Mapping Early Modern Worlds

February 14, 1998, through July 1, 1998

When the poet John Donne called his mistress, "O my America! my new-found-land," he was employing a metaphor easily recognizable by English readers in the early seventeenth century. America itself had been "discovered" more than a century earlier and was often personified as "female" to a European audience. Many other far-flung parts of the world were appearing on ever-more-accurate maps and sea charts, and those maps themselves were now available as handy pocket atlases. But how did Western Europe reach this stage of conversant familiarity with mapping, both as a science and a metaphor? That question is at the heart of this exhibition, which draws on riches from the Folger collections to trace developments in cartography and to illustrate how the idea of "mapping" was used to make sense of explorations into other outer and inner worlds.

Much more than a century of travels and scientific observation made the whole concept of mapping so commonplace that Donne’s readers knew exactly what he meant when he also wrote to his mistress:

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears. . .
Where can we find two better hemispheres
Without sharp North, without declining West?

Ptolemaic world map, from Hartmann Schedel, Liber Chronicarum, 1497.

Orbis Terrarum: The Circle of the Earth

Maps, like works of art and literature, are a means of communication. In fact, when we look at a map we say that we are "reading" it. While we usually think of maps as records of geographical data, they may also record and communicate ideas and even legend and scripture. Medieval world maps of the three continents or the climatic zones were based on Biblical narrative and literary sources rather than on observation and experience. God’s created world was usually represented as a circle within which the three continents outlined a T, a shape reminiscent of the cross. This T-in-O emblem of divine authority was incorporated into the orb, carried by temporal monarchs as a symbol of their power. In the fifteenth century, the rediscovered Geography of the Greek mathematician Ptolemy was first translated into Latin and had a powerful impact on Renaissance cartographers. Gradually, and with increasing accuracy, maps came to represent geographic reality.

The Geography of Claudius Ptolemy

The geographical writings of Ptolemy summed up nearly six centuries of Greek speculation on the shape of the earth and the extent of its habitation. Ptolemy stated that the earth was spherical, and he demonstrated that places upon it could be located within a geographical coordinate system. Most importantly, Ptolemy recognized the problems of depicting a spherical earth on a flat surface and developed three solutions, or projections, for doing so. Within a century of Ptolemy’s death, his work was virtually forgotten. It was not until the fourteenth century that manuscripts of his Geography preserved in Constantinople became known in Europe. Renaissance cartographers eagerly adopted Ptolemy’s concept of ordering space, of representing a subject within a carefully measured and constructed geometrical framework.

Ironically, Ptolemy’s work became known in Europe just at the time that explorers would demonstrate its limitations. Early in the sixteenth century, editions of Ptolemy began to incorporate maps reflecting new discoveries. The original maps were retained in "their ancient form," but for the first time a distinction was made between ancient and modern geography. New maps began to give Renaissance readers a sense of the actual size of the world and provided pictures of lands previously unknown.

Geography and Chorography Geography and Chorography illustrated in Peter Apian , Cosmographia, 1550.


The first sentence of Ptolemy’s Geography defines geography as "a picture of the whole part of the known world." By the time western Europeans could read a translation of Ptolemy, the "known world" was a lot larger than Ptolemy had ever imagined it could be, and it seemed to be expanding every year. Ptolemy’s distinction between Geography and Chorography made so much sense that it was adapted by Renaissance writers. To explain the difference, Ptolemy used an analogy with drawing: "geography is concerned with the depiction of the entire head, chorography with individual features such as an eye or an ear." That is, geography is concerned with the mapping of countries, chorography with the mapping and description of counties, cities, and other smaller divisions. Cartography refers to the actual science of drawing maps—carts or charts—from the Greek word meaning "leaf of paper."
Ortelius.Map of America.

Map of America, from Abraham Ortelius, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, 1595.

Theatrum Orbis Terrarum: Theater of the Whole World

Abraham Ortelius, cartographer, map collector, and businessman, may be considered "the father of the atlas." His great work, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, was published in Antwerp in 1570 and went through many subsequent editions in a variety of languages. Conceiving of geography as "the eye of History," necessary for the true understanding of history, Ortelius presented his maps as a "theater of the world," in a format which he hoped would be convenient to those who did not have the room to hang on their walls "those great and large Geographicall maps or Chartes, which are folded or rowl’d up." His project thus both expanded and contracted the world, uncovering new insights into the known and hitherto unknown portions of the globe, while condensing it into the space of a book, that could fit on a table and make, as Donne wrote, "one little room an everywhere."

Map of the arctic regions

Map of the arctic regions, from Gerard Mercator, Atlas, 1630.

Gerard Mercator’s Atlas

Although Ortelius was the first to publish a modern atlas, Gerard Mercator was the first to use the word "atlas" to refer to a collection of maps in a volume. The title of Mercator’s Atlas was not based on the name of the Titan forced to support the heavens on his head, but rather was the name of a legendary king of Libya, a philosopher, scientist, and astronomer who is supposed to have constructed the first terrestrial globe. Mercator’s world map of 1569, drawn on the projection that bears his name, was one of his most significant achievements, but equally significant was his Atlas, to which he devoted the final twenty-five years of his life and which he had not completed when he died. Two parts appeared in 1585 and 1589, but the final part was seen through the press after Mercator’s death by his son Rumold in 1595.

Mapping A Nation

The project to map a nation completely was first fully realized in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. While the impetus came originally from the crown—Queen Elizabeth backed Christopher Saxton’s great atlas of 1579—the project soon took on a life of its own in which the land and its parts, rather than the monarch, took center stage. The men who produced the county maps—Camden, Speed, Norden, Drayton, and others—often worked at their own expense, hoping for some remuneration from a patron. The monarch’s gradual displacement in favor of the land is symbolized by the progression of images on title pages, from Elizabeth enthroned in Saxton’s atlas to the allegorical figure of Britain in Drayton’s Polyolbion. The royal coat-of-arms is increasingly placed on the margins of maps that foreground the chorography of the land itself with its hills, forests, cities, towns, monuments, battles, flora, fauna, and inhabitants, giving rise to the Nation as an entity independent of the Monarch.
Purchas. Purchas His Pilgrimes

Map of China, from Samuel Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas His Pilgrimes, 1625.

Mapping the "Other"

Explorers who enlarged the boundaries of their world through travel brought curious objects and eyewitness accounts back to Europe. The new objects were collected by the wealthy in their cabinets of curiosities, but the new information was disseminated more widely by atlas and map makers such as Ortelius, and by those who published compilations of travel narratives, such as Ramusio, Hakluyt, and Purchas. Gradually, pictures of strange but real animals, plants, and people replaced the mythical beasts and monsters of earlier accounts and maps. Samuel Purchas tells the prospective reader of his book: "Here therefore the various Nations, Persons, Shapes, Colours, Habits, Rites, Religions, Complexions, Conditions, Politike and Oeconomike Customes, Languages, Letters, Arts, Merchandises, Wares, and other remarkeable Varieties of Men and Humane Affaries are by Eye-Witnesses related more amply and certainly then any Collector ever hath done. . . ." The contemporary French philosopher Descartes saw the use of all this: "It is good to know something of the customs of various peoples, in order to judge our own more objectively."

Portolans and Waggoners: Plotting a Course at Sea

Even when most European cartography was still based on legend and scripture, sailors were making practical charts of the coasts they sailed along. They used the compass and the winds for determining direction but also recorded notable landmarks on portolan charts, pictorial counterparts to the portolani or pilot books of written sailing directions. To the navigator, details of harbors, river mouths, rocks, currents, and other coastal features were far more important than information on inland terrain. The earliest surviving portolans date from the thirteenth century, but they were probably in use earlier and continued to be made even after printed charts became available. In 1584-85, Lucas Janszoon Waghenaer published his Spieghel der Zeevaerdt (The Mariners Mirrour), summarizing all contemporary astronomical and mathematical knowledge necessary to position-finding along with traditional sailing directions. It and subsequent "waggoners," as they came to be known, standardized the methods men sailed by.

City and Road Maps

"What could be more agreeable than in one’s own home free from danger, to gaze in these books. . . adorned with the splendour of cities. . .and, by looking at the pictures and reading the texts accompanying them, to acquire knowledge which could scarcely be had but by long and difficult journeys?" Thus Georg Braun addressed the audience for his Civitates Orbis Terrarum (1572–1618), the first atlas providing a collection of plans and views of cities from around the world. The six volumes were comprised of over five hundred maps with descriptive texts so that the arm-chair traveler would never run out of places to "visit." John Ogilby, "King’s Cosmographer and Geographic Printer," on the other hand, departed from representation of the city as integral unit, and depicted instead the relationship between settlements along a linear road. His Britannia (1675), issued first in a large folio edition and later in pocket-book size, was the ancestor of the modern road map, designed for those travelers eager to leave the comfort of their homes and brave the dangers of the road.

Use of the geometrical quadrant to measure distance, from Levinus Hulsius, De quadrante geometrico libellus, 1594. geometrical

Counties, Baronies, Hundreds, and Manors: Marking the Boundaries

Until the seventeenth century, sea charts were the most accurate maps available and were frequently consulted and borrowed from by other mapmakers. For inland terrain, however, most cartographers still measured distances in mileage along roads and rivers and showed bird’s-eye views of towns. The geometrical methods of measuring used by astronomers and mathematicians had been known for several hundred years, but it was not until the sixteenth century that triangulation, the use of trigonometry to measure land distances, was regularly practiced to produce local maps and plans. In England a new landed gentry had taken over many of the estates of dissolved monasteries creating uncertainty about boundaries and a demand for estate surveyors and mapmakers.

map of the moon

Map of the moon from Johannes Hevelius, Selenographia, 1647.

Mapping Beyond and Below

Investigations by scientists such as Tycho Brahe, Galileo, and Johannes Hevelius stretched the boundaries of the known universe into the heavens. The invention of the telescope in 1609 resulted in "detailed maps of the moon and elaborate astronomical diagrams that offered a glimpse of a world far beyond man’s reach." The seventeenth century also saw the invention of better magnifying lenses and the microscope, causing the Dutchman Constantijn Huygens to write: "we wander through a world of tiny creatures till now unknown, as if it were a newly discovered continent of our globe." The last frontier was the core of the earth itself, not yet readily measured or seen by the human eye, but with properties that could be deduced by observing physical phenomena such as mountains, crevices, and tides. The concepts of inductive and deductive reasoning, proposed by the French philosopher RenÚ Descartes, helped make possible scientific propositions about unseen phenomena by such men as Athanasius Kircher whose Mundus Subterraneus (1664) was a study of the subterranean world.

Map of Utopia Map of Utopia, from Sir Thomas More, Utopia, 1518.

Imaginary Places

. . . as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

Thus Shakespeare has Theseus describe the act of poetic creation in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The degree to which mapping became a habit of thought in early modern Europe is evident in the various attempts to render imaginary places cartographically; literally, to give "to airy nothing/A local habitation and a name." These places range from the moral geography of Good and Evil represented in an early English morality play and a Dutch emblem book, to the ideal communist state of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, and the amorous/political landscape of a seventeenth-century romance. The implements of cartography—compasses, maps, globes—were also used by poets to enrich their imagery. John Donne imagines his lover’s face reflected in his tears as he leaves her:

On a round ball
A workman that hath copies by, can lay
An Europe, Afrique, and an Asia,
And quickly make that, which was nothing, All,
So doth each teare,
Which thee doth weare,
A globe, yea world by that impression grow.

The Secrets of Perspective

Two Florentine architects, Filippo Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti, pioneered the influential system known as "scientific linear perspective," described by Antonio Manetti as "the good and systematic diminution or enlargement, as it appears to men’s eyes, of objects that are respectively remote or close at hand. . .to the size they seem to be from a distance, corresponding with their greater or lesser remoteness." Such perspective projections were directed at the eye of the beholder. They assumed, as Alberti wrote, that "man was by nature constituted the observer and manager of things." Perspective, therefore, provided a readily intelligible method for representing the world for the dominating gaze of man. Its significance for projecting space onto flat surfaces made it useful to art and to cartography. Over the course of the fifteenth through the seventeenth century, publications by artists, mathematicians, architects, engineers, jewelers, and humanist scholars disseminated this system extensively.

Drayton title page

Embodying the Map

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 humours onto the human body. Later, Leonardo da Vinci’s famous drawing of an outstretched body within a circle shows man as the measure of all things. 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 entreÚ 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.

figure from G. Reisch

Figure from G. Reisch, Margarita Philosophica, 1503.

Mapping the Body

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 scientifically "modern." Typical of earlier images is the woodcut of a male figure included by the Carthusian prior Gregor Reisch in his little encyclopedic compendium, Margarita Philosophica, first published in 1486. 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."