Artillery Row Books

Three first-rate books on maps

What about the past should and could be mapped, and how to do so, are vexed issues in cartographic studies

Each from the world’s leading publisher on cartography, the University of Chicago Press (BL Publishing, the British leader matches in quality, but not in quantity), these are individually important but also speak to the extent to which cartographic studies have long focused on, and developed high expertise in, many issues that have only recently become more generally fashionable, and frequently with rather indifferent quality, namely issues of meaning and relevance.

What about the past, and present, should and could be mapped, and how, let alone best, to do so, are vexed issues in cartographic studies, not least because they emphasise the extent to which there is no perfect map nor unimpeachable desiderata. This includes topics such as perspective, projection, scale, title, nomenclature, key, caption etc.

An Atlas of Boston History, edited by Nancy Seasholes, Chicago, 2019, $40.

The Atlas of Boston History is a beautifully-produced, large-format volume, with 57 full-colour spreads tackling a range of pertinent topics, the maps supported by photographs and graphs, and the whole in an appendix that provides additional information and sources. Each spread has a pertinent text and each of the eleven sections, which are essentially chronological, has a valuable introduction. The closest comparison in cartographic impact is the three-volume Historical Atlas of Canada, but the scale of coverage is very different, and that provides an opportunity for a very welcome detail. Inevitably there are other topics that could have been covered, I think the battle of Bunker Hill the most obvious one and would also have liked more on the politics of the city and a coverage of crime, but the range is excellent.

The spreads offer a very good use of colour and differing scales of engagement. To provide a flavour, the first fourteen spreads are The Boston Basin, before 5,000 BP; The First Inhabitants; Europeans Arrive in Massachusetts Bay; Boston is Founded; Boston’s Economy in the 1640s; Accommodation and Conflict, 1630-1676 (in effect King Philip’s War with the Native Americans and its background, which is not centrally about Boston at all); Boston in 1676 (a careful analysis of the Clough Map); Boston’s Economy, 1740-1760; Boston and the Slave Trade, 1638-Early 1800s; Boston in 1743; Revolutionary Economy, 1776-1807; Boston in 1800; Connections to the Mainland and Additions of Land. The last nine relate to the situation in recent decades, with topics such as race, economy, tourism and environmental challenges brought into the late 2010s. First-rate throughout.

The Eternal City: A History of Rome in Maps, Jessica Maier, Chicago, 2020, $40.

Jessica Maier, already author of the first-rate Rome Measured and Imagined: Early-Modern Maps of the Eternal City, also from Chicago, approaches Rome’s history through maps, although also deploying other sources, including art and photography. The book is divided into ten chronological sections, Rome Takes Shape; Rome of the Caesars; Rome of the Popes; Rome Reborn; Rome of the Scholars; Rome of the Saints and Pilgrims; Rome of the Grand Tourists; Rome of the Mass Tourists; Rome Enters the Modern Age; and Rome Past, Present, and Future. As is inevitably the case, there is much missing, and also somewhat of a rushed feel to the post-Mussolini years. Post-war renewal, city politics, the economy of Rome, and its crime, are all topics that could have been presented through maps. Yet Maier has so much to cover and what she does tackle is done very well, both in the selection and discussion of visual images and in her considerate and humane prose style. A delight of a book.

Time in Maps is a first-rate collection based on a 2017 Stanford conference that considers attempts to insert a sense of time into the spatial medium of maps. This is a formidable undertaking as for most of history there has not been any clear-cut distinction between time and space, or, necessarily, any view of time as linear and the past as separate. The authority of the past moreover rested in the present, as in legal process.

Time in Maps: From the Age of Discovery to Our Digital Era, edited by Kären Wigen and Caroline Winterer, Chicago, 2020, $45.

Given what could have been covered, the selection offered is necessarily notable for omission as much as commission, but the latter is impressive. There is coverage of aspects of Japan, China, Korea and the Aztec Empire, as well as more familiar geographies. The latter, however, are treated in an original fashion. Focusing on the Atlantic world, William Rankin deploys an impressive range of maps to consider mapping over the last century. Very differently, Caroline Winterer considers the first American maps of “Deep Time,” Susan Shulten looks at the origins of “Time Mapping” in the United States, for example the extinction of bison, and James Akerman assesses the mapping of historical landscapes of (some) warfare on behalf of travellers in America.

The volume, as the Foreword notes, “gives voice to the ineluctable lure of the undiscovered and uncharted.” It provides an important work for cartographic scholars, and, more generally, offers those interested in historiography much to consider. If the latter subject also has much to offer those interested in maps then possibly it can be incorporated into any second volume on this most interesting topic. The volume is a pleasure to read, with many well-selected maps and a high standard of reproduction.

Jeremy Black’s books include A History of the Second World in 100 Maps and Geographies of an Imperial Power: The British World, 1688-1815.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Critic magazine cover