March 28, 2019

The Most Wonderful Map in the World: Urbano Monte's Planisphere of 1587

At some point in 1589, a Milanese cartographer named Urbano Monte made up his mind: his self-portrait needed updating.

Monte carefully crouched over the section of his map that bore his self-portrait from two years earlier — close-cropped sandy hair, a trim beard, modest clothes — and pasted a new self-portrait over it. The resulting double self-portrait (Monte at 43, hidden beneath a new portrait of Monte at 45) testifies to the persistence of male pattern baldness throughout human history.

It also exemplifies Monte's astonishing attention to detail. The task he had set himself was to map every corner of the known world, not only showing cities, rivers and mountains, but giving warnings about monsters (beware the trickster spirits that lurk in Central Asian deserts) and wondrous beasts like unicorns.


If the two years that divide Monte's self-portraits seem to have led to some lost hair and added wrinkles, we can hardly blame him. Because in that time, Urbano Monte had been hard at work creating what, for my money, is the most fascinating and wonderful map ever made.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the map is the elaborate organizational schema of the 60 sheets that comprise it. Monte intended for each of these sheets to be assembled into a vast, 9-foot-square circular world map that had a markedly different projection than the more famous style that had been adopted by Mercator some two decades earlier. As an excellent recent essay about the map explains, Monte used an innovative "polar azimuthal projection; that is, a portrayal of the globe as radiating from a central North Pole, with the degrees of latitude shown at equidistant intervals."

A composite image of 42 sections of Monte's map "stitched" together, as originally intended. The center of the map is the North Pole.
And here it is in a more familiar projection:

Monte's map is quite impressive as a work of continental-scale cartography. He gets a lot of things right, relative to his sixteenth-century peers: California is not an island. Africa is fairly accurately delineated, and Europe and the Mediterranean are quite accurate. But that's not what makes the map unique. It's the fact that the enormous scale of Monte's vision gave him space to crowd his map not only with a tremendous amount of local cartographic detail, but with tiny illustrated figures (of demons, monsters, unicorns, and more), mini-maps of major cities, and highly eclectic captions.


Above all, Monte's was an ocean-oriented map. Ships of all description can be found criss-crossing his oceans. King Philip II of Spain himself — who, in his rule as Duke of Milan, was Monte's liege lord — makes an appearance on a ship of state off the coast of Brazil. He is offered a wreath by a mermaid ("here you are, magnanimous and sovereign King," reads a caption). King Philip holds a sphere of the world, mimicking the circular shape of the map itself. And at his side appears Atahualpa, the Inca Emperor, who offers a container of gold and a sphere labelled "Peru." In an accompanying caption, Atahualpa says, "When subject to me and to Satan, the New World was unhappy. Now that it is your's, it is more happy."

An English ship off the coast of South America. Sir Francis Drake raided several Spanish colonial cities in the Americas during 1585-6, the years when Monte was beginning work on his map. Given Drake's fame at the time, it's not inconceivable that Monte was thinking of him. 
However, my favorite details in the map are not at sea, but on land. Monte seems to have been fascinated with animal life, both real and mythical. In his map of West Africa, for instance, he makes sure to include animals like the pantera (panther) and vipera (viper.)


As well as this somewhat dismayed looking camel:


The most wonderful details of all, in my opinion, can be found in the section of the map dealing with northern Asia. Some of the details are fairly predictable, like the many tents and wagons indicating that many of the inhabitants of the region have a nomadic way of life.

Wagons and tents of "Tartars... who have no [fixed] habitation."
But others are incredibly odd, like the Mongolian unicorn frolicking next to a caption that appears to be claiming that the ten Lost Tribes of Israel live nearby ("dove sono diece Tribu d'Israel").


Nearby, in Manchuria, lurks the fearsome manticore, which a caption tells us "is an animal with the face  of a lady, the body of a lion, and the tail of a scorpion."


My favorite details of all, however, are the demons that lurk in the empty zones east of Persia and Turkestan. "In this desert there are spirits who deceive," states the caption next to the city of Lop in my (admittedly poor) attempted translation from the Italian. It seems to me like Monte was digesting Persian stories about the djinn and div who were reputed to trick desert travelers.


To round things out, here's a final aspect of the map I found fascinating: Monte's trading card-like portraits of what he evidently regarded as the eight leading monarchs of the earth. The list is interesting for who it leaves out. There's no Queen Elizabeth here, and no Emperor Akbar of India. In order, the list of monarchs features:
  1. "The Emperor of Turkey," Murad III.
  2. "The King of Spain and of the Indies," Philip II
  3. "The chief of Christians, the Pontifex Maximus," Pope Sixtus V.
  4. "The great Prester John, King of Great Ethiopia," mythical but perhaps in reference to Sarsa Dengel.
  5. "The King of Poland," presumably Stephen Báthory, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania.
  6. "The King of Portugal," as it happens, this was also Philip II of Spain during the 1580s! (For an explanation, begin here).
  7. "Matezuma who was King of Mexico and the Western Indies" - a fascinating detail.
  8. "[Holy] Roman Emperor," Rudolph II. Who was Philip II's nephew. Among other things, this map really demonstrates the degree to which the Spanish state dominated the world in the 1580s.



Personally, I think that this is the most visually compelling, detailed, and just plain interesting map I've ever seen. And I can't believe I had never heard of it until today. Thanks to the David Rumsey Map Collection for buying and making freely available one of only two known copies of the map, and thanks also to Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra for publicizing it via Facebook, which is how I came across these scans.

If you find any of this interesting, the best thing to do is to jump right into the map itself. You can find an overview from the map's owner and digitizer, the David Rumsey Map Collection, here.

Best of all, every section of the map is available to download in ultra high resolution here. There's even an interactive version of the map available to explore via Google Earth.


March 30 edit:  Jeremy Ashkenas has made his own zoomable version of the globe map here - it takes some time to load but is well worth a look.  

October 26, 2018

Seven Weeks to Venice: History Through Isochronic Maps

Detail of a 1921 map that visualizes its own accuracy: red regions are accurately mapped, orange less so, etc.

Historians love maps, but we don't always use them to their full potential. I'm as guilty of this as anyone; for my own book, I'm probably going to keep things cartographically simple, like most other academic historians. A few straightforward, black-and-white maps with labels for the key places mentioned in the book. Nothing innovative; just a practicality to help the reader.

Sometimes, however, historians manage to do something truly interesting with maps.

My favorite example has long been a series of maps by the French historian Fernand Braudel, featured in his first book The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. The history of the book itself is pretty fascinating in its own right: remarkably, Braudel managed to write much of it while he was in a Nazi prisoner of war camp in Lübeck, Germany, between 1942 and 1945.

Three of Braudel's maps from the book, which I've stitched together into a single GIF, brilliantly depict the time it took for a letter to reach Venice if it had been sent from a number of different cities: Moscow, Lisbon, Istanbul, and more.



Each line in the map depicts a week. So, for instance, in 1500 a letter sent from Antwerp to Venice would've taken three weeks to arrive; one from Lisbon would've taken around seven. An amazing amount of work went into these simple images: for each city in each time, Braudel was drawing on letters he'd found in his archival research. (If you want to study these maps more carefully, they've been digitized here.)

I didn't know the name for this type of map until recently. It turns out that they're called isochrone or isochronic maps. An isochrone is, according to Wikipedia, "a line drawn on a map connecting points at which something occurs or arrives at the same time."

They're not just brilliantly concise ways of conveying information - in my opinion, isochrone maps can also be incredibly beautiful. Sometimes they seem on the verge of becoming abstract art, like this 1882 map of the communication times between Paris and the rest of France:

E. Martin, "Carte des communications rapides entre Paris et le reste de la France," 1882, via the University of Chicago Map Collection.
Or this map of Melbourne train times:

“Minimum Railway or Tramway Time Zones,” 1910-1922, via the State Library of Victoria

There's something biological about these maps, which sometimes look more like cell cultures in a Petri dish than the stuff of atlases: it's as if they reveal the unthinking, unplanned, semi-random aggregate behaviors of huge numbers of humans. There's also something distinctively modern about such maps. They rely on large amounts of information, which needs to be at least somewhat accurate, and hence it wasn't really possible to make them until fairly recently. 


Francis Galton in 1893.

The creator of the first isochronic map appears to have been Francis Galton. He was Charles Darwin's cousin and colleague (here are some letters they sent to one another), and one of the founders of the concept of what came to be called "social Darwinism." His legacy is mixed, to put it mildly. Galton's advocacy for scientific racism and eugenics would, after his death, indirectly inspire Hitler. But he was also a pioneer in the field of data visualization: he invented the idea of composite portraiture and created some of the first systematic weather charts.

In 1881, Galton also published one of the first isochronic maps. 

Francis Galton, "Isochronic Passage Chart for Travellers," London, 1881.
The map was color-coded to show the expected travel time from London to anywhere on earth. Green areas could be reached in less than ten days, yellow in ten to twenty, pink in twenty to thirty, and so on. It was clearly a rough approximation, and I doubt that it was useful to many people on a practical level. But as a new way of thinking about data visualization, it was a breakthrough. 

One product of doing historical research is that you end up with vast amounts of metadata. That's what Braudel so shrewdly capitalized on with his Venetian letters map: anyone who works in historical archives for long will end up leafing aimlessly though stacks of letters sent by bureaucrats. Usually, when we do this, we're scanning for a specific bit of information or thematic element. 

But we also happen to be accessing all sorts of additional data in the process: when and where was the letter written, when it was received? Who read it, and what did they underline? Or even, how damaged is paper? What color is the ink? The answers to all of these questions, taken in aggregate, have the potential to tell us something new. 

Isochronic maps relating to travel times for humans and letters have been particularly popular with historians, because it's so easy to find archival documentation relating to the setting-off and arrival points of both. 

Here are two examples from the early United States, made by Allan Pred:


Thanks to Leon Jackson for sharing these with me.

And here's an attempt to update another isochronic map of global travel times, from the 1920s, with the estimated times in 2016:

Via Reddit user r2r_, originally posted in r/dataisbeautiful.
Another interesting example of the technique comes from a vintage map I own, a detail from which began this post. It depicts the state of English geographic knowledge of the earth in 1921, with high cartographic accuracy labelled in darker reds and lower accuracy shading into orange and yellow. Entirely unknown areas are in white; most of them seem to be in the Arctic Circle and the Sahara.


 I'm curious whether other forms of information that historians come across in archives could also be visualized in this way. One example that comes to mind from my own research in the history of drugs is  an isochronic map of travel times for important drugs: i.e., how long did it take for opium to travel from India to China in 1800? What about tea? Sugar? It would conceivably be possible to create such a thing using records relating to taxation and purchasing at different points. 

Or, perhaps isochrones could be based on  prices for drugs or other commodities: where are the boundaries between the prices of silver, say, or tobacco, at different time periods, and how do these differences flatten out as globalization accelerates? If you have any ideas for other interesting approaches to mapping history, please let me know in the comments.