During the third decade of the 16th century, the two most powerful royal houses of Europe were united in marriage. To commemorate the union, Joio III of Portugal commissioned from Brussels a series of lavish tapestries with which to impress his bride, Catherine of Austria, sister of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. In the final tapestry, the couple are depicted as Jupiter and Juno flanking a magnificent globe turned to display the lands newly discovered by Portuguese navigators stretching from Lisbon to India.
Jerry Brotton uses this globe as his starting point in a journey from the idea of maps as symbols of royal domain and political power over distant territories to their use as commercial aids for Europe's traders. On the way he stops off at an explanation of the symbolism of the tapestry globe, the growth of geographical maps in a world that hardly knew its own extent, their use in political wrangling over dominion and more particularly in the establishment of the right to import the commodities so valuable for governments and merchants, and ultimately to the map publishers and sellers of the Netherlands, who made maps cheap enough for any literate person to own. It is a fascinating story, and although the maps are familiar to cartophiles, the story that has been woven around them is enlightening in providing a new meaning as to why and how they were produced, the reasons for their considered value at this dawn of accurate cartographic representation and the symbolism they contain.
In the past 20 years or so the study of early maps has moved on from who drew what where, and how editions differed in minor details, to their place in society, their use for establishing man's place and role on the earth, and what we can learn from the use the cartographer made of decorative titles, his choice for inclusion or omission of geographical features and how he should depict them, and the use to which the maps were put. Brotton's book is especially welcome as he looks east from Europe, following the Portuguese ships, to the highly developed sailing and mapping abilities of the Ottoman Empire, to the struggle to control trade from the Moluccas, before finally studying the growing attraction of the west, pulling sailors across the Atlantic, a trend followed in modern studies today. He explains how the idea of the Orient in European minds came to be of a mystifying place, "exotic, indolent and mysterious", which waned in attraction along with the political power of its discoverers. When Mercator drew his influential world map in 1569, in its centre was the Atlantic Ocean. His projection was lengthened on an east-west axis to demonstrate the commercial trade routes of the Hapsburgs, thus ignoring any attempt at north-south accuracy.
Though the book deals with a historical subject, the use of words is startlingly modern: "to foreground", "to concretise", "proceeded" instead of "preceded" or "proceeded from". Better editing might have removed errors such as Magellan setting out in September 1522, and reaching the strait now bearing his name by October 1520; or the casual mention of Piri Reis consulting portolans of Indian origin when none is known. Even the information that Waldseemuller's 1507 world map offered a "sanitised vision of geographical and commercial expansion" might be queried.
The illustrations are mostly of well-known maps, and they might have been handled more imaginatively. One of the portolan charts is so faint that only the shape of the coast can be dimly discerned.
It is an interesting thought that maps studied in the 20th century can lead to conclusions about why they were drawn the way they were, and how potentates used them for political bargaining. But to state that their use in the agreement signed in 1529 at Saragossa - whereby Charles V not only acquired a large sum of money but retained the right to claim the Spice Islands if subsequent discoveries moved their presumed location - led to "establishing geography as one of the most politically valuable domains of intellectual enquiry", might be questioned by those in other disciplines. Though there is support from much other contemporary written testimony, throughout the book the maps have been used to support a pre-determined argument, rather than studied objectively for the secrets they might reveal. Sometimes the results are very plausible.
Susan Gole is past-chairman, International Map Collectors Society.
Trading Territories: Mapping the Early Modern World
Author - Jerry Brotton
ISBN - 1 86189 011 7
Publisher - Reaktion
Price - £22.50
Pages - 208