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Mapping Early Modern Worlds
Mapping the Body & Embodying the Map

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Mapping the Body & Embodying the Map

Human dissection probably began as early as 300 B.C., but only with the publication of Vesalius’s De Humani Corporis Fabrica in 1543 were images of the body disseminated that could be considered "modern." Typical of earlier images is the woodcut of a male figure included by the Carthusian prior Gregor Reisch in his compendium, Margarita Philosophica , first published in 1503. Here the division of the flat figure into sections is reminiscent of early zonal maps. The later sophisticated engravings from Vesalius’s book were copied widely by other anatomists as they named the parts of the body: "Eustachius mapped the ear, Fallopius the female reproductive organs . . . Michael Servetus the pulmonary transit of the blood."


The historian Jonathan Sawday has recently observed that like the explorers, "these early discoverers dotted their names, like place-names on a map, over the terrain which they encountered. In their voyages, they expressed the intersection of the body and the world at every point, claiming for the body an affinity with the complex design of the universe. . . . And in the production of a new map of the body, a new figure was also to be glimpsed: the scientist as heroic voyager and intrepid discoverer."


The relationship between the human body and the world goes back at least as far as the Middle Ages, where the microcosm, the little body of man, was thought to replicate the macrocosm or large world around him. Early images of Zodiac Man map the planets, the signs of the Zodiac, and the humors onto the human body. In the sixteenth century, cartographers such as Ortelius began peopling their maps with human figures from exotic lands such as Tartary. The first full-fledged and deliberate use of figures in national costume occurs on the city views made by Braun and Hogenberg in 1572.


Thereafter, many mapmakers included historical and contemporary figures around or in their maps, sometimes representing different social degrees, as on maps by Blaeu and Speed, sometimes providing an entreé for us as viewers through foreground figures viewing the the same city plan we are seeing, as in Wit’s London, and at times animating the land itself with allegorical features so that geography is humanly embodied, as in Drayton’s Polyolbion.




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Gregor Reisch. Margarita philosophica. Freiburg im Breisgau, 1503.

Michael Drayton. Poly-Olbion. Part 1. London, 1612

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