Sunday, July 8, 2007

The Art of Antique World Maps

Since antiquity we have tried to make sense of the world around us. The development of charts and maps has echoed this desire as well as providing an insight into the knowledge possessed by humans at different times throughout history.

Given that maps in the past were very valuable objects, it is no surprise that they were treated in much the same way as art, as objects to be cherished by their owners. Over time items that were initially functional objects soon attracted the attention of skilled artists and draftsmen whose efforts reflected the growing importance of maps as not only useful objects but as works of art in their own right.

Until relatively recently our curiosity of the world around us outpaced our knowledge of geography. Early attempts at extending this knowledge were limited to oral tradition and based squarely on what people could see for themselves. This knowledge of a landscape and local environment, often combined with lore and myth, helped create “living maps” communicated from person to person and generation to generation.

The need for more reliable methods of communicating this local knowledge led to the development of topographical maps. These captured the salient elements of a terrain to more reliably record and pass on knowledge. These early maps tended to concentrate on the relationships between obvious topographical features, with little attention paid to true measurement or accuracy.

However these early attempts were successful in that they stored knowledge for future generations and, although inaccurate by the standards employed today, it did standardize the kind of knowledge passed between generations and helped sow the seeds for early cartography. They also offer historians a unique glimpse into the lives and preoccupations of these primitive societies.

Although maps and cartography continued to develop by the Middle Ages things had slowed down. During the Medieval era accuracy, and the desire to create realistic maps, declined. Philosophical thought was much more concentrated on religious matters, and this was reflected in maps. Many maps during this period had strong religious overtones, often warping the reality of geography to represent some religious bias – such as the Holy Land represented as the center of the earth.

By the 16th and 17th centuries however things began to change. With many European nations, in particular the Dutch and the British, taking to the high seas mapmaking became important.It is at this time we see maps moving beyond simple functionality to art. Although initially fulfilling a technical need the role of the cartographer soon developed along similar lines to other crafts. By the 17th century skilled cartographers were in great demand. This recognition of the profession soon gave rise to some leading lights who took cartography from drawing functional charts to creating unique works of art.

In addition many cartographers were accomplished draftsmen due to the nature of their profession, and often embellished their work with decorative details such as sea creatures and mythical gods. It was commonplace to see maps designed by Abraham Ortelius (1528 – 1598) or Petrus Plancius (1552 - 1622) decorated with elaborate pictorial detail.

A good example is Obis Terrae Compendiosa, designed by Dutch cartographer Jan Baptist Vrients (1552 - 1612), a successor to Abraham Ortelius. Like many maps of the day it is decorated with numerous details including symbolic figures at each corner, landscape vignettes and exotic animals and fauna from the far-off shores it represents.

One of the most famous examples is Typus orbis terrarum, designed by Abraham Ortelius. It is replete with an astonishing level of detail matched only by the breadth of its knowledge. Like many antique world maps dating from the period it reflects a perfect fusion of geographical knowledge and artistic endeavor.

Nowadays many people are looking to antique maps to add some charm and history to their home decor. With a vast array of options to choose from, including posters, prints and wall tapestries, there's never been a better time to appreciate these unique works of art.

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