Old maps: stories in cartography

Maps from centuries past served a dual purpose. They had a practical use as guides for explorers and navigators. But maps also highlighted places unknown to populations curious about what lay beyond their shores. Daniel Crouch specialises in antique maps, atlases and sea charts. He founded his company Daniel Crouch Rare Books in 2011 and has a collection of some of the world’s oldest and rarest maps. Crouch says: “People have a fascination in exploration and discovery. Maps are not only beautiful works of art but scientifically fascinating and historically interesting.”

Crouch talks us through some stunning examples of cartography and tells us the stories behind them.

Martin Waldseemüller’s modern world map was the first to depict the New World, according to Daniel Crouch. It also represents the vast majority of Asia, Africa and Europe. Crouch says: “The map shows the islands of Hispaniola (Haiti and Dominican Republic) and Isabella (Cuba). It also shows Brazil and the top of South America.” Waldseemüller’s 1513 plan dates just after Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the New World in 1492 when the explorer discovered these islands. “This map is astonishingly accurate given that it was only 20 years after Columbus made landfall. But nothing we recognise of North America today appears on it at all.”

Bernardus Sylvanus’ striking heart-shaped map was the first in the western world to depict Japan. “It comes in its shape because of the problems in showing a spherical world on a single plane,” Crouch says. Several cartographers also used the heart-shaped style, known as a cordiform projection, throughout the 16th century.

Many maps like Sylvanus’ were based on the work of Greco-Roman scholar Claudius Ptolemy. They feature 12 winds around the edges because the ancient Mediterranean world used these classical compass winds as a system of direction and orientation.

Giovani Cimerlino’s ‘Cosmographia’ adopts the cordiform projection with unusually large margins dressed in Renaissance composition. Androgynes flank the top half while winged male children known as putti border the bottom.

The cordiform projection was just an alternative way of mapping the world, Crouch says.
Cartographer Gerardus Mercator’s solution for conveying a spherical world is the one we conventionally see today. “The Mercator projection is the one we’re most familiar with today although it’s just one other way of doing it. You can never do it properly,” Crouch says.

Lucas Janszoon Waghenaer’s sea chart covers Europe, western Mediterranean and much of North Africa. It is thought to be the earliest sea chart depicting these regions. Details such as sea monsters, sailing ships and coats of arms fill the display. The navigation strips stemming from the compasses are called rhumb lines. Crouch says: “Those lines were drawn on maps by early navigators for sailing on one particular course. Navigators wanted them because they were familiar. Rhumb lines became regular features of sea charts without having any real practical use. They simply denote it as a sea chart.”

This atlas dating back to 1482 is worth £750,000. It was the first to be printed outside Italy. The ‘Cosmographia’ was also the first atlas illustrated with woodcut maps, a form of printing dating back to 8th-century China whereby plans were engraved on a block of wood.

Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg’s ‘Civitates Orbis Terrarus’ atlas attempts to present an account of all major cities and settlements for the first time. It uses a combination of two-dimensional plans, three-dimensional views and bird’s eye perspective. The maps also depict citizens of these places, from London’s rich merchants to Russia’s Cossacks.

A plan of London shows the capital to be vastly different but there are many recognisable features. The Tower of London and the River Thames immediately stand out. St Paul’s Cathedral lies towards the centre. But the map also demarcates areas such as Temple, Moorgate and Blackfriars. Spitalfields can be seen in the upper right – the 16th century was a time when the area was merely a field.

All featured maps available at Daniel Crouch Rare Books

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