Charting the World

History of Cartography

by Leo Bagrow, Translated from the German by D.L. Paisey, revised and enlarged by R.A. Skelton
Harvard, 312, and 138 plates pp., $19.95

This handsome volume is high, wide, and two inches thick. If the text were printed continuously without lists and illustrations, it would account for only 120 of these spacious pages. The two inches are due partly to heavy paper and generous half-titles, partly to extensive lists, and mainly to the wealth of illustration. For this is primarily a book of reproductions of old maps. Each of the 138 plates is page size or double, and many are in splendid color. In addition there are seventy-six figures in the text, and many of these fill a page apiece.

The most exotic things depicted are a Sumerian clay map of 3800 B. C., various Aztec, Egyptian, and Roman maps or near-maps, an intricately carved wooden chart from Greenland, and an abstract Micronesian sailing diagram of coconut fibre. Except perhaps for these latter two, the most recent map shown is a Manchurian one of 1760.

The oldest map shown that has a fairly mappish sort of look is a Roman road map of 500 A. D. Maps thenceforward into the thirteenth century, Arab and European, continue to reflect the darkness of the age. Study brightens them a little, as it doubtless does the age. There is a central mass which, with study, becomes recognizable from map to map as the Mediterranean. Sometimes the clue to it is the curve of Asia Minor. Sometimes this clue is lacking but there is instead the telltale give and take of Italy and the Adriatic, or a dead giveaway at Gibraltar. Lines are stylized, there having been little geographical information to constrain the draftsman’s hand.

Where information left off, what guided the line? Not only taste. There was a quest for the rational essence. A so-called T-O view of the world was long in vogue in Italy, representing the world as a disk divided by a transverse band into an upper or eastern part, Asia, and a lower or western part. This lower part was in turn divided by a vertical band into a right-hand quadrant. Africa, and a left-hand one, Europe. The two bands formed a T whose stem was the Mediterranean and whose bar was a fanciful rectification of the Black Sea, the Aegean, and the Nile. In its pure form this diagram was of course a departure even from known details, in the interest of schematism. In this form it was still turning up as late as 1495. But it is also detectable, softened and modified, as the underlying principle of several thirteenth-century efforts in England and Germany to map the known world with some richness of factual detail. The resulting maps were very much at odds with their subject matter.

But at Byzantium, in that same century, maps were suddenly forthcoming that were essentially right. One is shown of western Europe which, despite a strange promontory extending east from northern Scotland into Scandinavian waters, is recognizable at a glance. One is shown of the known world, by Agathodaemon, that is laudable in its…

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