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Contemplating the Art of Cartography

By Mary Ann Cunningham
Mary Clark Rockefeller Assistant Professor of Geography

Cartography is one of my favorite subjects to teach because people love maps. Like all good documents and works of art, maps hide layers of meaning that invite discovery and interpretation. Many of us enjoy perusing historical maps because of their quaintly amusing errors or because of their splendid ornamentation. They reflect a distant, very different time. But for a teacher of cartography, one of the most intriguing things about historical maps is that while they appear so different, their uses, and their readers, have not necessarily changed much from 1507 to 2007.

Early in a semester of Cartography, I show students a number of maps from the Golden Age of map making, mostly in the Low Countries, mostly after 1492, and I ask the students to describe the purpose of the maps. Knowing these maps come from the age of discovery and exploration, the students are quick say these documents were used for navigation and trade. After this list of about two items, we usually run dry of ideas. I often wonder at this short list, because the discussion follows a delightful session of admiring elegantly designed, amusingly detailed documents. We have examined elaborate, unctuous cartouches, toothy sea monsters, zephyrs and deities marking the cardinal directions, enthroned Britannias surrounded by fertile, bare-breasted Asias and Americas. We have admired the heft of the volumes, the pedantic and fanciful descriptions of foreign lands, block-printed in Latin, German, Italian, French, or Greek. Not one of these maps would serve the simplest navigational purposes. Most are printed in the language of scholars, not of sailors. None would get a trader home from the Spice Islands or the West Indies. The hand-colored pages are stiff in their heavy binding, the scales are coarse, the compass roses are as much ornamental as accurate. Yet we justify these expensive objects in utilitarian terms: navigation, capital exchange. After all, maps are utilitarian items. We make maps to get around, or to study enough capes, bays, and place names to facilitate getting around. Contemplation, curiosity, and fancy are trivial, insufficiently pragmatic to justify the production of documents like these.

Part of the reason we assume that maps are utilitarian may be that today they present themselves that way. The ornate flourishes are gone from modern maps, replaced by plain text, simple borders, and matter-of-fact legends. But most historical maps are reference maps. They show the dimensions and locations of places, general information about site and situation of features. Similarly, our modern maps are mostly reference maps, used for learning, or contemplating, the relationships of things. Relatively few modern maps are about just getting around—with the exception of state road maps. Like map collectors of the sixteenth century, we keep massive, ungainly atlases on the coffee table or lying sideways in the bookshelf. We put framed maps on our walls. (We also spend hours gazing at Google Earth, just because we can.) Although today's maps are presented as rational and utilitarian, not works of art or fancy, we probably peruse them and study them in the same ways a reader of the Blaeus and Janssons and Mercators did. Maps and atlases, in 1507 and in 2007, have persistent appeal because they support the necessity of memorizing capitals and continents but also the idle pursuits of contemplating foreign landscapes and landforms. They invoke the familiarity of home and the romance of travel. They give place to history, politics, and culture. They contain our metaphors and mythologies of the world. While the nature of mapmaking has transformed almost completely in 500 years, the nature of map use, and of map users, has changed little. 

Mythology and ideology

Maps intrigue not just because they show what is there, but because they express what we believe. In 1500, when cosmology was a subject of theoretical and philosophical ferment, a mapmaker had to commit to one or another theory of the earth's size and configuration. Was the earth small, as argued by Ptolemy, or large, as calculated by Eratosthenes? How many fabled north Atlantic islands were there, and how many continents? (The flat earth, incidentally, provided a valuable metaphor for biblical doctrine, but geographers and sailors had long understood that a globe represented the empirical world.) Ptolemy's estimates of a small earth, just three quarters its actual size, and of an Asia that nearly circled the large continents helped spur Columbus to undertake a westward journey to Asia in 1492. Not long before Columbus, what was known about climate came from Aristotle: south of the Mediterranean, the sea was boiling hot; north of Britain, it was a freezing slurry of impenetrable ice. Hence the latitudes were ominously labelled "zona torrida" and "zona frigida." Long after Columbus, the continents were still shaped by the theories of Ptolemy and Aristotle. The great antarctic continent, "Terra Australis Incognita" (or even more tantalizingly, "nondam cognita") had never been seen, but it was added to maps because it was necessary to create balance with the great northern continents. The North Pole, meanwhile, was a land mass symmetrically divided by four southward-draining rivers. Gerhard Mercator supported this theory in the sixteenth century, and Henry Hudson, in the seventeenth, sought to pass through this open arctic sea before he gave up and turned south in search of an easier route across North America.

Changing theories of geography appear throughout historical maps. California gradually appeared as a peninsula, transformed to an island, and then rejoined the mainland. The Atlantic coast of North America expanded from a simple isthmus that separated two oceans, as it was understood by the Florentine explorer Verrazzano in 1524 (Item 2), to a continental margin. The Northwest Passage dwindled from an extension of Hudson's Bay ("Button's bay" Item 9) to a thin, optimistic river reaching north of an unnamed mountain range (Item 12), then finally disappeared. The island of Japan (Zipangu, Item 2) shifted in orientation and proximity to China, and gradually subdivided into an archipelago. The Hudson River gradually found its headwaters in the newly emerging Adirondack mountains.

Shifting ideas of political, cultural, and economic geography are often more subtle but even more informative than theories of physical arrangement of things. Most obvious are symbolic images of power or written statements of territorial ownership. A simple, half-naked American nabob, rich with underutilized gold bars and baskets of grain (Item 8) makes clear that this is a land overflowing with wealth, just waiting for European conquest. Some territorial claims are stated plainly and pugnaciously: "the English Empire…representing their Rightful Claim as confirmed by Charters…likewise the Encroachments of the French…" (Item 11). Others are stated with more insidious confidence, such as the geometrically square counties set in the wilderness of central New York, or the unbounded statement of ownership designated by "McCombs Purchase" in the Adirondack region (Item 13). Cultural change is also evident in the tide of European names that replace native names across the continent's interior.

All these features in old maps are amusing, but they are not altogether different from the ways we use maps to embody and to confirm modern myths and ideologies. Maps of red states and blue states increasingly define our political discourse and political strategies, even though most of us know that a more accurate metaphor would be blue nodes in a red landscape—and that there is a little red and a little blue (and green and other colors) in most of us. While few of us pause to consider why we have territorial boundaries at the 49th parallel or at the Rio Grande, we readily accept the ways those boundaries delineate and explain basic differences in the nature of humanity, politics, economics, and rights. These imaginary lines, meanwhile define differences much more real and meaningful than the width of half the Pacific that separates California from Hawaii. Inset maps today collapse the distance to Hawaii and Alaska in a way that would have been inconceivable in the nineteenth century. Today, as in the sixteenth century, we use maps to explain and order the world, to help us understand and know it—if only in the context of our idiosyncratic cultural contexts.

Authority and Aesthetics

If we are to trust its message, a map must establish its credibility and authority. Authority is stated bluntly in the text and titles: Mercator proclaims his map to be the new depiction; Danckerts' claims to have the "Novissima et Accuratissima" depiction of all America; Samuel Lewis' 1795 map of New York is "Compiled from the best Authorities." Even more viscerally than these textual claims, though, ornamentation conveys the weight and seriousness of a map. Mercator decorates his corners with a firm shade of red and elegant gold flourishes. Fruits, flowers, and elaborately elegant script further build the map's importance. Blaeu's map, meanwhile, uses a simpler cartouche and square lettering, which lend an air of sobriety; yet delicate swags of blue still decorate a text box, and gold details still fill the spaces between the city maps, keeping the overall impression ornate. Authority is also invoked by figures and details adorning the margins: in the seventeenth century, mythic figures and deities, or architectural details of classical Greece and Egypt (Item 4), which connect the map to a body of classical scholarship. By the nineteenth century, these figures transmogrified into Washington and Franklin, who invoke the solidity of the new United States (Item 16). Reserved, neoclassical architectural details and calmly composed historic events both decorate and inform, while giving the map an air of erudition. Historical maps, then, show their gravity with gaudy flourishes in red and gold; modern maps show their sobriety with square edges, clean text, and simple borders, but design is used in both to convey the reliability of the work.

Decorative touches make a map delightful to look at, and they show that a piece is important, but they also help to keep the map reader's attention. They make the map a work of art, as well as of science, so the map comes to serve both aesthetic and intellectual purposes. The map needed to be true and accurate, but it also needed to be beautiful. By the eighteenth century, gilding and acanthus leaves were out of fashion. With neoclassical restraint, decorations became more subdued but were still prominent and still serving the same purposes, as in Rapkin's map of the United States (Item 16). Even the 1795 Lewis map of New York, a less important document than Mercator's or Blaeu's maps, has the elaborate title decoration—the remains of a cartouche in the age of enlightenment.

Today, we trust maps that convey empiricism, rationality, precision, and science. Baroque flourishes have receded in map making as they have in art, architecture, dress, and language. A modern cartographer cannot use the decorative visual grammar of centuries past, but unlike other arts, modern cartography cannot abandon aesthetics to focus on the intellectual enterprise. Maps today are presented as distant from art, as utilitarian and functional objects. Yet we still collect them in coffee-table atlases, and we still peruse them as we explore the world from an armchair. We still appreciate the map that contains elaborate details, usually in the form of detailed topography or finely delineated rivers, coastlines, or lettering. Maps still use aesthetic design and visual complexity to catch and hold the eye. Modern cartographers have found ways to make maps that are clean and aesthetically rich, even without classical ornamentation. As you peruse the modern pieces in this collection, note the colors, design, layout, and detail that make them attractive. As in historical maps, these details serve not only to hold the eye, they also gain our trust. Aesthetic elegance, whether simple and modern, neoclassical, or baroque, gives the document a sense of importance, of completeness, and thus of validity.


Historical maps are delightful because we can see in them the intellectual and cultural worlds that contrast to our own. These differences are exposed in the choices cartographers have made over time. Which groups of people are represented in a map, and for whom was it designed, and why? Is the map filled with familiar place names, or with those of a foreign people? Does the iconography suggest a warm and friendly frontier or a dangerous land of grim mountains and large carnivores? What references are invoked to lend authority to the cartographer and the map?

These differences are amusing because of their novelty, but they also help us discern some of the ways modern maps reflect and shape our understanding of the world. Maps define for us the nature of places, people, and territory. Aesthetics and design styles change, but still aesthetic design is used to convey the validity and authority of the map and its maker. In some maps, the power of classical deities, or emperors, enforces authority. In others, the length of the index, the sobriety of the lettering style, or the seal of the Department of Transportation conveys and legitimizes the work. Maps look more empirical and rational today, but we still use them to explore, to peruse, to frame our ideas of the world.

Vassar's library houses outstanding historical maps because generous alumnae and their families have admired old maps and wanted to share them with generations of scholars. Vassar's current students of cartography use these maps because they contain abundant layers of meaning that are both instructive and charming. If they were instructive but not charming, or vice versa, they would never have the persistent appeal that keeps our attention, and that makes maps so enjoyable to explore.