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Reviewed by:
  • Cities of the World: A History in Maps
  • Albert J. Schmidt
Cities of the World: A History in Maps. By Peter Whitefield ( London: The British Library, 2005, 208 pp. £25).

Collecting maps, plans, and views of antique cities has long been a favorite pastime and even a venture for those with the means and expertise to undertake it. More recently urban history as a field of study has inserted itself into this process making city mapping a sophisticated field of scholarly endeavor. Whitefield's [End Page 764] Cities of the World, while in this mode, lacks the depth to be regarded as a truly pioneering work in city mapping. Consisting of an eighteen-page introduction on "The City in History", brief histories of some sixty-six select cities arranged alphabetically, and an amalgam of maps, plans, views, elevations and axonometric projections of buildings with accompanying map imagery—all from the British Library—this work does at least highlight the field's potential. Although time has robbed many of Whitefield's cities of their earlier and unique character, their panoramic harbor views, encircling ramparts, and geometrical shapes embellished by baroque edifices tell us rather dramatically the way things were in centuries past.

While of limited scope and therefore necessarily superficial, Whitefield's historical essays are uniformly well-written and a thoughtful read for the well-informed layman. That the author has been permitted to exercise free rein in adorning the introduction and each of the sixty odd city essays with visual accouterments, many of which are in vivid color, greatly enhances the work. Not only is the reader exposed to representations from, for example, Alexandria to Wùrzburg, Amsterdam to Washington, and Lhasa to Teotihuacan within the volume; but to Buondelmonte's colorful and intriguing print of Constantinople (1482) on the dust jacket in front and a black and white Woolcott & Clarke map of Sydney (1854) in back. Woensam's huge panorama of Cologne (1500) stretches across both pages of the endpapers in front and back; the title page features Stockholm, ca. 1720, by J. Homann. All, of course, are British Library holdings. Captions to the prints often contain crucial map details omitted in the city narratives.

The British Library press release, which accompanied review copies of Cities of the World, called Whitefield's work "the first book of its kind to trace their historic form and special character through maps and panoramic views produced over the centuries." All this is misleading: Whitefield's work is hardly the first time that the British Library has publicized its map collection. James Elliott's The City in Maps (The British Library, 1987 and cited by Whitefield in his bibliography) covered some of the same ground. Like Whitefield's, Elliott's (really an exhibition catalogue) also drew exclusively on the British Library Map collection, reproducing many of the same maps (colored versions of London, Constantinople, Amsterdam, Venice, Palmanova, Goa, and Bristol and black and whites of Strasbourg, Bristol, St. Petersburg, Savannah, and Bath) that appear in Whitefield.

Querying claims of originality for Whitefield's work involves more than citing Elliott's small paperback volume. Arguably, Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg pioneered the study of modern city mapping more than four centuries ago when between 1572-1617 they published in six volumes Civitates Orbis Terrarum. Although that work serves in many respects as a prototype for Whitefield's, many of Braun and Hogenberg's "cities of the world" engravings are prominently incorporated in it. More recently (2005), Gramercy Books (Random House) issued 100 Great Cities of the World. Although its glossy and catchy graphics and contemporary text dramatically distinguished this work from Whitefield, the durability of the "100 great cities" notion challenges any labeling of Whitefield as original.

Whitefield's is a lovely book, well written and beautifully illustrated. In substance [End Page 765] it rises above the so-called "coffee table" book; however, it falls short as a compelling scholarly work. The figure captions are a guide to what the work could be if maps were the author's focus; but they are not. It's the city, stupid! Even so, one misses Tokyo, Calcutta, Hong Kong, and Buenos Aires which, presumably...


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