Changing perspectives

On the development of city maps in Blaeu’s Stedeboek van Italië 

Everybody who has ever felt the panic of driving through an unfamiliar city, with an enormous, unfolded city map on the passenger seat, knows the great value of maps and our modern day navigation system. But in past times, maps would have been of little use if you wanted to find your way around a city. For a long time, urban maps tended to be figurative depictions; artworks of the city. These maps centered around symbolical representations wherein major sights were highlighted and foregrounded, while less important information was left out. Until the end of the medieval period, most city maps were therefore little more than artistic drawings of monuments and important buildings within city walls.

Change came with the advent of the Renaissance in the form of new Latin translations of texts from the second century Greek scholar Ptolemy. His works on geography and cartography led 15th century cartographers to develop a new kind of map: the perspective map. Cities where shown as an urban panorama, as if the observer stood on an elevated point, overlooking the city. Although this style can be seen as a step towards our modern maps, cartographers using it still presented the truth in a subjective, figurative style, and did not aim for the most precise depiction of the cities.

This preference of artistic and figurative elements over objective representations can be easily understood from the fact that these maps were primarily designed as consumer goods. They were books that were to do well on the markets, not as works to further intellectual progress. Even master mapmakers like Joan Blaeu, arguably the most skilled of his time, left out information to make room for important buildings, or even to depict entire armies fighting their historic battles. Sacrificing accuracy for beauty, Blaeu created staggeringly detailed maps, like those of Rome and Naples (see images above and below), in his three volumes thick Stedeboek van Italië, depicting all the major cities of Italy.

A changing perspective
Even though Blaeu’s maps were unmatched in their beauty, additions to his Stedeboek van Italië show a spectacular change. Pieter Mortier’s 1704 edition of Northern Italy is the clearest example of this. Mortier, who published all three volumes, used Blaeu’s original prints for the other parts of Italy. But since the edition of Northern Italy was incomplete, he had to add a significant amount of new maps for this book. Although a lot of these maps were of lesser quality than those of the master-cartographer Blaeu, they do show clear signs of a change in cartography. Slowly lines and empty geometrical shapes start to take the place of drawings of entire buildings (see image below).

Only the most important buildings are drawn, the rest is completely left out.
And not only did mathematically accurate representations replace figurative resemblances, the perspective on the city itself changed too. Steadily the viewpoint creeps upwards, eventually showing the city from a vertical angle, just like we consider normal in our modern maps (see image below).

Not only can you see Turin as panorama, it is also depicted from above.
Not only Mortier’s maps show this shift, it can be seen in almost all maps at the turn of the century. In a short timespan around the year 1700, the old mode of representation suddenly fell out of favor. But even though this style, the so-called ichnographic style, was a novel way of depicting cities, it was by no means new for large maps of regions and countries. This can be seen from the fact that Blaeu too uses this style to show Italy as a whole (see image below). The difference in representational styles between small scale maps, also known as chorography, and the larger geographic maps, came into being under the influence of Ptolemy’s texts. He regarded the former as qualitative maps that needed a symbolic, figurative style, while he saw the latter as quantitative maps, in need of measurement and objectivity. Whereas this distinction is still clearly visible in the other parts of Mortiers 1704 edition of the Stedenboek van Italië, in the maps concerning Northern Italy, this difference between quantitative and qualitative representation slowly disappears.

Blaeu's map of Italy.
The origins of change
This paradigm shift amongst chorographers is usually thought of to be simply the result of a changing scientific view that occurred during the Enlightenment. But this isn’t a satisfactory explanation regarding cartography because the first ichnographic maps were already created in the 15th century. The most famous of these early ichnographic maps was made by none other than Leonardo da Vinci himself. Leonardo drew a map of the defenses of the city Imola in 1502, showing nothing but lines that represented the buildings and the outlines of the fort. Blaeu too drew ichnographic maps. And, just like Leonardo, Blaeu reserved this style for the depiction of fortresses and defensive post. But if ichnographic maps were not an 18th century invention, why then did all cartographers suddenly adopted it around the year 1700?

One simple explanation for this lies in the fact that techniques improved. For old map-makers, a perfect, objective map was simply too time intensive to make. Another explanation can be found in a changing demand. New social groups like architects and bureaucrats became interested in city maps too. Their demand differed from that of previous buyers in that they wanted workable representations of cities. Therefore, mapmakers functionalized their maps.

The final explanation for the paradigm shift amongst 18th century mapmakers can be found in a change in the way knowledge was structured. The transformation of the perspective map into the ichnographic map, fits perfectly into Michel Foucault’s theory of the development of knowledge during this period. Foucault claims that knowledge in the Renaissance was structured around resemblance, just like Blaeu’s maps resembled cities and did not give perfectly measured depictions of it. In the period of the Enlightenment, this changes: knowledge becomes structured around representation. The rise of ichnographic maps, wherein the city is represented by representative forms, shows this change. In these maps, shapes no longer resemble buildings, they only represent them and their position in the city (see image below).

An ichnographic map in Mortiers 1704 edition of Northern Italy.
Therefore, Mortier’s edition of Blaeu’s Stedeboek can be seen as a transitional work, wherein figurative city panoramas were replaced by accurate urban representations from above. These beautiful works had one leg firmly in the early modern tradition, while the other stepped towards an enlightened future. Albert van Wijngaarden

Joan Blaeu [Het Nieuwe Stede Boek van geheel Italie] Het Nieuwe Stede Boek van Italie, ofte naauwkeurige beschryving van allen deszelfs steden, paleyzen, kerken, &c. Nevens de Land-Kaarten van alle deszelfs Provincien. (imp. 'T Amsterdam. Door den Arbeid van Pieter Mortier, Boekverkooper. M D C C IV-V. Met Privilegie.)
4 parts in 3 Volumes:
I: Het Eerste Deel. Inhoudende, Lombardye, te weeten, de Republyk van Genua. De Hertogdommen van Milane, Parma, Modena, en Mantua. De Republyk van Venetie, Luka, En het Groot Hertogdom van Toskane.
2°, 4 - 22 - 78 engravings
II: Het Tweede Deel. Inhoudende, den Kerkelyken Staat.
2°, 14 - 75 engravings
III: Het Derde Deel. Inhoudende, het Koninkrijk van Napels en van Sicilie.
2°, 12 - 37 engravings
IV: Het Vierde Deel. Inhoudende, De Amphitheaters, Theaters, Schouwburge, Zegenboogen, Tempels, Piramide, Graafstede, Obeliscus, Kerken, Paleizen, &c.
2°, 17 - 79 engravings
Rome, Library Koninklijk Nederlands Instituut Rome, DR140 - 142

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          Architectural Historians. 35,1 (1976) : 35-50. Print.
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