Monday, February 27, 2017

Sebastian Munster

Sebastian Munster (1488-1552) was one of the most influential mapmakers of the sixteenth century. He was born in Hessen, Germany, studied in Heidelburg and Tübingen, and finally settled in Basle, where he lived the rest of his life. Munster was a cosmographer, theologian, mathematician, professor of Hebrew, and geographer. His output included separate sheet maps, maps for other’s publications, but he is best known for his many editions of Ptolemy’s Geographia, beginning in 1540, and of his own Cosmographia, beginning in 1544. These volumes were very popular and influential, running through many editions, with the latter published until well after his death.


Claudius Ptolemy was the librarian at Alexandria in the Second Century A.D. who wrote two major works, one of which, the Geographia, was the first world atlas. It consisted of Ptolemy’s compilation of all known geographic information, including instructions for how to make maps. Rediscovered in the middle ages, Ptolemy’s Geographia had a huge impact on man’s understanding of the world. Such was this influence that even in the sixteenth century, when Ptolemy’s geographic conceptions were known to be wrong, maps based on his depictions were issued time and again.


Munster’s edition of the Geographia, contained 48 woodcut maps, including the Ptolemaic maps of the world and its parts, to which Munster added “modern” maps showing the latest information available in the first part of the sixteenth century. Thus for both the world map, and many regional maps, Munster included a geographic image which was 14 centuries old and one which was “up-to-date.” Other geographers did this as well, but Munster was innovative in being the first to include a separate map of each of the four known continents, a feature of atlases which soon became standard.


Munster’s Cosmographia was a compendium of all the information he felt important about the cosmos, featuring details on the history, flora and fauna of all parts of the known world.


Page from Cosmographia

The work included woodcut views and maps of countries and cities around the world, and it is filled with a multitude of small woodcuts showing portraits, animals, plants, sea monsters, and much else.


Ptolemaic World

So, let's look at some of Munster's output... Above is the Ptolemaic world map from the Geographia. It shows the typical artistic design of Munster's maps, in this case with the twelve "winds" shown around the edges. The map shows the world as the ancients thought it was in the time of Ptolemy, so there is no "New World," just Europe, Asia and Africa. Note that Africa connects with Asia along the bottom of the map, making the Indian Ocean landlocked.


Modern World

Look at the difference in this map, which shows the world as understood in 1540! The Americas are shown and Africa now has approximately the right shape. Still, the map has its echos of the past, still showing the winds around the edge, and its oceans filled with sea monsters. It is fascinating to realize that both of these maps were issued in the same atlas!


Ptolemaic Italy

This double imaging of places happened not just for the world, but also for regions. Here is Munster's map of Italy, as known in the time of Ptolemy--in this case quite accurate as much was known of the peninsula in ancient times.


Modern Italy

The map above was issued in the same atlas as the map above, with no comment made about which is better.


New World

As I mentioned above, Munster was the first to include separate maps of all the known continents, such as this map of the Americas. This map is even more important, as it is the first time the "New World" had been shown in a map as a single landmass. The map is a delight, with a great representation of the cartographic myth of the "False Sea of Verrazano"--that curious indentation in the northern part of North America--, as well as showing Magellan's ship, the Victoria sailing across the Pacific Ocean and including pictures indicating the cannibals of the New World.


View of Heidelberg

The views of the cities in the Cosmographia, on the other hand, were all modern renderings, mostly based on first-hand knowledge. These are some of the earliest, and most decorative, views of European places.


Munster's Monsters

I cannot do a blog about Munster without mentioning my favorite of all his work, his compendium of Sea and Land Monsters. Here Munster shows all the known monsters of the world, including those of the oceans and of the ‘unknown’ lands beyond the edge of civilization. While most intellectuals of the late sixteenth century treated the existence of these monsters with skepticism, many still believed in their existence and the issue was certainly not completely decided. As Munster’s Cosmographia was a description of the whole world, this print of monsters was needed to make the work complete. Across the top of the image are the land creatures, including a gluttonous bear. Below are the “Sea Wonders.” We are most fortunate that Munster included the print, for it offers us a unique glimpse of Renaissance attitudes towards those ‘unknown parts’ of their world.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

John Dee's Fantastic Map of 1582

John Dee (1527-1608) was an English alchemist, astrologer, astronomer, mathematician, and practitioner of the occult arts. He lived at a time when the occult and science were just beginning to be separated and Dee had a foot firmly planted in both worlds, being an expert in both arcane and scientific knowledge.


His erudite and wide-ranging abilities gave him a prominent place in Elizabethan England; he served periodically as Queen Elizabeth’s advisor and tutor, and he was well connected with, among others, William Cecil, Sir Philip Sidney, Robert Dudley, and Sir Humphrey Gilbert.


In the 1570s, the Elizabethans had turned their eyes to the lands and seas west of the British Isles. Martin Frobisher was seeking a passage around the norther end of North America—-the famous Northwest Passage-—and Sir Humphrey Gilbert was applying for letters patent to colonize the continent north of the Spanish in Florida, which he received on June 11, 1578. Dee was an important figure in the world of Tudor geography.


For an extended period, from about 1551 to 1583, Dee was an advisor for English voyages of discovery, to the Northeast and to the Northwest, including for the Muscovy Company. He helped to instruct a number of notable English captains, including Richard Chancellor, Stephen and William Borough, Martin Frobisher, Humphrey Gilbert, John Davis, and Walter Raleigh, and he may have been an advisor for Drake's voyage around the world. His 1577 Perfect Arte of Navigation (more a geography and propaganda for the English empire than a science of navigation) was originally intended as part of a larger work, a general history of discoveries.


Interestingly, Dee actually coined the term “British Empire,” though in his case “British” referred to the earlier inhabitants of the islands, for he argued that the mythical Prince Madoc had discovered North America, establishing first rights to the continent for the English.


Dee was also a cartographer, having studied with the great Gerard Mercator. He drew a number of manuscript maps, including one of the North America in 1580 for Queen Elizabeth. About 1582, he prepared a map of the northern hemisphere with a polar projection for Humphrey Gilbert (shown above). His depiction of the North Pole was based on Mercator’s map of that region, about which Mercator had written to Dee in 1577, explaining his sources. The rest of the map seems to be drawn for propaganda purposes, promoting various possible ways to sail to “Cathaia,” which is shown opposite Great Britain. The map depicts various open waterways to the East, including routes north of both Scandinavia and Russia, and North America.


The most extraordinary part of the map, clearly demonstrating Dee’s fixation on water routes, is the rendering of North America, which is a veritable Swiss cheese of rivers and lakes. Dee shows the Sea of Verrazano, approaching very close to the Atlantic in the region of Virginia, but there are also numerous other waterways interlacing the continent. He shows a very early version of a non-existent lake in the southeast, with a river flowing into the Atlantic, with two other rivers entering this lake on its western shore: one connecting the lake with the Gulf of Mexico and one flowing all the way from northern Mexico. To the north of the Sea of Verrazano flows the St. Lawrence, a branch of which connects to that sea and another of which flows to a large gulf on the northern coastline of the continent.


To the west of Hochelaga (where Montreal is today) is a large lake, out of the west of which a river extends to the northern end of the Gulf of California. Interestingly, another river extends from the Gulf of California to the northwest, while a river on the northwest coast of America flows to the east past the mythical city of Quivira, reaching toward, but not quite meeting the other river. Whether these rivers actually meet is left somewhat vague, perhaps Dee hinting at the notion of California as an island, which wouldn’t be definitely shown on maps for another four decades.


Dee’s map shows the geographic notions floating around England at the end of the sixteenth century. Part of the reason they wanted to settle North America was to have a base for the believed-to-exist route to the Pacific, and looking at this map this makes a lot of sense. Of course, they were quite wrong and it wasn’t too long before the English focused most of their attention on the search for the Northwest Territory. However, the concept of a more southerly water route across the continent did not die for several centuries yet, next being taken up by the French and their search for a ‘River of the West.’


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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Correcting errors on prints


Carpenter's Emancipation Proclamation

Because prints are printed from a physical matrix made of wood, metal or stone, all of which can be modified (some more easily than others), there are often print variants created by a modification to a matrix for some reason or other. Some of those modifications are because an error was made.



A nice example of this is Charles Fenerich's print of the Washington Monument. The original version of the print misspelled "Washington" as "Wasihngton," but once this was realized, the lithographic stone was correct to spell the city name properly. Early, mistaken versions of prints are often appealing to collectors, but this print was the object of either a complete miscalculation or a scam, for back in 2002 an owner of the first version was trying to convince people his print was worth $2 million! (I wrote about that story in an earlier blog)


This blog was prompted by a close inspection of one of my favorite prints which we just acquired, Francis Carpenter's engraving of Lincoln reading the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet (shown at the top). This is a print which I have handled probably six or seven times over the last three decades and it wasn't until today that I noticed what is clearly the correction of an error in the engraving.


If one looks closely at the engraving of Lincoln's left foot, one can see the faint outline of a different shape for his boot. The boot seems to have been originally engraved so that it was turned a bit towards Lincoln's right, but the finished engraving has the boot coming fairly straight ahead. This ghost image is the result of the steel plate not being completely smoothed out before it was reengraved with the new boot. One can only speculate why the boot was changed--probably a proof was run off and the boot just didn't look right--but this ghost image is an interesting shadow of the process of making a print like this.


An interesting question is whether this print was ever issued with the original boot. I have checked every image I can find and have not seen one before the correction. It is, of course, possible some were run off and exist somewhere. It would be fun to find one of these sometime, and there would be a premium in value for this "first state" (if it exists), however, I think that value would be well less than $2 million...