Peter Whitfield: Maps Were Originally Works Of Art

Roundup: Talking About History

[Peter Whitfield is author of "Cities of the World: A History in Maps" (British Library).]

The names of the great cities of the ancient world echo in the mind like evocative fragments of poetry: Babylon, Nineveh, Persepolis, Thebes, Rome, Athens, Alexandria. Historians have told us repeatedly that the earliest cities were the fountainheads of civilisation, that their founding signalled the end of the pastoral and nomadic life and the beginning of law, government, architecture, art and the life of the mind.

But what did these great cities actually look like? Two centuries of archaeology have told us a great deal. But the people who lived in them have left us no surviving record - no maps, no views, no urban panoramas of their cities. All we have are a few sketches on stone or clay tablet showing city walls, usually under attack in battle or siege. The only real exception that we know of was the massive plan of Rome incised on stone around AD200 and laid out for public display; several small fragments have been discovered.

The lack of urban images continued into medieval art: there are no plans or views of Paris, London, Toledo, Milan, Cologne or any other of the great cultural centres. In medieval manuscripts we begin to see mere glimpses of cities - stylised walls, gates, towers, and perhaps a bridge. The Matthew Paris miniature of London dated 1252 is of this kind, the earliest image of London that we have. Two cities that do appear repeatedly in medieval art are Rome and Jerusalem, but once again in a purely stylised, symbolic form.

This lack of interest in portraying the real city is puzzling and intriguing. It must surely have had an intellectual rationale: the secular city was chaotic, sinful and impermanent, not a fit subject for artists whose motives and patrons were entirely religious. It can be no accident that a recurring motif in medieval art is the contrast between the earthly and heavenly cities, the one given over to the seven deadly sins, the other inhabited by saints and angels.

This strange reluctance to look at the city ends decisively in Italy in the early Renaissance. Between 1440 and 1500 we suddenly find manuscript artists painting fairly precise views, aerial snapshots, of Verona, Milan, Venice, Rome and foreign cities such as Constantinople and Jerusalem. These collections of city images were commissioned by both secular rulers and by princes of the church. They reflect the humanist's growing curiosity about the world beyond their own immediate sphere. But they may have had a slightly more sinister motive too: in an Italy torn by armed conflict, a collection of city maps also had a political and military value. In order to satisfy either of these motives, the city views had to become more precise than they had been previously.

The urban image made the transition to print in 1485, with Rosselli's beautifully conceived engraving of Florence, and reached a high-point in the breathtaking panorama of Venice executed by Jacopo de Barbari in 1500. Barbari must have made hundreds of sketches on the ground, then miraculously transformed all this material to create an imaginary viewpoint high in the air, giving us a god-like perspective on the city. Barbari's approach exercised enormous influence, and was imitated by many artists, including Cornelis Anthoniszoon's magnificent view of his native Amsterdam.

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