Cartographic Humanism: The Making of Early Modern Europe, by Katharina N. Piechocki

Joad Raymond applauds a stimulating account of how mapping shaped our understanding of Europe and the world beyond

January 23, 2020
Cartography believed to be the fifth existing version of a map by Martin Waldseemuller
Source: Reuters

Where is Europe and when was it made? The boundaries and idea of Europe in a modern sense were confected in the early modern period from various ingredients: contact with new territories; new ways of thinking about place and space; the humanist revival of interest in Ptolemy and in non-Ptolemaic ways of imagining and dividing the world; and the dissemination of the printing press. These factors inspired fresh approaches to cartography, and it is in cartography and in writing about place (or topography) that, according to this impressive study by comparative literature specialist Katharina N. Piechocki, we find the clearest expression of the rise of Europe as a well-defined place and a richly charged idea.

The author traces the generation and effects of this geography in what are in effect five discrete case studies. One concerns Conrad Celtis’ Quatuor Libri Amorum (“Four Books of Love”, 1502), an illustrated volume of topographical narrative poems that explore the areas and associations of the north, south, east and west of Europe. Piechocki meticulously demonstrates Celtis’ engagement with contemporary cartographical works, such as Hartmann Schedel’s famous Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), to show that he seeks an understanding of place independent of the traditional dichotomy of cosmography (mapping the whole) and chorography (describing independent parts). He is looking for an idea of the continent, a discrete division within a global whole. This idea depends as much on language and culture and the sense of belonging to a place as it does on religion and genealogy.

Other works discussed at length include Geoffrey Tory’s Champfleury (1529), a work on the standardisation of French that seeks to map French culture in the context of other alphabets; Girolamo Fracastoro’s Syphilis sive Morbus Gallicus (“Syphilis or the French Disease”, 1530), a neo-Latin poem that adopts an epidemiological approach to the relationship between the Old World and the New; and Luís de Camões’ Os Lusíadas (“The Lusiads”, 1572), a Portuguese epic describing Vasco de Gama’s voyage of exploration.

The chapter on Maciej Miechowita’s Tractatus de duabus Sarmatiis (“Treatise on the Two Sarmatias”, 1517) is a tour de force. This much-anthologised piece of travel writing explores the area east of Cracow, searching for the eastern border of Europe. Miechowita identifies the Crimean peninsula as this boundary, one that – in characteristic Renaissance style – mirrors the Pillars of Hercules flanking the Strait of Gibraltar traditionally identified as the western border. Yet on either side of this border, the “two Sarmatias” described by Miechowita, one Asian and one European, are multilingual, multicultural and multiconfessional, and marked by continuity even in landscape. This is a borderland as much as a boundary, and Miechowita’s book is the first manifesto for border studies.

It is doubtful whether the genesis of Europe can be sufficiently and persuasively outlined through five case studies, but each literary text is richly contextualised, surrounded by contemporary atlases, narratives and maps. Piechocki is conceptually rigorous, she reads many languages and her research is impeccable. She is a careful critic but also a deeply imaginative historian. This is a contribution to the “darker side” of cartography and the Renaissance, emphasising the relationship between writing and scholarship and the exercise of power and exploitation, but its analysis never departs from the measured and reflective.

Joad Raymond is professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary University of London.

Cartographic Humanism: The Making of Early Modern Europe
By Katharina N. Piechocki
University of Chicago Press, 328pp, £34.00
ISBN 9780226641188
Published 20 December 2019

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