Magazine article Geographical

A History of the World in Twelve Maps

Magazine article Geographical

A History of the World in Twelve Maps

Article excerpt

A History of the World in Twelve Maps

by Jerry Brotton

Allen Lane, hb, 30 [pounds sterling]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In 2003, the US Library of Congress paid US$10million for the Waldseemuller map That could have bought an awful lot of books, but this 1507 rarity was believed to be the first map to name and show America as a separate continent; in other words, a geographical birth certificate. As Jerry Brotton's splendid new study reveals, the ability of world maps to capture the imagination and, indeed, to command exorbitant prices, is nothing new.

Representing a sphere on a sheet of paper (or computer screen) will always involve some degree of distortion. So a truly accurate map of the world will never be drawn. That's disappointing, but it doesn't rob such maps of any of their power and significance.

Throughout recorded human history, from ancient Babylon to the age of Goggle Earth, world maps' principal role has been cultural. They have been the ideal conduit for expressing different societies' religious, political and philosophical beliefs and aspirations. They reflected the world views that created them and, in turn, helped to refine and define them, resulting in what Brotton describes as 'an exceptional act of symbiotic alchemy'. World maps have always been talismans of cultural identity.

Brotton makes his point with 12 varied case studies. Sometimes, their pedagogical (even propagandist) purpose is dear No-one consulted the Hereford Mappa Mundi because they were planning a long-distance trip. They were after a visual sermon that encapsulated medieval Christianity's theological, historical (and even zoological) assumptions The Kangnido world map of 1402 was designed, first and foremost, to assert the legitimacy of a fledgling East Asian dynasty, and the maps produced in the 17th century Dutch Republic made no apology for stressing the independence and potential of a new nation.

Brotton devotes time to praising the achievements of the cartographers who produced these maps in terms of both their scientific and artistic accomplishments. But at every turn, he says, world maps were 'a series of ingenious arguments, creative propositions, [and] highly selective guides to the worlds they . …

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