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May 17, 2006

Mapping the City: The Language and Culture of Cartography in the Renaissance - Naomi Miller

Posted by Jeremy Black

Mapping the City: The Language and Culture of Cartography in the Renaissance
by Naomi Miller
Pp. xviii+270. London: Continuum, 2003
Hardback, 75

This valuable, albeit expensive, book locates urban history alongside the development of the cartographic imagination and of cartographic practice. Miller, Professor of Art History at Boston University, provides an account of the impact of the Renaissance on cartography.

The organisation of the book is thematic rather than chronological: after an introduction to the impact of the rediscovery of Ptolemy's Geography, and a detailed descriptive analysis of the city maps in the manuscripts of the Geography, Miller turns to explore earlier forays into mapping, especially the territorial maps of north Italian cities. This provides information about the historical precedents and models on which later mapmakers drew. The varied purposes of mapmaking are discussed in order to show some of the ways in which the values and interests of quattrocento culture helped to explain the inclusion of new city maps in manuscripts of Ptolemy's Geography.

There is an able chapter on parallel developments in art and cartography, a theme already probed for the Dutch in the seventeenth century, although the major work S. Alpers, The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (London, 1983), which includes a chapter on "The Mapping Impulse in Dutch Art", does not appear in Miller's bibliography, and this appears to be but part of a somewhat limited geographical span in Miller's book.

The use of mathematics to order spatial relationships was one quality that was shared by mapmaking and painting, while cartographic elements dominated many portrayals of landscape. Greater precision in representation was a theme that was to be linked to scientific developments, especially in optics. Miller sees a clear process of improvement and benefit (p. 230):

our city views reflect the expanded boundaries of the quattrocento, the application of the new humanist learning, the glorification of the city as harbinger of the new culture, and the revival of the ancient city republics, albeit then in a state of transformation.
This, therefore, is not a work that dwells on the potential drawbacks of the changes discussed. As such, it is both modish in its use of an artistic frame of reference, and somewhat conventional in its inherent teleology. While this book is a very welcome addition to the literature, research currently being carried out by Roger Kain should lead to fresh progress in the subject.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of Visions of the World: A History of Maps (Mitchell Beazley, 2003), Maps and Politics (Reaktion, 2000), and Maps and History: Constructing Images of the Past (Yale University Press, 1997).

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