A History of the World in 12 Maps

By Jerry Brotton

(Viking, $40, 544 pages)

Who is this author?

A scholar with a specialty in the history of maps and Renaissance cartography. Jerry Brotton is Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University of London. His “The Sale of the Late King’s Goods: Charles I and His Art Collection” (2006), was short-listed for several major literary prizes in England, where he lives.

What is this book about?

Brotton explores a dozen maps, dating from ancient Greece to the present day, and makes the case that each of them changed the world.

Whether incised on primitive stone tablets or flashing from your computer screen via Google Earth, each of this maps reflects the culture that created it and offers the reader a doorway into these worlds, which include classical Greece, Europe during the Renaissance and Islamic and Buddhist views of the planet. From maps attributed to Ptolemy in the ancient world to the ever-growing influence of today’s satellite maps, Brotton shows how various religious, economic and political agendas shaped maps, often ignoring or repudiating the scientific knowledge of the time. He enlivens this information with stories of the mapmakers and those who manipulated and used (or misused) them to advance their own interests.

Why you’ll like it:

Kids can learn about geography from the popular “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego” computer and board games and the TV show based on them. Adults can do the same, on a far deeper and more intellectual level, by reading this book. Through its study of 12 iconic maps, it shows that knowing where we are – or wish to go, and why – deeply influences who we are and how we see the world. Granted, this is not a book for casual readers, but its insights and conclusions make it well worth the effort for those who undertake the journey.

What others are saying:

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly says: “In an era when Google Maps is regarded as a standard convenience, this history of 12 epoch-defining maps—including Google’s—is a revelation. Renaissance scholar Brotton examines a cross-cultural sampling of historic world maps, exploring them as representations of both the Earth, and of the philosophical mores of the cultures that produced them. The maps range in function from the “practical maintenance of empire” to the spiritual concerns of uniting “the earth and the heavens in a harmonious, universal whole.” Each simultaneously represents a geographical survey, an aesthetic achievement, technological progress, theological instruction, and political demarcation. These multiple functions are mirrored in the structure of the book, which reflects political, philosophical, and cultural development. The maps are about humanity’s changing relationship with itself, others, the Earth, and the heavens, and this broad scope makes for rich reading. Ultimately, the unifying function of each map is to “rise above the earth” and see with a “divine perspective,” and Brotton offers an excellent guide to understanding these influential attempts at psychogeographical transcendence. Of course, each historic map, despite the cartographer’s efforts, contained inaccuracies, necessitating revisions—a humbling lesson for our current information-dense age.

Says Library Journal:  “Brotton. . .  has produced an exhaustively researched historical study of world maps as a direct reflection of the geopolitical, cultural, and religious consciousness of their particular time and context. The 12 examples chosen span centuries and cultures, from Ptolemy’s second-century study to 2012′s Google Earth. One particularly noteworthy chapter, “Exchange,” provides an account of al-Idrisi’s world map (1154). This cartographer, a Muslim commissioned by Christian King Roger II of Sicily, brought to his work both Latin and Arabic geographical knowledge. Brotton demonstrates how choice of perspective and projection can deliberately enhance or diminish terrestrial regions. North is at the top of our own maps, but early Christian maps used East, while early Islamic maps favored South. At the center could be Jerusalem, Mecca, Europe, or your home address via Google Earth. Richly illustrated with 52 period maps reproduced in full color from collections around the world. VERDICT This fascinating study will raise map consciousness and offer new cartographic insights. Although scholarly in tone, it is highly recommended for all map enthusiasts and anyone with an interest in historiography.

Kirkus Reviews says:  “A deeply erudite work of epistemology tracking how the making of maps throughout the ages reveals mankind’s mastery of the universe. In this wide-ranging work, English scholar Brotton . . . moves from Ptolemy’s Geography (A.D. second century) to Google Earth for an eclectic representation of the power of maps to confer man’s authority and dominion. Maps tell us what we know about ourselves in relation to the world but also what we want the viewer to know, drawing on shifting perception, orientation and direction throughout the ages as science, faith and egocentrism deepened. For example, most of these 12 maps spotlight the culture from which the mapmaker drew, and until the later Christian era, maps were “oriented” by the south rather than north. Brotton divides his work into discrete themes such as science, faith, money and equality, selecting the map that best represents that particular idea at some moment in history. For example, Geography encapsulated more than 1,000 years of Greek thinking on the world “as a single and continuous entity” and was used as a model for the next two millennia. Muhammad al-Idrisi’s Entertainment (A.D. 1154) reveals the enormously rich exchange of ideas between the Muslim East and Christian West. The bishop of Hereford’s Mappamundi (1300) depicts fanciful theological events both classical and biblical, with Jerusalem at its center. Gerard Mercator’s World Map (1569) shows how the extraordinary mapmaker circumscribed the persecution of his Protestant faith by rendering a vast map for navigation using a combination of cosmographical tradition and new scientific understanding. Brotton explores the ideology behind each mapmaker and the compelling “emotional forces” that he reveals about our civilization. A dense and scholarly but rewarding journey for the intellectually intrepid.

When is it available?

You won’t need a map to find this book at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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