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THE MAPMAKERS’ WORLD: A Cultural History of the European World Map by Marjo T Nurminen

  • Written by  Nicholas Crane
  • Published in Books
THE MAPMAKERS’ WORLD: A Cultural History of the European World Map by Marjo T Nurminen
01 Feb
A few decades before the Battle of Hastings, a scribe in Canterbury began compiling a new world map

His world was square, with fat, red rivers and green mountains and an inland sea scattered with so many islands that it looked like a broken mosaic. Drawing on authorities such as ancient Rome, the Bible, Viking voyagers and Byzantine conquerors, the mapmaker filled-in the blanks with detail.

Half the world was subdivided into a rectilinear grid of Roman provinces dotted with walled cities, among them Constantinople, Carthage and Alexandria. Beyond the Taurus Mountains, a maned beast carried the caption ‘here lions abound’. Not far away, Noah’s Ark perched between the twin peaks of Ararat. The mapmaker’s own land appeared as a contorted, peripheral archipelago with two named cities: London and Winchester. Of the mapmaker himself, nothing is certain, but he knew enough of the world to have expressed its wonders in a picture of geographical beauty.

The Anglo-Saxon World Map features near the beginning of Marjo Nurminen’s thousand-year journey from the seventh to 17th centuries, an epic cartographic odyssey during which she explores how Europeans used maps to extend and re­ine their view of the world. It’s a story that includes painters, mathematicians and seafarers, as well as cartographers, and one that leads the reader from simple, early-Medieval ‘T and O’ maps in which a circular world was divided into three continents by a T-shaped ocean, towards the climactic 1600s when cartographers in Amsterdam began to reveal the beginnings of a new continent – Hollandia Nova – emerging from the mare oceanum beyond Asia.

This magnificent book is a monument to the effort and ingenuity that Europeans have devoted to understanding the wider world, a quest continuing to this day, and one that still relies on maps.

Europeans’ grasp of world geography evolved in ­its and starts and Nurminen is excellent in her coverage of the two main transitional episodes, both related to seafaring. The ­irst occurred in the Middle Ages, when Mediterranean traders began depending on sailing charts compiled from compass bearings. Portolan charts were the fruits of the ­irst systematic marine surveys. Drawn to scale, their meticulous measuring of coastlines made it possible to describe accurately the peripheries of landmasses. The oldest surviving portolan chart was prepared in the late 13th century and includes more than 1,000 place-names around the Mediterranean Sea. By the 1400s, portolans showed coasts as far north as Iceland and south to Canary Islands.

The second great transitional episode came with the Renaissance. The rediscovery of ancient texts and geographical coordinates were accompanied by a surge of technological breakthroughs. The conversion from printing on wood-block to copper-plate allowed vast amounts of geographical data to be compressed onto maps and globes because line-work and lettering could be miniaturised. A copper-plate was also relatively easy to edit, which gave mapmakers the opportunity to update their work as new discoveries became available. Meanwhile, advances in surveying made it possible to map entire territories in unprecedented detail.

Europeans’ grasp of world geography evolved in fits and starts and Nurminen gives back-room boys like the brilliant German mathematician and astronomer Petrus Apianus and the cosmographer Gemma Frisius several pages of well-deserved acclaim for pioneering work that opened the way for the Flemish cobbler’s son Gerard Mercator, who went on to ‘invent’ the atlas and to devise a world projection that is still in use today.

The last few years have produced a rich harvest of map books, so newcomers have to stand tall to win notice. The Mapmakers’ World delivers an ambitious thesis with style. Paper and printing are superb, and the enormous number of colour illustrations make this a many-layered work that includes rarely seen portraits of leading mapmakers, exquisite enlargements of map detail and expositions on the evolution of map-making techniques. I enjoyed being able to compare a medieval cosmography showing a pair of angels rotating the machina mundi using hand-cranks with the complex armillary sphere some 200 pages later by Apianus. This magnificent book is a monument to the effort and ingenuity that Europeans have devoted to understanding the wider world, a quest continuing to this day, and one that still relies on maps.

THE MAPMAKERS' WORLD: A Cultural History of the European World Map by Marjo T Nurminen, Pool of London Press; £50; hardback

This review was published in the February 2016 edition of Geographical.

Click here to purchase The Mapmakers’ World by Marjo T Nurminen

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