Brain Pickings

Magnificent Maps: Cartography as Power, Propaganda, and Art


What the feats of Marco Polo have to do with medieval political propaganda and the history of tea.

Three of my great fascinations — cartography as art, propaganda design, and antique maps — converge in Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art. The lavish tome collects cartographic curiosities from the golden age of display maps — the period between 1450 and 1800, when maps were as much a practical tool for navigation as they were works of art and affirmations of cultural hegemony or social status — culled from the formidable collection of the British Library.

Peter Barber, who heads the map collections at the British Library, and Tom Harper, BL’s Curator of Antiquarian Mapping, contextualize the maps with detailed descriptions of how and where they were used, from schoolrooms to bedchambers, and explore their parallel role as art and propaganda.

Fra Mauro World Map, 1450

This is an 1804 copy of perhaps the first ‘modern’ world map, made by the Venetian monk Fra Mauro in about 1450. It points south because 15th-century compasses were south-pointing. It shows the Portuguese discoveries in Africa and questioned the authority of medieval and classical sources. Intended for display in Venice, it emphasizes the feats of Marco Polo. The British East India Company commissioned this copy, thus implying that Britain was heir to the Portuguese empire.

The Americas by Diego Gutiérrez, 1562

This is a powerful celebration of Spain's New World Empire, beginning in the late 15th century. In the upper left-hand corner is the arms of King Philip II (reigned 1554-1598). In the sea, Philip appears on a chariot, riding through a turbulent Atlantic. The map aimed to strengthen Spain's political image in Europe and its claim to the Americas.

Psalter World Map (mappa mundi), 1265

Despite its small size, this is one of the ‘great’ medieval world maps. It is probably a copy of the lost map which adorned King Henry III's bedchamber in Westminster Palace from the mid-1230s. The original colors are intact. Showing east at the top, it is a visual encyclopedia, embracing ancient history, politics, scripture and ethnography as well as geography.

'The Island' by Stephen Walter, 2008

The Island satirizes the London-centric view of the English capital and its commuter towns as independent from the rest of the country. The artist, a Londoner with a love of his native city, offers up a huge range of local and personal information in words and symbols. Walter speaks in the dialect of today, focusing on what he deems interesting or mundane.

'Tea Revives the World' by MacDonald Gill, 1940

Commissioned by the International Tea Market Expansion Board, this map aimed to promote wartime strength, Allied resolve, and international trade during WWII through a celebration of Britain’s adopted national beverage and its pictorial history of tea.

Complementing Magnificent Maps is an interactive site from the British Library that lets you explore some of the maps with curatorial context.

For a related treat, see BBC’s fantastic The Beauty of Maps, which visits the British Library to explore five of the world’s most beautiful maps and their sociocultural context.

Images and captions courtesy of the British Library; thanks, Sonja

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