and History deals in part with school atlases, which were frequently the conveyors of nationalistic bias. Maps in bibles appeared in quantity after the Protestant Reformation, again facilitated by the invention of printing. These woodcut maps educated their readers on the subject of the travels of Paul, the disposition of the ancient kingdoms of Israel, and the possible location of the Garden of Eden. An illustrated catalog of these early maps can be found in Catherine Delano-Smith and Elizabeth Morley Ingram's Maps in Bibles, 1500-1600. Walter Ristow's American Maps and Mapmakers: Commercial Cartography in the 19th Century surveys the business of making and selling maps. Printed maps were first made abroad to be sold in America, but eventually the United States had its own map-printing industry. Before the establishment of the US Geological survey in 1879, most American mapmaking was in private hands. Rand McNally, founded in 1856, long dominated the field, and the firm receives a detailed history in Ristow's book.

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Distortions and Fantasies

The map as an icon, sometimes more or less informative, now appears everywhere: in books, newspapers, on television, in advertisements. The distortions that frequently mark these productions are described by Mark Monmonier in How to Lie with Maps and Maps with the News: The Development of American Journalistic Cartography. Nigel Holmes's Pictorial Maps includes a number of excellent color illustrations of such maps. This interesting book not only traces the history of cartography but gives many examples of maps in jokes, books, tourist literature, and postcards. The text is brief, but the pictures are well chosen. J.B. Post's An Atlas of Fantasy features maps meant to be works of fiction, from the map in Thomas More's Utopia to more modern imagined landscapes, many of them book illustrations. Peter Gould and Rodney White's Mental Maps discusses how maps of real places are shaped by ideas and experiences, which affect distance, detail, and direction. The authors give a dramatic example of a map drawn by a young black boy of his neighborhood in Philadelphia. Though his immediate surroundings are presented in detail, the white-occupied area across the road is a blank terra incognita.

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Extraterrestrial Maps

Celestial maps are at least as old as terrestrial ones. Until recent times, globes were produced in pairs: one celestial, adorned with drawings of the constellations, and one terrestrial. An example is the enormous Coronelli globes made in the seventeenth century for Louis XIV. Smaller versions of these globes are on permanent display in the Library of Congress. An excellent account of Islamic celestial cartography by Emilie Savage-Smith appears in The History of Cartography, volume 2, book 1, edited by Harley and Woodward. Peter Whitfield's The Mapping of the Heavens offers an overview of the development of celestial maps with colored illustrations. Terrestrial globes were not commonly made in the West until the sixteenth century, but they soon became a staple of both the philosopher's study and the schoolroom. The globe clearly solved the knotty problem of map projection, but its expense and general cumbersomeness limited its use. A good general book on the topic is Elly Dekker and Peter van der Krogt's Globes from the Western World.

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Technology and Mapping

There seems to be no single book on the development of mapping techniques from the impressionistic views of the Middle Ages to the introduction of latitude and longitude in the fifteenth century and the invention of triangulation for use in surveying in the sixteenth century. Longitude has recently attracted attention thanks to Dava Sobel's best-selling book Longitude on the drama of John Harrison and his lifelong quest for a clock that would keep perfect time at sea. Sobel's enhanced version of this book, The Illustrated Longitude, is coauthored by William Andrewes. The intelligent captions-and pictures-add a great deal to the work. Andrewes is also the editor of the papers from the Longitude Symposium (1993), The Quest for Longitude. Mapmaking tools were refined in succeeding centuries, up through the twentieth-century explosion of new technology. Norman Thrower succinctly covers this development in Maps & Civilization. He states that the introduction of aerial photography (first balloons, then airplanes) produced dramatic changes in mapping, enabling mapmakers to extend their vision to remote, inaccessible areas of the world. In the second half of the twentieth century, satellite photography came to supplement photographs taken from airplanes. Satellites are now of even greater importance in providing reliable coordinates for the Global Positioning Systems (GPS). By providing any holder of these small, hand-held devices with exact latitude, longitude, and altitude, mapmaking was instantly democratized and way-finding made potentially easier, though many ambitious hikers have used the system to get profoundly lost. Thomas M. Lillesand and Ralph W. Kiefer's Remote Sensing and Image Interpretation describes these developments.

The drawing of maps has been revolutionized by the use of computers. Indeed, the leading journal in the field, The American Cartographer, has changed its name to Cartography and Geographic Information Systems. Using the appropriate software, the mapmaker can change projection, scale, or text, and print the results with ease. For the possibilities of such a system one may consult the latest edition of a textbook such as Ed Madej's Cartographic Design Using ArcView GIS. The opening chapter describes the rapid advances in computer cartography in the last decade but warns, "You can make maps rapidly with the software, which means that you can also produce a lot of bad maps quickly." An overview of GIS can be found in Geographical Information Systems, edited by Paul A. Longley et al. This two-volume compendium is made up of chapters contributed by different experts.

At the present, mapmaking is going in two diametrically opposed directions: the increasing, even finicky, accuracy of physical maps, and the quirky, cartoon-like maps that accompany advertising, journalism, and other popular media. The map is now such a familiar image that it is hard to imagine a time when most people had never seen one. The daily weather map is an example of the widespread modern use of maps, whether one sees the colored version in the newspapers with its cryptic array of signs or the animated version on television with its simulated swirling air masses. It is easy to see why most histories of cartography end in 1900 or even earlier, as the explosion of new technologies, new uses for maps, and their universality in contemporary culture raise numerous questions, difficult to resolve. By studying the maps of the past, one is led to reflect on how each period and culture has drawn maps to suit itself, and then our obsession with physical accuracy is placed in its proper perspective.

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Works Cited

{Note: 'CH' at the end of an entry, followed by a date, refers to a review in CHOICE}


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Zandvliet, Kees. Mapping for Money: Maps, Plans and Topographic Paintings and Their Role in Dutch Overseas Expansion during the 16th and 17th Centuries. Amsterdam: Batavian Lion International, 1998.

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The American Cartographer. Falls Church, VA: American Congress on Surveying and Mapping, 1974-1989.

Cartography and Geographic Information Systems Bethesda, MD: American Congress on Surveying and Mapping, 1990-1998.

Imago Mundi. Berlin: Selbstverlag des Bibliographikon, 1935- . Annual.

The Map Collector. Tring, England, UK: Map Collector Publications, 1979-1996. Absorbed by Mercator's World.

Mapline. Hermon Dunlap Smith Center for the History of Cartography at the Newberry Library, Chicago, 1976- .

Mercator's World: The Magazine of Maps, Atlases, Globes, and Charts. Eugene, OR: Aster Publishing Company, 1996- . Absorbed The Map Collector in 1996. Six issues annually.

The Portolan. Silver Spring, MD: Washington Map Society, 1984- . Three issues annually.

Terrae Incognitae. Annals of the Society for the History of Discoveries. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1969- .

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