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Geography and Cartography

Geography and Cartography

During the Renaissance, Europeans grew more interested in understanding their world, and the fields of geography and cartography gained new prominence. Geography involves the study of the places and peoples of the world, and cartography (mapmaking) is the visual representation of the world and its parts. Both played a part in furthering the economic and political ambitions of European states. In addition, the rediscovery of the work of an ancient scholar helped both geography and cartography take huge steps forward in the Renaissance.


Geography. Geography was closely linked to exploration and nation building, two important enterprises of the Renaissance. In earlier times geography had been part of cosmography, the study of the structure of the universe. During the 1500s and 1600s, geography emerged as a separate field that focused on Earth. Three related branches developed within geography—mathematical, descriptive, and chorographic—and each branch had special areas of study.

Mathematical geography was most closely related to mapmaking. It provided mathematical tools for measuring Earth's surface, determining the exact position of points on it, and transferring real-world measurements to maps. Mathematical geography grew out of Geographia, a work of the ancient Greek scholar Ptolemy, which was first translated into Latin in 1410. Ptolemy's key contribution was the notion of covering the Earth's surface with a grid of latitude and longitude lines, measurable through sightings of the sun and stars. These lines served as references for pinpointing the exact location of places. Many important Renaissance geographers, such as Peter Apian (1495–1552) and Sebastian Münster (1489–1552), published works based on Ptolemy's method, including world maps made with his system and measurements. By the mid-1500s, all major works on geography began with Ptolemy and used his framework.

Descriptive geography, the most familiar of the three branches, consisted of writings about physical and political structure of other lands and their inhabitants. Descriptive geography covered a wide range of topics, from practical details about European road conditions and inns to outlandish tall tales of faraway places and people. Among the most popular books of the Renaissance were the collections of travel accounts written by Giovanni Battista Ramusio (1485–1557), Richard Hakluyt (ca. 1552–1616), and Theodore de Bry (1528–1598).

Chorography involved the study of small areas or regions, focusing on histories of families, annals of events, landscapes, objects of antiquity*, and other points of interest. It combined a storyteller's interest in local sights, families, and wonders with demanding historical research. Two leading Renaissance chorographers were Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540–1609) and William Camden (1551–1623).


Cartography. Unlike geography, a field of scholarly learning, mapmaking was a more practical discipline connected with the guilds* and crafts such as printing. However, cartography also had close ties to mathematical geography, and developments in each field influenced the other.

During the Renaissance, mapmaking went through revolutionary changes. The introduction of the Ptolemaic system brought mathematical rules for representing the world on paper. Earlier maps of the known world had often been symbolic—for example, depicting the continents of Europe, Africa, and Asia in relation to the biblical Garden of Eden. Renaissance mapmakers, by contrast, sought to represent the world accurately and realistically. They wanted a measurable world, and Ptolemy offered them the perfect tools. In 1413, just three years after the first European publication of Ptolemy's work on geography, Pierre d'Ailly published Ptolemaic maps. Soon all cartographers were using Ptolemy's measurement-based approach, although some experimented with new forms of projection, the method of representing a spherical world on a flat map.

Although world maps before the Renaissance had not been created with realism in mind, another type of map had always stressed practical detail and accuracy. Sea charts, also known as portolans, were used for navigation in the Mediterranean and Red Seas and along the Atlantic coast. Based on observation, wind direction, and simple astronomical sightings, these charts represented firsthand geographic knowledge. Guarded jealously, passed from navigator to navigator, they were not published. During the 1500s, however, the information they contained began to appear in published maps and globes.

Part of the revolution in cartography was the explosion of interest in buying maps and globes. Martin Behaim of Germany made one of the first globes in 1493, and by the mid-1500s prosperous folk could purchase these symbols of worldly knowledge. The atlas, a set of maps bound into a book, appeared as a new and popular form of map ownership.

Two important mapmakers achieved considerable success. In 1569 Gerhard Mercator developed a new world map based on his own system of projection, which emphasized northern Europe and North America. Mercator's map was widely reprinted and copied, and his method of projection remained in use for centuries. A year after Mercator's map appeared, Abraham Ortelius published the first world atlas. Called Theatrum orbis terrarum (Theater of the World), it set the style and standard for all later atlases.

The exploration of the world during the Renaissance fueled the rising interest in geography and cartography. By the end of the 1600s, Europeans had learned the value of maps not just to scholarship but also to trade, navigation, national pride and ambition, and overseas conquest.

(See alsoAmericas; Exploration. )

* antiquity

era of the ancient Mediterranean cultures of Greece and Rome, ending around a.d. 400

* guild

association of craft or trade owners and workers that set standards for and represented the interests of its members

see color plate 4, vol. 4

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