… IS, WELL, WHAT YOU SEE
Or The Lego Box View of the World of Yore and a Few Other Considerations
John Howe writes: I’ve been spending a lot of time leafing through old atlases and encyclopedias, both physically and on the net, and have become enamoured of the various and varying views of the world of yore*.
Image trawling is like looking for pieces in a box of Lego.
When our son was small, purchases of Lego would remain reverently, albiet briefly, confined to the boxes they came with, but after a while, when the novelty had worn off, they joined the multitudes of other pieces in a large plastic utility box – one of several in fact. These would be overturned on th floor with a flourish prior to undertaking any major building project, whether fantastical (the favourites, especilly with a father always both home and happy to revert to childhood via plastic blocks from Denmark) or from the instruction books. Hours and hours I’ve spent raking through drifts, heaps and piles of the things in search of one kind of brick, or one colour of one kind of brick.
Now, where all this is going is that one’s brain (well, mine, anyway) seems to be capable of searching for a maximum of three or four combinations of shape and colour. What doesn’t tally is invisible, so if one is in dire need of a red single-row brick with five bumps, then differently-coloured pentabumpèd blocks are missed, as are blocks of other colours but the right number of bumps.
The same goes when poring over imagery. I often have exchanges with my re-enactor-cum-historian friends that go along these lines. “Did you notice all thoe different halberd shapes in that manuscript?” “Halberds? Can’t recall. there were lots of interesting lanterns, though.” When you’re looking for the cut of hose, you miss the shapes of roof gables, and vice-versa. So, it’s already hard enough spotting things when the images are trustworthy, but when face value is not necessarily guaranteed…
This meandering and musing because I’ve been spending a good deal of time lately looking at pictures. Mostly from the 16th to 19th centuries, beginning with what we call The Age of Discovery and up through the Age of Enlightenment to the Industrial Age. (I just love how we love breaking everything down into Ages. Actually, I got briefly side-tracked too, into the Golden Age of Illustration, via the two-volume biography of Edgar Rice Burroughs by Irwin Porges and a few chance quotes from the astonishing illustrator J. Allen St. John, but that’s for another Time, right now I’m just content to resist the urge to haul down my three-volume Limited Centennial Edition of The Edgar Rice Burroughs Library of Illustration, but thankfully it’s a hefty tome on a lofty shelf, as I hardly need to get sidetracked yet again.)
Back to the 16th century. The imagery in the first atlases is doubly fabulous. First of all because of the exotic nature of the subject matter, secondly by the elbow room given to the imagination of the cartographers. Imagine the feverish activity in the studios producing them. First of all, it was a great fad by that time, every well-to-do bourgeois wished to possess maps and images of the newly-discovered continents. Conversely, copper-plate etching doesn’t allow for much improvisation, so the combination of breaking news (relatively speaking) and the marathon of intensive labour involved made atlases, encyclopaedias and mappamundi complicated and expensive to produce. (Small wonder the notion of copyright was developed at that precise time.)
By 1650 and 1700 there were eighteen major centres producing maps in Europe. Now of course, these weren’t the practical kind, the ones you would expect to travel from A to B with, they were for an entirely different kind of travelling, that of the imagination. Partly because solid contours beyond familar shores were hesitant in coming, and partly to make these grand maps something handsome to look at, elaborate cartouches with supporting figures and expecially fanciful scenes took up much of the surface. Equally fanciful creatures crawled the waves, and while “Hc svnt draconis” only ever appeared on one map, the spirit was there. [More]