Mapmaking as a human endeavour

As you’ve surely noticed, there are certain nautical and map-related themes and images on the Portolan Global website. Let me tell you a bit about them.

I explained in the first of John’s Musings where the term “portolan” comes from, but didn’t mention the logo and its origins.

If you do a search online for “portolan charts”, chances are you’ll come across several libraries and map dealers with original portolan maps dating back as far as the 14th century. My favourite (and I’m not alone) is the Atlas Catalan of 1375 by Abraham Cresques, which is in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. In particular, look at the beautifully portrayed wind rose, showing the sixteen important winds and their provenance.

The wind rose, which often looks like later depictions of a compass and its points, and the rhumb lines radiating from it showing wind directions, are often as attractive to the viewer as the other features of the portolan chart. Take a close-up look at some of the wind roses on other portolans. At a time when they represented the most accurate guide to harbours and coastlines a sea-faring pilot could have, some of them were also splendid artistic endeavours.

The Portolan Global logo is a stylized depiction of an early portolan wind rose – as I’m sure you’ve already realized. The cherubic “wind heads” on the website’s opening page are wonderfully fanciful artistic embellishments that you see on later woodcut and early printed maps of the late 15th and 16th centuries.

Let’s talk for a moment about maps and mapmaking – not only as an artistic endeavour and a voyage sometimes into the wildest realms of imagination, especially in describing parts of the world then unknown. But maps and mapmaking also as a social endeavour, an early form of artisanal division of labour transitioning to early business practice.

Think of how these antique printed maps came into being and the sequence of activities needed to bring them to life.

A voyager or traveller of the day see things, records them somehow (ship’s logs, diaries, drawings and so forth). Stories are heard upon their return, stories pass on, tales emerge of places unknown, heroic journeys of exploration.

These epic accounts, often heavily sprinkled with imagination and speculation, comes to the attention of a cartographer, sitting at a desk, enclosed by four walls. His job is to transfer this new, exciting information onto a sheet of paper. In rendering the world from three to two-dimensions, he seeks to depict a world “out there” so it can be viewed while being literally held in one’s hand.

He considers proportions, projections, scale, compass bearings, latitude (longitude came much later). What will be the mathematical equations he will use to transfer spatial relations onto the page?

Sometimes he gives over to his imagination and invents things or dreams of what might be. New habitations, cities with names even, improvised islands – well, who is going to contradict him if no one else has been there?

He now takes his work to the wood cut producer, an artisan who carefully removes bits of wood away from a block, using the intaglio technique, to ready the drawing for printing. As wood cuts give way to copper plates, the engraver emerges, utilizing a sharp-edged instrument (burin) to carve lines from the drawing into the soft metal. Other artisans will use different techniques involving etching and acids to transpose the drawing onto a printing surface.

The engraver also has latitude in his work – not just the north-south scale on the map, but also in its artistic portrayal. He creates borders, illustrates imagined local scenes, flora and fauna in the map’s margins. He embellishes the human as well as the cartographic aspects, complete with an elaborate cartouche dedicating the work to a royal or high-born patron.

And a patron is indeed needed to authorize the publication. We’re now entering the world of politics. Not everyone is allowed to make maps. They could be conveying dangerous information to foes, whether political or commercial. Too accurate a map can give away trading advantage.

Finally, a publisher – and a printer. Both needing business acumen, as they are the entrepreneurs of mapmaking. The publisher selects paper, style, materials, audience and, above all, obtains the licence to publish from the patron. He is the mid-wife to the map.

The printer executes through the printing guilds and techniques of the time. Each map, each page is printed singly, a page at a time. If the publisher binds them together – as was increasingly done starting in the early 1550s, we have the atlas.

Next time you look at an old map – just google “antique map dealers” – think of what you see on different levels: stories of exploration and unbelievable courage; factual information bumping up against artistic imagination; speculation tempered by newly invented instruments of measurement; artisanal skills and techniques in printing; entrepreneurial publishers seeking wider audiences for their increasingly large and elaborate atlases.

A human endeavour still fascinating in the telling.

1375 Atlas Catalan by Abraham Cresques