Jerry Brotton – A History of the World in Twelve Maps

Brotton, Jerry (2012). A History of the World in Twelve Maps. London: Penguin. 2012. ISBN 9781846145704. Pagine 492. 23,04 €

A History of the World in Twelve Maps

Jerry Brotton è un giornalista dalla BBC e il libro (se capisco bene) è figlio di una serie televisiva, Maps: Power, Plunder and Possession.

Il libro mantiene esattamente quello che promette: i suoi dodici capitoli illustrano ciascuno una tappa nella storia della cartografia e un problema nella rappresentazione dello spazio (e del tempo). Il tutto scritto in modo piano e convincente e ricco di informazioni curiose (di una ho già parlato qui). Non resta che augurarsi che sia rapidamente tradotto in italiano.

Ecco le 12 mappe:

  1. La scienza e la Geografia di Tolomeo


  2. Lo scambio e il Sollazzo di Al-Idrisi


  3. La fede e il Mappamondo di Hereford


  4. La mappa del mondo di Kangnido


  5. La scoperta e la mappa di Waldseemüller


  6. La globalizzazione e la mappa di Diogo Ribeiro

    Diogo Ribeiro

  7. La tolleranza e la mappa di Mercatore


  8. Il danaro e l’atlante di Blaeu


  9. La nazione e la carta di Francia della famiglia Cassini


  10. La geopolitica e Halford Mackinder


  11. L’eguaglianza e la proiezione di Peters


  12. L’informazione e Google Earth

* * *

Ecco le mie annotazioni, con i riferimenti numerici all’edizione Kindle.

Where would we be without maps? The obvious answer is, of course, ‘lost’ […] [238]

[…] ‘the map is not the territory’. [306: la citazione è del filosofo americano Alfred Korzybski, ‘General Semantics, Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Prevention’ (1941), in Korzybski, Collected Writings, 1920–1950 (Fort Worth, Tex., 1990), p. 205]

In Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893), the other-worldly character Mein Herr announces that ‘[w]e actually made a map of the country, on a scale of a mile to the mile!’ When asked if the map has been used much, Mein Herr admits, ‘It has never been spread out’, and that ‘the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the county itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.’ [315]

‘Far away is close at hand in images of elsewhere.’ [446: graffito su un muro della stazione di Paddington]

‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair’ [1126, da Ozymandias di Shelley]

The Geography was the first book that, either by accident or design, showed the potential of transmitting geographical data digitally. Rather than reproducing unreliable graphic, analogue elements to describe geographical information, the surviving copies of the Geography used the discrete, discontinuous signs of numbers and shapes – from the coordinates of places across the inhabited world to the geometry required to draw Ptolemy’s projections – to transmit its methods. [1135]

[…] Septemptrio (north, from the Latin for seven, referring to the seven stars of the Plough in the Great Bear, by which the direction of north was calculated). [1753: ne ho già parlato qui]

A nonary square is divided into nine equal squares, creating a three-by-three grid. Its origins remain obscure, ranging from the archaic observation of the shape of a turtle shell (with its round carapace covering the square plastron), to the more convincing explanation that the vast plains of northern China inspired a rectilinear way of understanding and dividing space. [2436]

By the end of the sixteenth century the name finally acquired universal geographical and toponymical status, thanks to German and Dutch mapmakers who needed a name to describe the continent and one which avoided ascribing it to a particular empire (some maps referred to it as ‘New Spain’) or religion (other maps labelled it ‘Land of the Holy Cross’). In the end, the name ‘America’ endured, not because of any agreement as to who discovered it, but because it was the most politically acceptable term available. [3377]

[…] ‘devotion to truth and the precision of scientific methods arose from the passion of scholars, their reciprocal hatred, their fanatical and unending discussions, and their spirit of competition.’ [3485: è una citazione di Michel Foucault]

Flirting with religion on maps was a dangerous business, with potentially fatal consequences. [4294]

To make a heart-shaped map in the first half of the sixteenth century was a clear statement of religious dissent. It invited its viewer to look to their conscience, and to see it within the wider context of a Stoic universe. But such flirtations with ‘pagan’ philosophy were not always welcomed by Catholic or Protestant authorities. [4374]

The result still caused distortion of land masses at the northern and southern extremities, but if Mercator could accurately calculate how far apart to space his parallels he could achieve something unique: what cartographers call ‘conformality’, defined as the maintenance of accurate angular relations at any point on a map. [4625]

Born into the Mennonite movement, an offshoot of the sixteenth-century Anabaptists, with their strong tradition of personal spiritual responsibility and pacificism, his sympathies were decidedly libertarian, and many of his friends were Remonstrants or ‘Gomarists’ (named after the Dutch theologian Franciscus Gomarus, 1563–1641). [5005]

In 1636, following Galileo Galilei’s condemnation by the Catholic Inquisition for his heretical heliocentric beliefs, a group of Dutch scholars hatched a plan to offer the Italian astronomer asylum in the Dutch Republic. The plan was floated by the great jurist, diplomat (and Remonstrant sympathizer) Hugo Grotius – whose books were published by Blaeu – and was enthusiastically supported by Laurens Reael and Willem Blaeu. Beyond their intellectual belief in a heliocentric universe, all three men also had vested commercial interests in offering such an invitation. Grotius, having already written on the subject of navigation, was hoping to lure Galileo to Amsterdam so that he would offer the VOC a new method of determining longitude which, if successful, would give the Dutch complete domination of international navigation.32 Blaeu’s somewhat nonconformist intellectual beliefs coincided with his eye for a novel commercial opportunity: Galileo represented a new way of looking at the world, but it was also one that Blaeu might have calculated would give him a decisive edge in cartographic publishing in the 1630s. Ultimately, the plans to invite Galileo came to nothing, as the astronomer pleaded that ill health (and undoubtedly the terms of his house arrest by the Inquisition) prevented him from making what would have been a sensational defection to Europe’s leading Calvinist republic. [5099: è la storia che ho raccontato qui]

It was the product of a Dutch Republic that, following its violent struggle to break free of the Spanish Empire, created a global marketplace that preferred the accumulation of wealth over the acquisition of territory. Blaeu produced an atlas that was ultimately driven by the same imperatives. For him, it was not even necessary to place Amsterdam at the centre of such a world; Dutch financial power was increasingly pervasive but it was also invisible, seeping into every corner of the globe. In the seventeenth century as today, financial markets make little acknowledgement of political boundaries and centres when it comes to the accumulation of riches. [5359]

One toise was 6 French feet, or just under 2 metres […] [5532]

Newton concluded that the earth was not a perfect sphere but an oblate spheroid, slightly bulging at the equator and flattened at the poles. Cassini I and his son Jacques (Cassini II) were unconvinced, and followed the theories of René Descartes (1596–1650). Revered across Europe as the great philosopher of the mind, Descartes was also renowned as a ‘geometer’, or applied mathematician, who put forward the argument that the earth was a prolate ellipsoid, bulging at the poles but flatter at the equator, like an egg. His theory was widely accepted by the Académie, and the resolution of the controversy soon became a matter of national pride on both sides of the English Channel. [5589]

Ultimately, the Carte de Cassini was more than just a national survey. It enabled individuals to understand themselves as part of a nation. Today, in a world almost exclusively defined by the nation state, to say that people saw a place called ‘France’ when they looked at Cassini’s map of the country, and identified themselves as ‘French’ citizens living within its space seems patently obvious, but this was not the case at the end of the eighteenth century. Contrary to the rhetoric of nationalism, nations are not born naturally. They are invented at certain moments in history by the exigencies of political ideology. It is no coincidence that the dawn of the age of nationalism in the eighteenth century coincides almost exactly with the Cassini surveys and that ‘nationalism’ as a term was coined in the 1790s, just as the Cassini maps were nationalized in the name of the French Republic.
In his classic study of the origins of nationalism, Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson argues that the roots of national consciousness grew out of the long historical erosion of religious belief and imperial dynasties. As the certainty of religious salvation waned, the empires of the ancien régime in Europe slowly disintegrated. In the realm of personal belief, nationalism provided the compelling consolation of what Anderson calls ‘a secular transformation of fatality into continuity, contingency into meaning’. [6046]

The consequence of all these changes was the emergence of a new genre, thematic mapping. A thematic map portrays the geographical nature of a variety of physical, and social, phenomena, and depicts the spatial distribution and variation of a chosen subject or theme which is usually invisible, such as crime, disease or poverty. Although used as early as the 1680s in meteorological charts drawn by Edmund Halley, thematic maps developed rapidly from the early 1800s with the growth in quantitative statistical methods and public censuses. The development of probability theory and the ability to regulate error in statistical analysis allowed the social sciences to compile vast amounts of data, including national censuses. In 1801 France and England conducted censuses to measure and classify their populations. [6169]

When Joseph Conrad’s protagonist Marlow peers at an imperial map in Heart of Darkness (1899), ‘marked with all the colours of the rainbow’, he is pleased to see ‘a vast amount of red – good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there’. [6205]

One of the society’s councillors, the distinguished explorer and pioneering eugenicist Sir Francis Galton, responded with concerns about Mackinder’s attempt to claim geography as a science. Nevertheless, he was sympathetic to the moves to adopt geography as an academic discipline, and remarked that, whatever the limitations of his paper, he was sure Mackinder ‘was destined to leave his mark on geographical education’. Galton knew more than he admitted: he was already in talks with the authorities at both Oxford and Cambridge universities to appoint an RGS-funded reader in the subject, a society aspiration that stretched back to the early 1870s, and had stage-managed Mackinder’s invitation so that he would emerge as the most obvious candidate for any new post. On 24 May 1887, less than four months after Mackinder’s talk, Oxford University agreed to establish a five-year Readership in Geography, supported by RGS funds. The following month Mackinder was formally appointed, on a yearly salary of £300. [6321: anche Galton è un nostro vecchio amico, come si illustra qui]

[…] the disastrous Boer War (1899–1902), which had cost Britain more than £220 million, as well as the loss of 8,000 troops killed in action and a further 13,000 to disease. Of the estimated 32,000 Boers who died, the vast majority were women and children who died in British ‘concentration camps’, the first time such methods had been used in modern warfare. [6475]

Such criticisms suggested the need for a debate (not pursued for several years) as to how any world map could meaningfully address statistically derived social inequalities in graphic form. [6916]

For Google, one justification of its geospatial applications is that the digital image of the earth becomes the medium through which all information is accessed; writing in 2007, Michael T. Jones claimed that Google ‘inverts the roles of Web browser as application and map as content, resulting in an experience where the planet itself is the browser’. The Earth application – according to Google – is the first place a viewer goes to access and view information. This seems, for the moment at least, to be a completely pure definition of a world map made up from its own cultural beliefs and assumptions, all of which are now potentially available at the click of a computer mouse. [7733]

In 1970, the American geographer Waldo Tobler famously invoked what he called ‘the first law of geography: everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things’. [7747]


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