The Washington Post Sunday
Cartography’s march with history
When Apollo 8 launched Dec. 21, 1968, the first manned flight to leave low Earth orbit gave its astronauts an unprecedented view: the entire planet. It’s strange to think that only 50 years have passed since humans were first able to see the whole globe, especially considering how long they have been drawing maps.
In his gorgeous book, “Theater of the World,” Thomas Reinertsen Berg provides dozens of full-color maps along with fascinating details about the history of attempts to represent geographical space. Early maps — including one carved into a mammoth tusk nearly 38,000 years ago — focused on the heavens, the one area for which early mapmakers had a long-range view.
But humans eventually turned their attention to the land beneath their feet. Ancient Greeks, including Ptolemy, a renowned mapmaker and astronomer who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, created images that reflected increased knowledge of far-off lands. During the Middle Ages, clerics and cartographers tried to locate such biblical sites as the Tower of Babel and the Garden of Eden. “The question of where to place paradise became more problematic for cartographers as the Far East became better known — not least after The Travels of Marco Polo was published around the year 1300,” Berg writes. “Some started to draw Eden in southern Africa, which was still largely unknown.”
The first map to depict America as a separate continent — and the first to call it “America” — was created by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller in 1507. In 2001, the Library of Congress reached an agreement to acquire the only known copy of the map, deemed “America’s birth certificate,” for $10 million.
As the Age of Exploration dawned, cartographers used information gleaned from long journeys to supplement the knowledge inherited from their forebears to create more ambitious maps.
Berg has a fascinating chapter on the creation of the first atlas, assembled by Abraham Ortelius and published in Antwerp (in what today is Belgium) in 1570. Ortelius drew upon the work of 89 cartographers to create 69 uncolored maps.
The resulting Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theater of the World) has a frontispiece that depicts the known continents as allegorical female figures.
“At the top, Europe sits on a throne, wearing a crown,” and she holds an orb with a cross, “as she’s responsible,” Berg says “for bringing Christianity to the world. Asia is “clothed in noble robes,” he says, “but she wears a tiara rather than a crown and is subordinate to the European queen.” Africa, also subordinate to Europe, is “more sparsely clad and wearing a halo inspired by the sun to emphasize the heat.”
At the bottom, America, only recently discovered and named, is depicted, Berg says, “as primitive, cannibalistic . . . holding a European man’s head in her hand.” Next to America is a bust that represents “Terra australis nondum cognita” — a “southern land not yet known.”
The inclusion of a quotation from Cicero — “For what human affairs can seem important to a man who keeps all eternity before his eyes and knows the vastness of the universe?” — provides “a glimpse of the deeper meaning Ortelius saw in cartography,” Berg says.
Berg’s book goes well beyond the creation of the first atlas. He offers fascinating trivia, from the deadly repercussions of dabbling in cartography in ancient Rome — “any private person found to have created a world map was assumed to be plotting against the emperor,” Berg writes — to the plagiarism that plagued the business in the 1500s and 1600s, leading some cartographers to intentionally insert errors into their maps in order to sniff out copycats. He also revisits political conflicts related to maps, such as the reaction of Charles V of Spain to a map of Flanders with “clear nationalistic undertones.” Charles paid the region a visit, at which point heads literally rolled.
Berg makes a strong case that maps served many purposes beyond representing geographical space.
Readers can expect to spend happy hours with this book, tracing routes and reading reports of adventuring navigators.