Jonathan Jones on the British Library’s Magnificent Maps | The Guardian

Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art opens at the British Library, London (01937 546060) on 30 April. www.bl.uk

Siege of Breda

Detail from The Siege of Breda by Jacques Callot. Photograph: The British Library

EXTRACT – From article on Magnificent Maps Exhibition.

The artistic glory of Renaissance maps lies in the ambiguity of their nature, for it is impossible to decide if this a map in the modern sense or a landscape picture. It hovers magically between the two. A straightforward plan of Venice would reveal the contours of the city and the layout of the canals, but would not capture the living reality of city life; while a painting at street level, such as Carpaccio’s Miracle at the Rialto, though it conveys the forest of chimneys and the intimacy of bridges, can give no sense of the city’s overall design. There is a genius and a freedom to de’ Barbari’s bird’s-eye view that gives him both perspectives simultaneously – near and far. In the 21st century, a user of Google Maps can explore similar variations in perspective – moving from a city plan to a more detailed map of a neighbourhood to photographs taken on the street. This masterpiece gives all of that in one rich image.

In fact, a map such as this is so close to landscape art that it urges us to ask – do early-modern maps ape landscape pictures, or is it the other way around? Mapping and landscape art evolved together in the Renaissance, and this exhibition reveals something quite shocking to conventional art history: that maps were displayed as works of art before landscape paintings were similarly valued.

One of the earliest exhibits in the show is a facsimile of the Hereford Mappa Mundi, created like other medieval maps to stand alone and be studied like a painting or a stained glass window. The curators also attempt to reconstruct the world map that is known to have hung in Henry III’s bedchamber in Westminster Palace in the 1230s. That is centuries before landscape art was valued in its own right. The first dated landscape drawing in European history – meaning a landscape that is not a background, but a theme in itself – is currently on view in the British Museum’s exhibition of Italian Renaissance drawings: it was done on 5 August 1473 by Leonardo da Vinci. While its mountainous foreground is a fantasia of landscape, the plain in the distance rolling away towards the sea resembles a map in its outlines of fields.

Just like Jacopo de’ Barbari – but in a uniquely sustained and complex way – Leonardo saw landscape art and map-making as intimately related. His drawings and paintings navigate an intricate course between the viewpoint of a landscape artist and a geographer. Unlike de’ Barbari he actually did try to build a flying machine and hoped to use it for skyborne observation – he writes in a notebook of “surveying” the land from his “great bird”. But he probably never did get his machine off the ground. Instead his bird’s-eye views are feats of imagination, like de’ Barbari’s woodcut of Venice. Leonardo experimented with every point of view for map-making: his maps range from views of mountains in deep relief, the earth tilted up for our pleasure, to straightforward plans, to unique hybrids of the two. The vertiginous landscape of his painting The Virgin and Child with St Anne in the Louvre is itself as satisfying as a geographic atlas: the detailed rocks in the foreground stretch away to a blue vista of alpine mountains that has the sweep and scope of a map.

Leonardo was a pioneer of landscape but his landscapes are legitimated, as artistic subjects, by religious narratives – there is no pure landscape painting by him. One of the first such paintings is by Albrecht Altdorfer and portrays a bridge and a castle in a forest (it’s in the National Gallery): this is almost an anti-map, as it tells us nothing of where the place is, or its wider geographical context. But when painters started successfully to sell landscapes in the 17th century they took their cue from Leonardo’s cartographic approach, and their paintings aspired to the status of maps.

In 17th-century Europe maps were honoured and admired. The fresco maps of the Vatican and of other Italian palaces – Danti, who painted the Vatican maps, cut his teeth creating a fabulous room of maps in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence – were emulated across the continent. Printed maps, often hand-coloured, were designed to be displayed, as Dutch paintings show them to have been. If maps were hung like paintings, cartography also produced a new genre of sculpture – the globe. The exhibition has a pair of globes – terrestrial and celestial – created by Emery Molyneux in London at the end of the 16th century, that were the most renowned such objects in Elizabethan England.

Maps of this age provided extraordinary density of information. Jacques Callot’s map of the siege of Breda (1628-29) is not just a geographical but a historical image. It shows the battle for the Dutch town of Breda in complex detail, bearing witness to atrocities as well as recording the victory of Spain, and combining the human detail of a history painting with the spatial information of a map. It is a work of art in its own right and its topographic details also feature in the eerie vista of Velázquez’s masterpiece of history painting, The Surrender of Breda.

Landscape painters looked hard at such maps and their popularity. The landscapes of Ruysdael and Cuyp in the Netherlands, of Poussin and Claude in Italy and France, aspire to be maps. If you look at these paintings they all, in different ways, relate intensely to mapmaking. Dutch landscape artists go flat on the land, exploring its details: their paintings are like maps turned on their sides. In accuracy and detail they strongly resemble the printed maps streaming out of Amsterdam.

The French landscape artists who worked in 17th-century Rome may seem less obviously geographical, but to look at their paintings is to look at pictures that sum up the world as encyclopedically as Leonardo does: again and again these paintings aspire to include every kind of scenery in one view – woodlands, rocks, sea, mountains – so that a painting has the satisfying completeness of a map of the world. Not until the 19th century would painters rebel against this tendency for each landscape to be a kind of world map – a summary of the nature of landscape as such. A beguiling example of such paintings is Francisque Millet’s Mountain Landscape with Lightning (1675). Here it is not just a variety of scenery that is encompassed: every one of the four elements is on view. The Leonardesque view of the Alps encloses a rich anthology of natural and human terrains, a world map in one glorious vista.

Even so, it is no more compelling, as a work of art, than the maps of the age. Only when geography became truly rationalist, when maps were purified into utilitarian tools, did landscape art rule the gallery alone – and that transformation around 1700 was a loss to the imagination. Art and science both lost blood when monsters vanished from the maps.


I’m intrigued by this idea of the blurring of maps and landscape painting with its indications of territory, empire, estate, colonisation, ownership, power and patronage.

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