Before GPS technologies enabled us to know our location at all times, we often carried maps around with us to chart where we were when moving about cities. The city-plan map, which takes an omniscient position and focuses on transit corridors like streets and waterways, only became popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Before the city plan, the most frequent mode of picturing urban areas was the bird’s-eye view, the perspectivally oriented rendering of a city in both plan and elevation, often featuring oversize landmarks (a cathedral, the city hall, the most recent fortifications) and combining elements of cartography, figural art, and storytelling in a single image, often spread over multiple printed sheets.
The Folger’s marvelous c. 1574 print of London is a typical example of an early modern bird’s-eye view, one of 363 views of cities, fortresses, and castles included in the six volumes of Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg’s Civitates orbis terrarum published between 1572 and 1619. Spread across two pages (with the reverse bearing a text about the place in French, indicating it likely originated from the first French edition, published in 1575), this north-facing panorama contains certain recognizable structures (most notably “THE TOWRE” to the right) and many place-names that persist today (“Blak freres,” “Moor gate,” “Smyth Fyeld”). You could hardly use this view as a means of getting around—the street network is reduced to major thoroughfares, and some of the buildings and houses along those streets are generalized clusters that do not refer to specific structures you would find there. Instead, the view introduces the city, its primary fortifications and the river Thames, further identified by the coats of arms of London (upper right) and the House of Tudor (upper left). In the foreground, on an imaginary hill closer to the viewer’s position than to the city behind, is a fashionably dressed quartet, chatting sociably with their backs to the view.
The Folger collection is filled with such terrific bird’s-eye views of the early modern era, many of London, including several designed by the Prague-born engraver Wenceslaus Hollar of the mid-seventeenth century city not long before much of it would be consumed by flame in the Great Fire. In a portrayal of the Thames looking northwest (one series of seven low-lying views, of which the Folger has six), Hollar drifts along the steeply angled rooftops on the river’s south bank, above which rises the city’s commercial fleet, London Bridge, and again The Tower.
Even more impressive is Hollar’s c. 1660 sheet of a proposed building-by-building survey of the entire city, this section focused on the area around Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Covent Garden, and St. Giles in the Fields. The Folger has an especially rich collection of Hollar (some two thousand prints and drawings!), one of the many great viewmakers of the early modern era who moved between cartography and other graphic arts.
The project I am at work on during my fellowship period at the Folger concerns the nature of the bird’s-eye view as a mode of seeing. Even within these three views, there’s little unanimity to the mode, angle of approach, or visual language used to convey the urban spectacle, despite their aim of providing information and a frisson of delight for the armchair traveler. Through looking at maps, views, surveyor’s treatises and field notebooks, and firsthand chronicles of walking, wayfinding, and map use, I’m hoping to expand the range of our understanding of the idiosyncrasies of this way of picturing. My study, The View from Above: Bird’s-Eye Views and Spectacular Seeing in the Early Modern World, traces the bird’s-eye view from roughly the birth of print in the mid fifteenth century through the moment when modern plan-based maps took over, not coincidentally around the moment of the aerial experiments of the first balloonists—a group who achieved actual viewing from above, and made much of the comparison with what they had previously seen imagined in maps.
One strength of the Folger collection aiding my research is the library’s collection of surveyor’s texts. One example is the sixteenth-century physician and printer William Cuningham’s Cosmographical Glasse (London, 1559). In that book’s bird’s-eye view of Norwich, Cuningham himself appears in doctor’s robes in the foreground right, accompanied by a compass-wielding assistant, both leaning upon the instrument that aided the view’s creation.
This was a plane table, a frequently depicted (though notoriously scorned) tool that became popular in the mid sixteenth century. It was a level board upon which a piece of paper was inserted and a straight rule with sites (a detached alidade) was used to mark down angles of vision as the position of the surveyor moved. It could then be laid flat to make finished, though approximate, drawings upon it. Considered easy to operate, many mathematicians frowned upon it because of its inexactness. Praeterit Tempus, the label on Cuningham’s plane table, refers to Augustine’s Confessions (“When time is passing, it can be perceived and measured; but when it has passed, it cannot, since it is not”)—perhaps a reminder to the reader and viewer that every view is provisional, subject to the moment it is made rather than suggesting an eternally unchanging character.
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