What’s in a map?

By Zoe Farrell  | @zoeffarrell

At first glance, a map is a simple entity. It is a tool through which towns and cities can be organised so that people can gain knowledge of places, roads, waterways and significant buildings. However, maps are often in fact complex objects of state building, propaganda and identity formation. J. B. Harley described cartography as ‘inherently rhetorical’ and it is exactly within this rhetoric that historians can search for clues to the past.

Maps themselves have a long history, with Ptolemy introducing mathematical rules to the production of maps in his Geographia in 150 AD. However, in Europe in the middle ages, maps were largely symbolic in nature, often depicting Jerusalem at the centre of the world and propagating religious ideals. The famous Mappae Mundi  were classic examples of medieval mapping, with the world divided up into various zones or land masses. These illustrative maps were not for the purpose of navigation, but rather they were meant to teach various ideologies and to highlight the centrality of European religion.

Psalter map (Londoner Psalterkarte): A map of the world, with Jerusalem at the centre and the monstrous races on the outermost edge. London BL: Additional Ms. 28681 fol-9r detail. East is on the top.

In the Renaissance, with the increased attention on classical learning and the invention of the printing press, maps were revolutionised. The ‘discovery’ of perspective in the world of art and architecture, as well as advances in geometry, allowed for the bird’s eye view to develop as a genre of mapping. The accuracy of maps subsequently became an important feature of their popularity as interest grew in the topography of different cities.

Editors seized on the opportunity to cater to this upsurge in interest. In the late sixteenth century, for example, Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg published six volumes of their Civitates Orbis Terrarum, containing 546 views of cities from across the globe. However, these new, more accurate maps were by no means purely representational.  In fact, Braun and Hogenberg’s maps were highly decorative works of art, and were ‘portraits’ of cities rather than guides. They were also imbued with symbolism. Their map of Verona, for example, foregrounds the city’s classical Arena, and has a plaque which associates the city with the Colonia Augusta. Verona was thus being presented as a city of important classical heritage, which was a point of pride and dignity.

Indeed, as maps became more literal, the scientific nature of the representation could itself be used as a sign of authority. As Harley points out, in the court of Louis XIV, Cassini’s seemingly accurate maps of the French territories were seen as signs of power. Not only did they highlight the extent of French lands, they also demonstrated the scientific advancement of the court. Maps were an ‘intellectual weapon,’ used by those in control to divide lands and to state their claim on the world.  

Behind every map is a cartographer, and behind every cartographer is a set of motivations, whether guided by those who commissioned the map, or by national pride or regional biases.  Modern day maps are seen largely as directional guides.  So have we come to the point where maps can be seen as devoid of power relations and political bias?

The answer, arguably, is no. In the case of the world map, nationalistic identities are often revealed by the foregrounding and enlarging of the country for whom the map is produced. The size of Britain relative to other countries, for example, is often misrepresented in world maps. Moreover, in an age of scientific representation of landscape, we can often learn more by what is not on the map than what is.  

Maps are never exact representations of the landscape. Even satellite imagery is not devoid of representational choices. Indeed, an article by the Huffington Post revealed that Google Earth pixelates areas that they do not want us to see – often military or government related facilities whose location is deemed too sensitive for public view. The creation of all maps necessarily involves decisions of what to include and what not to include. Whilst in some cases this is a matter of military strategy, in others it is as simple as whether to include one village or farmstead over another. Such omissions can reveal a visual language of hierarchy in even the most “scientific” of maps.

As a historical tool, the possibilities provided by maps are abundant. However, they should be treated as multi-layered sources, imbued with meaning that goes far beyond the representation of landscape. Whilst the nature of maps may have changed over the centuries, we must nevertheless still, as Harley contented, look not only ‘through the map at the world it depicts,’ but ‘inwards or backwards to its maker and outwards or forwards to its readers.’



2 thoughts on “What’s in a map?

  1. Spot on with this write-up, I absolutely believe that this website needs a great deal more attention. I’ll probably be returning to read through more, thanks for the info!

  2. In the revitalization, with the increased attention on classical learning and the invention of the printing press, maps were revolutionized.

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