I’ve been spending time in the map room of the British Library recently, trying to understand the main historical points to do with the emergence of modern “scientific” map-making in Europe. Maps are physically unwieldy, and their unwieldiness is an important, yet sometimes overlooked aspect in this history.
This rather fine folio from the English edition of Abraham Ortelius’s Theatrum Orbis Terarum – the first atlas – for example, gives us an insight into his thinking about why, in 1570, he had had this new-fangled idea of putting a collection of maps together into a book:
“There are many”, Ortelius says, “that are much delighted with Geography or Chorography, and especially with Mappes or Tables containing the Plotts and Descriptions of Countreys, such as there are many now adayes extant and everywhere to be Sold, But because they have either not that, that should buy them, or if they have so much as they are worth, yet they neglect them, neither do they anyway satisfy them”.
In other words, only the very wealthy could afford the maps on which the far-flung New World was being recorded at this time, and the gentlefolk of sixteenth century Antwerp were either too poor, or too mean, to buy them.
Ortelius goes on:
“Others there are who when they have that which will but them would very willingly lay out the money, were it not by reason of the narrownesse of the Roomes and places, broad and large Mappes cannot be so open’d or spread so that everything in them may be easily and well be seen and disceren’d”.
Maps, in other words, were simply too big for people’s houses.
This preamble gives a nice insight into Ortelius’s motivation for inventing the atlas, while at the same time providing a snapshot of early publisher advertising strategies.
But what is really interesting about this folio however is the way Ortelius introduces the idea that in order to understand history, we must understand the place in which it happens:
for the understanding of [Histories] aright, the knowledge of Geography, which, in that respect is therefore of some – and not without just cause called The eye of History.
This statement marks a critical shift in the perception of the past. Whereas before it was taken that you could only understand, for example, the Roman world by reading Livy or Polybius; or to understand the Greek world you would have to read Thucydides or Herodotus. Ortelius’s phrase is an explicit recognition that the events these authors describe happen in place, and that understanding of that place (through the visual affordances of cartography) is integral part of the interpretation of history itself.