Maps as visual encyclopedias

Maps play many roles: introducing newly discovered lands, illustrating battle scenes, guiding ship captains through treacherous waters, and more. Beginning in the second half of the 19th century, we start to see maps become a type of visual encyclopedia, jam-packed with information. A good example is this world map on Mercator's Projection, published in Germany.

This is a map that tells the story of the geography of the world alongside the expanding technological and commercial reach of human populations; among the many subjects presented are steamship lines and routes, drift ice, sailing routes, telegraph lines, wind course directions, and ocean currents.

California's Drying Lakes, past and present: Salton Sea & Tulare Lake

A report in the NYT today discusses the drying of California's biggest lake, the Salton Sea. 

The Salton is a modern creation in place of what was once Lake Cahuilla, where Native Americans fished and camped. The area was flooded by water from the Colorado River after a canal burst in the early 1900s. Thus the Salton Sea was born, eventually becoming a tourist destination.

Like the Dead Sea, runoff, evaporation, and drought has caused the Salton Sea to have very high salinity; and like the Dead Sea, the Salton is, um, dying.

This has happened before. Many 19th century maps of California show a massive Tulare Lake in the San Joaquin Valley. At this time, the Tulare was the biggest freshwater lake west of the Great Lakes. In large part because its tributaries were diverted for agricultural use, the Tulare dried up in the first half of the 20th century.

Here are some 19th century maps that depict the Tulare and a postal map from 1954 in which it is gone completely:

The Cantino Planishpere returns to Ferrara

In the 15th and 16th centuries, the small city of Ferrara was one of the most important centers of art and scholarship in northern Italy. Chief among the many significant patrons during this period was Ercole I d'Este, duke of Ferrara from 1471 to 1505.

Ercole's reign came at a time of expanding European understanding of the extent of the world and no place was more at the forefront of exploration, navigation technology, and mapping than the Iberian peninsula. The rest of Europe coveted the sea charts and maps of Spanish and Portuguese cartographers, which were the best of the day, but also kept the most secret. Ercole instructed his ambassador to the Portuguese court, Alberto Cantino, to acquire a map based on Portuguese sources. Cantino smuggled to Ferrara a giant map (1.05 m x 2.2 m; 3.4 ft x 7.2 ft), from an anonymous Portuguese mapmaker likely working at the House of India in Lisbon between 1501-2, probably a copy of an up-to-date official map. The result is the so-called 'Cantino Map,' one of the most celebrated cartographic achievements of the Renaissance.

Like many of the works of art produced under the patronage of the House of Este, the Cantino Map eventually ended up in Modena; its permanent home today is the Biblioteca Estense Universitaria there. Thus it was to my great surprise that while visiting a recent exhibition at Palazzo Diamanti in Ferrara on Orlando Furioso, I turned a corner and there it was on display. I had seen it so many times in books - it is invariably in almost every "Greatest Maps" book - that the sight stopped me where I stood.

Here we have the expanding world plotted by connecting wind roses, one of the earliest depictions of the voyages of Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama's new maritime route to India. We see too the Portuguese mastery of the waters around the African continent and Indian Ocean, with coastal detail decades or more ahead of other European powers. With Ptolemaic mapping elements like the Mountains of the Moon as the source of the Nile, pictorial cities like Jerusalem, the tropical birds of South America, and more, it is easy to get lost in the details of this exceptional treasure.

Please enjoy some photos I took.

The Origin of the Name "California"

Check out this interesting an informative article on the origin of the name "California" by Robert Petersen, in which the author points to the influence of a 16th century romance novel written by a Spanish author named Garcia Ordonez de Montalvo.

For an idea of one way in which Europeans understood the topography of California in the 16th century, here is a 1597 map by Cornelius Wytfliet, the first printed map to focus on California and the American Southwest, from the first atlas devoted entirely to maps of the Americas.