Date: Wed, 24 Jun 1998
From: Deborah Natsios <dn@PIPELINE.COM>
Re: NYT review: peter whitfield book

The following appeared in The New York Times on the Web for June 24, 1998. It appears here at the suggestion of Peter van der Krogt and by permission of the New York Times. June 26, 1998.


The Map Maker's Vision, Skewed Yet Indomitable

Peter Whitfield, New Found Lands: Maps in the History of Exploration (London and New York: Routledge, 1998). Illustrated. 200 pages. $40.

One of the differences between the West and other parts of the world, and one of the reasons for the global spread of Western power, is that Europeans inscribed their knowledge on maps while others didn't. Or, as Peter Whitfield, the author of several books on the history of maps, puts it: "Men in Seville, Amsterdam or London had access to knowledge of Mexico, India, Canada or Brazil, while the native peoples knew only their own immediate environment."

In his new book, "New Found Lands: Maps in the History of Exploration," Mr. Whitfield writes a history of the way in which knowledge of the world became "recorded, permanent, and above all centralized into one systematic view of the world." Mr. Whitfield begins in the ancient world, especially with the work of Ptolemy of Alexandria, whose second century A.D. world gazetteer "brought huge tracts of Europe, Asia and Northern Africa into the sphere of Greek knowledge." He ends with a chapter on high-tech mappings of the earth, the sea beds and other planets. But the bulk of the work concentrates on the classic age of exploration, from the Renaissance until the 19th century, when the world, so much a matter of fanciful speculation, came to be expressed in Europe as lines, drawings and words on pieces of paper.

Mr. Whitfield faced something of a technical problem in formulating this book. He needed to survey the actual history of exploration to provide the background to his major theme, the codification of exploration in maps. But the survey of exploration takes up so much space that the main theme seems to get short shrift. Moreover, while the dozens of beautifully reproduced maps included in these pages give "New Found Lands" a gorgeous, coffee-table-book appearance, the illustrations, with all too brief captions, are rarely placed on or opposite the pages where Mr. Whitfield discusses them. This gives the book a disorganized quality very much in contrast to Mr. Whitfield's precise text.

Beyond that, the map reproductions themselves are difficult to read, the print being small and often not in English. One understands Mr. Whitfield's point: that the history of map making is a history of a very slow approach to geographical accuracy. But his book is more an encyclopedic survey of material already known -- the activities and exploits of the explorers -- than a close and illuminating study of the maps that those activities and exploits produced.

Mr. Whitfield's main story begins with the voyages of Marco Polo and the excitement that the Italian merchant's exotic travels generated throughout Europe. Here, the author retells the familiar story of the quest for a sea route to Cathay, covering the Portuguese expeditions around Africa, Columbus's accidental encounter with America, the early circumnavigations of the globe. Mr. Whitfield, trying always to understand the spirit that motivated his explorers, is unsentimental about these Renaissance figures. They were uninterested in geographic knowledge itself; they aimed at trade and plunder. It was unintentional that they produced a revolution in geographical knowledge.

Mr. Whitfield is at his best when he discusses the cartographic landmarks produced by the new knowledge. In 1502, for example, the Cantino global chart, drawn by an Italian diplomat named Alberto Cantino from Portuguese sources and smuggled out of Portugal, "mapped with startling accuracy" the Indian peninsula, Brazil, Newfoundland and the coast of Africa. "The Cantino chart," Mr. Whitfield notes, "is a celebration of Portuguese Africa, with the Portuguese flags defending its coast, and the fort of El Mina pictured like a huge Renaissance city dominating Guinea."

Strangely, only two portions of the Cantino chart are reproduced in Mr. Whitfield's book, one five pages before the author's description of it and one 14 pages after it, leaving the reader to flip back and forth from map to text to map. Similarly, a detail from the famous Waldseemuller World Map of 1507 is printed eight pages before Mr. Whitfield's account of it. Martin Waldseemuller, a humanist scholar at the court of the Duke of Lorraine, based his charts on Amerigo Vespucci's narratives of his "New World" explorations. He combined "the 'Old World' of Ptolemy, updated with the Portuguese map of Africa, with the 'New World' now revealed by Vespucci." (It was Waldseemuller who named America after Vespucci.)

This 1507 map, Mr. Whitfield reminds us, is "one of the most intriguing and enigmatic in the history of cartography." Waldseemuller showed North America to be separate from Asia, with a sea between the two continents and mountains on the American West coast, although as of 1507 no European had penetrated the American West or Northwest coasts.

Mr. Whitfield's illustrations show how long it sometimes took for the Renaissance maps to approximate the outlines of maps that we use today. After Ferdinand Magellan's historic circumnavigation of the world demonstrated that the sea between the Americas and Asia was the world's largest body of water, it still took some time for map makers to appreciate just how large that body of water is. In part this had to do with the difficulty of approximating longitude, a problem not solved until more than 200 years after Magellan. The first map that indicated the true extent of the Pacific was a world chart of 1529 by Diego Ribero, a Portuguese who, like Magellan, was working for Spain. It was the only 16th-century map that did not show China and Japan a short distance from the American West Coast.

As is so often the case in this book, the reproduction of the Ribero map is several pages from Mr. Whitfield's description of it, and the lettering is so small and faint that much of it is impossible to read. Still, the point of it -- drawing ships in the vast, empty space between America and Asia -- comes across. Mr. Whitfield's main subject is so inherently fascinating that one feels frustrated that he does not explore it more fully, even as one is grateful to him for the lucid, if brief, presentations he does make.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company

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