- The Mapmakers' Quest: Depicting New Worlds in Renaissance Europe
For the past several decades historians of cartography have steered away from grand narratives. The paradigm that guided the general histories of cartography of the past — that the history of mapping is essentially concerned with the progress toward modern scientifically and mathematically-based cartographic practices [End Page 643] and an accurate and exhaustive map of the world — no longer holds sway. Contemporary scholarship emphasizes more nuanced and complex readings of mapping as a "human practice" with broad relevance to economic and political history, the history of art, literary history, anthropology, and, yes, the history of science. One could argue that the history of cartography is thriving as never before. Each year yields a dozen or so important new monographs on map history from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. The first truly encyclopedic work on the subject, The History of Cartography, launched by Brian Harley and David Woodward — both of whom have died too young — is about halfway towards completion. (The third of six contemplated "volumes," Cartography in Renaissance Europe, is at the press.)
Yet among the recent mountain of map scholarship there is precious little that effectively digests this mountain into readable general narratives suitable for scholarly and/or general audiences. Some recent exceptions include Evelyn Edson's masterful survey of medieval world maps, Mapping Time and Space (1997); Mark Warhus's fine general survey of American Indian mapping, Another America (1997); English Maps (1999), coauthored by Catherine Delano-Smith and Roger Kain; and Denis Cosgrove's Apollo's Eye (2003). To this list we may now add David Buisseret's ambitious exploration of the "cartographic revolution" of the Renaissance.
It will come as no surprise to Renaissance scholars who may be unfamiliar with the history of cartography that the period covered by Buisseret's book (roughly 1400–1800) is the three-hundred-pound gorilla of the history of cartography. Early modern cartography dominates the pages of general narratives. Even works attempting to be more culturally, geographically, or chronologically inclusive seem unable to avoid the Renaissance as a point of reference, of departure, or of closure. The traditional allure of the period as subject is easily explained by its association with the reintroduction of classical geographical and astronomical learning and the considerable role of mapping in geographical discovery and exploration. But, as Buisseret explains in his introduction, the subject is also irresistible to anyone who believes that mapping is a socially and culturally important human activity. From the moment he was introduced to the history of cartography he explains, "I was interested . . . by an apparently simple problem: why was it that there were so few maps in Europe in 1400, and yet so many by 1650?" (vii).
Though the answer to this question is not a simple one, it is told plainly and elegantly in Buisseret's characteristically natural style. In only 186 small, well-illustrated, and attractively laid out pages, Buisseret brings us into the modern period of intensive and ubiquitous map use effortlessly and efficiently, belying the depth and breadth of a lifetime of scholarship the book represents. Chapters 1 and 4 address the familiar themes of the revival of interest in Greek and Roman learning and the geographical, political, and economic expansion of Europe. Two other chapters concern relatively new but vigorous themes in the current literature: the relationship between cartography and painting (chapter 2) and the use of maps [End Page 644] by ruling elites (chapter 3). Two further chapters shed needed light on factors in the cartographic revolution that have been largely neglected: the increasingly intensive use and organization of mapping by the military (chapter 5) and the reorganization of rural and urban economies in Europe (chapter 6).
The Mapmaker's Quest provides the best summary available of Renaissance cartography for specialists and non-specialists alike. Some readers might quibble with the points and themes he chooses to emphasize. Buisseret almost offhandedly dismisses the importance of the...