Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Historic Maps of Spain

I was lucky enough to visit Spain this summer and in order to prepare for my trip, I read a history of the country. This history had a fair number of pictures in it, but no maps, which I found to be a great oversight. I think that maps are essential for any history. Not only do they give visual context for the events you read about, but maps contemporary to the history being read also let you see the places being described through the eyes of those alive at the time. As I read the history, I kept turning to look at period maps of Spain and found this really enhanced my understanding and interest in the topic.

Spain was, of course, a land known quite well in ancient times. The Phoenicians and Greeks settled along the coasts as early as the 9th century BCE and the Romans conquered what they called Hispania in 19 BCE. The earliest regional maps we have of Europe are those which were described by Claudius Ptolemy about 150 CE. We know of no examples of Ptolemy’s maps which were actually drawn before about the 13th century, but these maps—which were printed in great numbers from the late fifteenth through mid-sixteenth century—were at least based on Ptolemy’s original text and show us the Roman understanding of the places depicted. Thus, when we look at a Ptolemaic map of the Iberian Peninsula, such as this map of Hispania from 1542, we can see Spain as it was understood during the Roman Empire.

Munster Spain & Portugal

Of course, by the end of the fifteenth century, Europeans had better geographic information about their own continent than was included on the century and a half old Ptolemaic maps. It is interesting that in many of the same atlases which included Ptolemaic maps, the publisher also included a “modern” map of the same place. The map above, showing Spain as understood by Sebastian Munster—one of the greatest cartographers of his day—was issued in the same 1542 atlas as the previous Ptolemaic map. This map was issued when Spain was entering its period of greatest glory, not long after the Reconquista of 1492 and during the reign of Charles I, also ruler of the Holy Roman Empire.

As the sixteenth century moved on, Spain grew wealthier—from the richest pouring in from the Americas—and European cartographers began to produce better and better maps. In 1571, Carolus Clusius produced a large, six sheet map of the Iberian Peninsula, which included an amazing amount of detail of the many cities and towns throughout Spain. This was copied by Abraham Ortelius in a single sheet map (above). This shows Spain when it was the most feared nation in Europe, during the reign of Philip II and just before the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

With Philip II’s death in 1598, Philip III began his over two decade reign. Spain still was one of the most powerful nations in Europe, though it was weakened by its involvement in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). The situation of Spain at the time is beautifully evidenced in this map from about 1610. It includes the Royal Crest, images of major cities, figures along the sides in typical dress of the period, and a portrait of Philip III at the bottom center. This map graphically conveys the power and glory of Spain in a manner no text can do. This, and the other maps above, are just a few examples of how maps can provide a rich texture to the history of any place in the world.

To see a selection of maps of Spain, visit The Philadelphia Print Shop West's web site.