The evolution of cartography


Romans were known for their roads, but have you ever seen their road map? The Royal B.C. Museum (RBCM) is displaying a printed copy from 1624 — called the Peutinger Table — but the original was from the fifth century. It shows roads from England to Sri Lanka, approximately 70 000 miles of Roman roadways. The original is a series of panels on the wall, but the exhibit also includes a facsimile that has been joined end to end on a very long table. Standing over this map, on which the Mediterranean Ocean is skinny enough to be a river and Rome is marked by a medallion, looking at the roads the couriers travelled on, seeing the names of the cities of what was once the most powerful empire in the world — some still standing, and some long gone — is a humbling experience. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” is called to mind: “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

However, most of the Envisioning the World: The First Printed Maps, 1472–1700 exhibit, which runs until Jan. 27 and is on loan from California’s Sonoma County Museum, is not so humbling. The exhibit traces European humanity through the centuries, from the early religious world-view to a sophisticated map drawn by Edmond Halley.

The oldest map in the collection is a woodblock printed in the 1450s, one of the first printed maps. Believed to have been drawn around 150 A.D., a copy of this map was rediscovered in sixth-century Alexandria. It is extremely simple — the oceans are a T surrounded by three continents, each with one of the names of Noah’s sons. It was based on a still older view of the world: that of the Greek philosopher Ptolemy.

As one walks through the exhibit, the maps change and become more recognizable, not only due to the work of scientists like Galileo, Copernicus and Brahe, whose revolution in planetary and stellar mechanics led to more accurate navigation, but also because of a changing world-view. The maps no longer reflect theology — they reflect the growing scientific approach to the world, which drove the scientific revolution.

However, throughout much of the exhibit, even the scientific world maps have flaws. One map shows California detached from North America; several show a great continent at the bottom of the world — Terra Australis. North America, South America and Oceania appear on most of the maps, but they are odd shapes. In one, North America is nearly square. In another, South America is attached to Terra Australis, blocking the way across the world — except that map shows open ocean between the blob of North America and the skinny land-mass of South America. In the next map over, that has been corrected; the Spanish explorer Magellan’s ship has returned to Europe, so the map depicts the strait between South America and Tierra del Fuego, which bears his name.

The exhibit has many moments like that: two steps between displays and the map changes, reflecting a man’s lifetime of work and the slow cultural shift in world-view.

The last display is Edmond Halley’s map from his voyages aboard the HMS Paramour, where he investigated magnetic anomalies that affect compasses. Combining his earlier research on winds with his magnetic research, the map shows the wind directions and parts of Earth’s magnetic fields. Finished in 1 700, roughly 200 years after the scientific revolution began, Halley’s map is nearly identical to the modern world map; parts of North America’s West Coast, including B.C., are still being explored and are unmapped.

These 30 maps, from the collection of American businessman Henry Wendt, are a truly mind-expanding look at our world, a chronicle of scientific and philosophical development. Anyone — geographer, cartographer, artist or other — will find something to ponder and something beautiful in this collection. From the early maps — more theology than guide — to the lavish decorations on some later maps, to the final exhibits showing then state-of-the art science, you will be enchanted.

Envisioning the World: The First Printed Maps, 1472–1700 
Royal B.C. Museum
10 a.m. – 5 p.m. every day
$10.15 (students)