#teachingrenaissance: on maps and Renaissance spaces

An increasing number of scholars are using Twitter, and It’s easy to see why. At it’s best, Twitter allows fast, responsive discussions that being together often quite unexpected respondents from a whole range of constituencies. In a way, Twitter can have the stimulating, motivating impact you usually only get at a conference when a chance conversation with another delegate spins off into the most amazing in- depth debate.
Last week something magical like that happened on Twitter when I posted a suggestion about creating a new hashtag, #teachingrenaissance, and discussion took off from there. In particular it was the topic of how to teach maps that we returned to again and again, as maps are objects that span across all the various disciplines taught by Renaissance scholars, whether in Departments of History, of English, of Philosophy, Theology, Music, or my own, Art History. It’s not surprising that maps are objects that appeal to scholars across so many disciplines; maps are in a way the perfect hybrid object. A map is both text and image (in equal measure), it’s both functional and immensely aesthetically appealing and like the very best texts and images, maps don’t give up their secrets easily and make their readers/ viewers work.
The question we were debating under the #teachingrenaissance hashtag was about HOW to teach on maps, and what theoretical frameworks to use. Michel Foucault, Juergen Habermas, Michel Bourdieu, Walter Benjamin were all mentioned as all of them share an ability to unlock some of the narrative constructions behind a map; there’s also the idea of a map as a ‘site of memory’, but for teaching, the starting point has to be much more basic and has to commence with a look at what we actually mean with a map.
Surely, this is the easy bit, right? A map is after all the ultimate piece of objective information that allows for accurate navigation, records distances, draws on shared conventions about landscape ( blue means water, that sort of thing), and is immediately useable. You can see the ‘but’ coming, because none of these assumptions apply to a Renaissance map because a map in the modern sense does not yet exist. Or, as Ian Mortimer in his excellent and very readable  A Time Traveller’s Guide To Elizabethan England reminds us, nor does the concept of ‘landscape’. Actually, thinking about space and putting this into discourse is not at all that common, so the Renaissance maps we were discussing are hard to work on because it it’s partly these very objects that start to shape our discourses about space. So, for teaching purposes, I would usually juxtapose readings on a particular map with a more generic, easily accessible and probably also more readable piece on space, such as the Mortimer mentioned above.
I have of course a favourite map, and yes, I know, it isn’t a map at all but really a view. But what a view…
I am talking of the truly magnificent View of Venice, executed between 1497- 1500 by Jacopo de’ Barbari, a piece I love so much, in have a framed copy of it in my living room. Not a day goes by when I don’t look at the image, and this is of course the intention of its maker. Maps are objects to be pondered, and objects that gradually reveal their meaning, and their meaning changes, in a fluid, organic and dynamic way.

Another all time favourite map is Stow’s magnificent Map of London from 1560, and to me, a direct response to the earlier Jacopo de’Barbari. Like the Venetian map, this image celabrates London as an organic whole, as a developing and developed centre of culture and commerce; the Stow, again  like the Barbari, places its city at the centre of a country(side) andf the relationships that develop between centre and periphery. Its about power, its about wealth, well, its propaganda and if we are to borrow a phrase from Burckhardt, its about the ‘state as a work of art’.
Now, let’s think again about this Jacopo de’Barbari map, or view, or whatever we may want to call it. It’s huge (134x 280 cm) and required 6 separate, and specially commissioned pieces of paper to assemble it, so it’s not only large but a composite piece of work , clearly designed for impact. It shows a bird’s eye view of the city of Venice in the year 1500 (the piece is both labelled and dated) and combines astonishing, realistic accuracy (you can play ‘spot-places-I-have- seen’) with a framework that overlays the image where Mercury hovers in a cloud-mandorla and Neptune sits astride a ginormous spiky sea monster. These Olympians are accompanied by eight little wind gods. Authenticity and realism sit uneasily with the mythological framework. It makes it hard for the (modern) viewer to know what type of thing we are looking at; is it real or is it symbolic? Again, isn’t this maybe the point of a map? The fact that it seems both authentic and trustworthy yet also symbolic and fluctuating?
And it is here that we return to our topic of #teachingrenaissance because, ultimately, that distinction did not matter for the Renaissance beholder. A map is as much about mapping psychological spaces of power as it is about geography or topography. In fact, the latter matters less than the former because maps are pieces of propaganda. Reading them requires the Renaissance scholar to use cross-disciplinary skills, and to treat it as both text and image, both fiction and non- fiction.
In my teaching, I do two things: I ask students first of all to look. What is it that they see, and especially, what is there that is unexpected? If you look closely, there are some amazing things on Renaissance maps from animals so outlandish not even Herodotus mentions them, to strange nymphs frolicking in formation – and clearly recalling synchronised swimmers!

Map to Song 1 of Poly-Olbion

Map to Song 1 of Poly-Olbion

(thanks to @SjoerdLevelt for the detail). From there, a task that works well is to ask them to draw a map themselves of a space they know well, usually campus, but draw the map ‘Renaissance-style’ and then explain the allegorical framework to the rest of the class. It is quite a step from being familiar with using a space to being able to abstract and visualize the space we are in and to make sense of this process through making a map. Again, as with the seminar on clothes I described in a previous blog this takes time, so I am again relying on a longer seminar slot, of two or 3 hours for more senior students, or setting a map as ‘homework’  in the case of more junior students and a shorther seminar. When I am feeling organised, I would then capture these maps by photographing them and putting them on a pinterest board for reference, but the last two times I ran the seminar, I actually forgot to photograph the maps as I was dealing with student queries. I keep thinking I need a better lesson plan and should write one, but I rarely do as I trust myself to remember. So this is a case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’…

I actually have some evidence that this seminar works. How? Because proportionally speaking, more students will choose coursework questions on maps than on anything else, maybe with the exception of questions of gender. But then, a really superb answer to an assignment on maps will often look at gendered space anyway….

Some bibliography:

Juergen Schulz, ‘Jacopo de’Barbari’s View of Venice: Map Making, City Views and Moralized Geography before the Year 1500’, Art Bulletin, LX (1978), pp.425-74; Deborah Howard, ‘Venice as a Dolphin: Further investigations into Jacopo de’Barbari’s View’, Artibus et Historiae, no 35, 1997, pp.101-111; Lucia Nuti. ‘The Perspective Plan in the Sixteenth Century: The Invention of a Representational LanguageThe Art Bulletin, Vol. 76, No. 1 (Mar., 1994), pp. 105-128.


4 thoughts on “#teachingrenaissance: on maps and Renaissance spaces

  1. My very first lecture I gave was on maps and their uses/representations in and as art, especially contemporary art around Northern Ireland. Somewhat outside renaissance period but nevertheless dealing with issues around trust, authenticity, the real, the symbolic etc… we should talk maps sometime!

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