Posts Tagged ‘cartography’

Jeremy Black: Mapping Shakespeare

August 22, 2018

51g9Yxn9jjL._AC_US218_A combination of Shakespeare and my enthusiasm for mapping and cartography is likely to be a sure-fire winner with me… and so I really enjoyed this book.

It’s a good deal more than a coffee-table book. Written by a historian, and gathering together a wonderful collection of old maps, organised thematically around Shakespeare’s times and his work, it is a delight. Black’s commentary and analysis is detailed and carefully written, and fully linked to a vast range of geographical references in Shakespeare’s plays. Some countries, especially his own, the dramatist was knowledgeable about and accurate, others he was rather more cavalier about, such as giving Bohemia, one of the most landlocked nations in Europe, a coastline, as he does in The Winter’s Tale, for instance. And some places he knew almost nothing about – such as China and Japan, reflecting the relative state of knowledge in his times – and so they do not get more than passing references, if that…

Shakespeare was as un-PC as some are in our own times, and far less likely to be challenged: Moors, Turks and Africans were a short-hand for exoticism, sometimes barbarity and cruelty (consider their presentation in Othello and Titus Andronicus; Spaniards and Italians were a by-word for scheming, plotting and politics (in the underhand, Machiavellian – another Italian! – sense). Look at the national stereotypes revealed in Portia’s listing of her suitors in The Merchant of Venice.

As the book’s scope broadened, I sometimes felt that the links with Shakespeare became a little more tenuous, but overall I got a very good picture of how the world was seen, known and interpreted in Shakespeare’s time, and his and his audience’s responses to it.

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The Red Atlas

July 28, 2018

61SEUp0waVL._AC_US218_For anyone who, like me, is fascinated by maps and atlases, and cartography in general, this book is utterly fascinating. In short, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the full extent of its in-depth cartography has been revealed: astonishingly detailed maps of many countries, often with far more detail than official maps made by those countries themselves. Maps are often very large-scale, with specific buildings labelled, width and construction of roads, railways and bridges noted, and lots more. All of this in a well-produced volume, copiously illustrated with examples, and a carefully-written text analysing the history and development of Soviet cartography.

Much of the mapping was highly secret and reserved for military use only; bowdlerised versions of maps of the Soviet Union itself were made available for civilian use where necessary. This is no surprise: all countries do this, including the UK, whose official Ordnance Survey maps have blank spaces where strategic military assets are located, as proved by comparison with Soviet mapping in this very book. It’s the extent, the detail that astonishes about the Soviet enterprise.

This huge enterprise got me thinking, and my conclusion is surely blindingly obvious: the Cyrillic alphabet. Think about it. When the Nazis invaded Poland – to take one example – they used Polish maps from the country’s Army Geographical Institute, often overprinted in German with the legend ‘only for service use’. And that’s all they needed to do, for whatever country they invaded, except the Soviet Union. For if a map and its legend is in the Roman alphabet, then the place names are instantly legible, and all you need is a translation of the legend.

This doesn’t work if you’re a Russian: all those maps, all those place names are in an alien alphabet; if you tried to overprint everything on a Western map, you’d have an illegible piece of paper. So you start from scratch, using all available Western maps and your spy network and aerial and satellite photography and you re-create all those maps, in the Cyrillic alphabet, with names phonetically transliterated so that your one day invading or occupying troops know where they are… a colossal enterprise but achievable with the resources of the state behind it. And you do it properly, thoroughly. Surely the US military have done something similar with mapping of Russia.

A wonderful book. And perhaps I got rather more from looking at the gorgeous maps than the average Western reader in that, although I cannot understand Russian, I can ‘read’ i.e. transliterate it.

Joan Blaeu’s Atlas Maior

November 23, 2015

41dl+3ku-+L._AA160_If you’re a regular reader, you will know of my fascination with maps and atlases. I aksed for an atlas for Christmas when I was seven, and haven’t looked back; as soon as I could afford one, I had a copy of the massive Times Atlas. But I have been going back in time with Joan Blaeu’s Atlas Major.

Holland was the centre of the cartographical world in the seventeenth century, when exploration of the world was is full swing, and a number of very detailed and extremely beautiful atlases were produced there. Taschen reproduced a selection in this huge tome which I had to buy…

Maps from that time are quite different from those we know today. They are very colourful, decorated with engravings of all kinds: native costumes, coats of arms of local rulers, impressive buildings in local towns, flora and fauna adorn the edges of most of the maps. Great attention is paid to delineation of borders: whose land is it? Mountains, rivers – and obviously bridges – are marked, as are placenames; totally absent is what we probably find most important and useful nowadays, the transport infrastructure, because there wasn’t one. Not even roads are marked; I suppose the assumption was that there would be roads between places and if you were actually in a place, then you’d find the necessary road.

The level of detail varies considerably according to where the map depicts; Europe and the Mediterranean does pretty well, but the rest of the world is rather variable, and there are no maps that even hint at Australia or Antarctica. The still-to-be explored lands are probably the most interesting, for a number of reasons. For Africa and the Americas, there is plenty of coastal detail, because that’s how the discoveries and maps were made; the hinterlands are blank – Brazil is almost completely empty. In the Americas there are vague annotations in places along the lines of ‘gold is to be found in these mountains’ and the like. Interesting, for Africa and the Americas, is the fact that all places have indigenous names: we are in the pre-colonisation days, before Europeans took overand placed our settlements with familar names, that still endure in many parts of the world. Pictures of the local fauna also abound, as a way of filling up some of the blank space on the maps, so that buyers felt they were getting something for their money…

I always get a sense of how enormous the world must have seemed to travellers and explorers in those days, and the dangers that they ran in their journeys in days before longitude could be accurately determined, meaning that they often didn’t know where they were – literally. There is something wonderful about our species’ urge to know and to discover, even though it often gets us into a mess…

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