In his gorgeous book, “Theater of the World,” Thomas Reinertsen Berg provides dozens of full-color maps along with fascinating details about the history of attempts to represent geographical space. Early maps — including one carved into a mammoth tusk nearly 38,000 years ago — focused on the heavens, the one area for which early mapmakers had a long-range view.
But humans eventually turned their attention to the land beneath their feet. Ancient Greeks, including Ptolemy, a renowned mapmaker and astronomer who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, created images that reflected increased knowledge of far-off lands. During the Middle Ages, clerics and cartographers tried to locate such biblical sites as the Tower of Babel and the Garden of Eden. “The question of where to place paradise became more problematic for cartographers as the Far East became better known — not least after The Travels of Marco Polo was published around the year 1300,” Berg writes. “Some started to draw Eden in southern Africa, which was still largely unknown.”
The first map to depict America as a separate continent — and the first to call it “America” — was created by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller in 1507. In 2001, the Library of Congress reached an agreement to acquire the only known copy of the map, deemed “America’s birth certificate,” for $10 million.
As the Age of Exploration dawned, cartographers used information gleaned from long journeys to supplement the knowledge inherited from their forebears to create more ambitious maps.
Berg has a fascinating chapter on the creation of the first atlas, assembled by Abraham Ortelius and published in Antwerp (in what today is Belgium) in 1570. Ortelius drew upon the work of 89 cartographers to create 69 uncolored maps.
The resulting Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theater of the World) has a frontispiece that depicts the known continents as allegorical female figures.
“At the top, Europe sits on a throne, wearing a crown,” and she holds an orb with a cross, “as she’s responsible,” Berg says “for bringing Christianity to the world. Asia is “clothed in noble robes,” he says, “but she wears a tiara rather than a crown and is subordinate to the European queen.” Africa, also subordinate to Europe, is “more sparsely clad and wearing a halo inspired by the sun to emphasize the heat.”
At the bottom, America, only recently discovered and named, is depicted, Berg says, “as primitive, cannibalistic . . . holding a European man’s head in her hand.” Next to America is a bust that represents “Terra australis nondum cognita” — a “southern land not yet known.”
The inclusion of a quotation from Cicero — “For what human affairs can seem important to a man who keeps all eternity before his eyes and knows the vastness of the universe?” — provides “a glimpse of the deeper meaning Ortelius saw in cartography,” Berg says.
Berg makes a strong case that maps served many purposes beyond representing geographical space.
Readers can expect to spend happy hours with this book, tracing routes and reading reports of adventuring navigators.
Lorraine Berry has written about books for the Guardian and Salon, among other outlets, and tweets at @BerryFLW.
The Maps that Made History
By Thomas Reinertsen Berg
384 pp. $35.