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How Ancient Cartographers Mapped the World We See Today

by Allison Meier on October 16, 2013

World map in Ptolemy’s “Geographia” (1460) (courtesy Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

No maps remain from the Ancient Greeks and Romans, yet we know that they looked to the stars and to the widening world around them and responded with their own influential cartography.

Oronce Fine, De Mundi Sphaera

Illustration from Oronce Fine, Folio 8 verso, Diagram of the Sun and the Planets, Manuscript, France (1549) (courtesy Houghton Library, Harvard University) (click for full resolution)

Measuring and Mapping Space: Geographic Knowledge in Greco-Roman Antiquity, currently on view at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University, unearths this mapping through around 40 objects on loan from various institutions like the Metropolitan Museum and the New York Public Library, some rarely seen at all. While we don’t have the Greco-Roman Ptolemy‘s original Geographia, his enduring treatise on cartography, we do have objects from those who meticulously republished his work or were directly inspired by it: the richly illustrated 13th-century De Mundi Sphaera by scholar and monk Johannes de Sacrobosco, for instance, which merged Ptolemy and Islamic astronomy, as well as the 16th-century work of French cartographer Oronce Fine that attempted to link the ideas of Ptolemy with the “New World” discoveries.

Why the cartographers of antiquity endure may be because they just spent more time refining and using mapping as a navigational tool — as well as a political and social one — than anyone had before. The exhibition at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World only takes over one room, with another featuring computer terminals for browsing digital content (which is also available online, including an explorable Peutinger’s Roman Map if you can’t make it to Vienna to see the only surviving copy). Yet there’s a lot here to examine, particularly with the lengthy wall text, in addition to the elaborate books themselves.

Terracotta from Attica showing a human-griffin battle (375–350 BCE) (courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund) (click for full resolution)

There were generally two types of cartographers in the ancient world: the global thinker and the local surveyor. Those interested in the broader world tended to be philosophers, and those looking locally were interested in finding a way to chart out boundaries and just get around. Sometimes these maps were narratives of a series of places; others dared to imagine worlds people hadn’t yet even seen, where maybe cyclops monsters or aggressive griffins lurked. (If you take nothing else away from Measuring and Mapping Space, may you at least jot down the word “gryphomachie,” which is a word for a battle between a human and a griffin.)

The Romans, with their sprawl of conquered space, were naturally interested in being able to plot this land as something they could see as a contained whole. But they went further than that, with the globe itself appearing on coins as a political symbol of control.

Miniature signs of the zodiac in Johannes de Sacrobosco’s “De Sphaera mundi” (1425) (courtesy The Morgan Library & Museum)

We may have moved past considering the griffin battles that might be taking place beyond the horizon and speculating on the shape of the world based on the stars, now that we can go out beyond the atmosphere ourselves, but the exhibition makes a good argument that the way these Greek and Roman cartographers visualized their worlds provided a foundation for own contemporary perception of the planet.

Battista Agnese’s “Land Map of Palestine” (1552) (courtesy the Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

Measuring and Mapping Space: Geographic Knowledge in Greco-Roman Antiquity is at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University (15 East 84th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 5.

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  • samktg

    Sounds like an interesting exhibition, I think I’ll have to go. Out of curiosity, will you also be reviewing the exhibition of maps made by contemporary Zuni artists at the AMNH that opens tomorrow?

  • May Ti

    Very good for me

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