Abraham Ortelius
Typus Orbis Terrarum
Antwerp, 1570 Private collection

Heinrich Bunting (1545-1606)
Die ganze welt (The whole world...) Magdeburg, 1581
Private collection

Diefert...Ptolemus Posuit
Strassburg, 1522
Private collection

Writing the Earth: 2,000 Years of Geography and Mapping

January 30, 2010 - May 2, 2010

Writing the Earth: 2,000 Years of Geography and Mapping features a selection of world maps that were printed between 1511 and 1800 and are on loan from a private collection. The show also includes a small group of maps from 1570 featuring the Americas.

Many maps are startlingly accurate; many are measures of the continuing professional progress of human ignorance. Among the most endearing qualities of any old map is the degree to which its errors vastly outnumber its truths. They are all a record - in line, graphic, color, and word - of the history of the Earth as its keener, commercially aggressive citizens understood it. Some of these maps appear precisely as they came off the press up to five centuries ago; some were hand-colored then; some were hand-colored later, a few were never colored.

They are drawn on a wide variety of projections - ranging from those scientifically prescribed by Ptolemy and those honoring God and religion to absolute fantasies - each projection shaped according to the geographic trend of the day or the whim of the cartographer. Above all, these maps are pages in a wonderfully diverse, often confused, but always beautiful humanist family album of snapshots of our ever-changing world over the past half millennium.

Between 500 and 600 years ago, three European humanist “earthquakes” shook the globe, helping to create “The Renaissance” and opening a new chapter in history:

  • the early 15th-century translations of pre-Christian Greek works including Ptolemy’s Geographia into Latin,
  • the rapid expansion of movable-type printing, and
  • European voyages of discovery.

Together, these events sparked a revolution in European culture and knowledge.

Suddenly, volumes of science, travel, exploration, history, geography, and cosmology could be produced and purchased by wealthy citizens for their private libraries. Most publishers of maps and atlases functioned not as originators of cartography but as editors of masses of data pouring in from far-flung sources. Few publishers ever ventured forth to verify cartographic information; fewer ever went to sea. As a result, they relied on mariners’ inaccurate measurements, explorers’ dubious impressions, naturalists’ fallible observations, artists’ hasty sketches, tantalizing rumors, bits of innuendo, and not a few outright lies. These are the qualities that now, five centuries later, give an antique world map its irresistible charm.

The exhibition is supported by the Charles M. and Deborah G. Royce Exhibition Fund.