If animals are not only bons à manger but also bons à penser (good to eat, good to think with), according to the celebrated dictum of Claude Lévi-Strauss, then monsters, while perhaps less inviting to the palate, make even better food for thought. Themselves the direct and fanciful products of attempts to understand phenomena, they appear in a wonderful variety of forms on the maps drawn up by medieval and Renaissance cartographers, as Joseph Nigg and Chet van Duzer show in two resplendently illustrated and thoughtful recent studies. Scylla and Charybdis, sea serpents and pristers offer a range of explanations for natural phenomena, such as whirlpools and reefs; indeed the abundant stories that Homer and Ovid tell draw up a wonderful narrative geography as much as a mythical history.
In February 2013, the Museum of the City of New York sent out a broad invitation, to both amateurs and professionals, to submit images of Hurricane Sandy—photographs snapped on cell phones, film, digital cameras or whatever else happened to be at hand. Culled from these submissions is the exhibition ”Rising Waters,” and it confirms an impression I had in the days and weeks after the storm: that still photographs and written language, both imbibed in silence, convey the spirit of the catastrophe more truthfully than moving images.
“Measuring and Mapping Space,” at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World through January, aims to explain how Greeks and Romans thought of the world around them, and how these beliefs were in turn represented in maps, globes, and even coins and pottery. Unfortunately, though a number of ancient geographical treatises still exist today, almost no actual maps have survived. But the show’s curator, Roberta Casagrande-Kim, has dealt with this brilliantly. By displaying, among much else, a striking collection of illustrated Renaissance manuscripts on geography and cosmology—themselves reconstructions of the work of classical geographers like Ptolemy—the exhibition manages at once to suggest not just what ancient maps may have looked like, but how ancient geography influenced modern notions of topography and geography.
The warring life of the Northern Plains tribes that resisted white invasion in the 1860s is the subject of A Lakota War Book from the Little Bighorn: The Pictographic “Autobiography of Half Moon.” The book is a collection of seventy-seven Lakota and Cheyenne drawings, accompanied by extensive analysis and commentary by the social anthropologist Castle McLaughlin. It will be published next year by Harvard’s Houghton Library, where the drawings were stored but little noticed for eighty years. What sets these drawings apart from others of their kind is the persuasive argument made by McLaughlin that most of the drawings, and the book as a whole, represent an Indian account of episodes during the conflict known as “Red Cloud’s War” (1866–1868), and that it may be possible to identify three of the artists.