The Art of Cartography | Exhibit Digest

August 17, 2020 | Nicole

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Interior of gallery with old maps on walls

This post reproduces text from The Art of Cartography exhibit, which was on display in TD Gallery at the Toronto Reference Library from August 13 to October 16, 2016.

The exhibit featured world maps, atlases, manuscript maps, sea charts, celestial maps, city plans and other cartographic curiosities from the library's Special Collections.

Each one of the exhibit's main panels is found below, word for word.

You can also see more items from the exhibit on our Digital Archive.



The Art of Cartography

Cartography — the practice of making maps — is both an art and a science.  Throughout history, maps have been created for practical purposes, telling us where we are in the world and helping us find where we are going. We have used maps to chart the land, sea and skies and to understand the world around us. 

Historical maps can also be appreciated as works of art. They paint a picture of a place or region using colour, line, symbols and often elaborate embellishments. The artistic elements of maps can tell us many things about how and why they were made and capture ideas about the world at the time.    

The Art of Cartography highlights the artistry of maps and atlases from the late 15th century to the late 19th century. The maps on display have many stories to tell: of lands and seas explored and unexplored, of wayfarers and voyagers, of peoples and societies, and of places both real and imagined. 

This exhibit features world maps, atlases, manuscript maps, sea charts, celestial maps, city plans and other cartographic curiosities from the Toronto Public Library’s Special Collections. Thanks to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto for contributing items to the exhibit.

Inside a glass museum display case an atlas is shown open
Shown above right is Geographia vniversalis, vetvs et nova, complectens enarrationis libros VIII, by Sebastian Münster (1489-1552), 1545, courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.


Mapping the Land

European mapmakers were faced with huge areas of terra incognita ("unknown lands") before the 17th century. They often relied on creative imagery to embellish the empty spaces. As explorers and cartographers filled in the world with more detail and accuracy, decorative elements were pushed out to the margins.

Spanning over 200 years, the maps displayed here reveal changing artistic representations of the New World. They are decorated with scenes of pastoral landscapes, mythological figures, Indigenous peoples, and flora and fauna. Each map paints a picture: Canada and North America as seen through the eyes of European explorers and cartographers. Their artistic choices were also shaped by political interests. The colonial powers that claimed control over these territories had a vested interest in how they were represented.

An un-coloured map of New France shows rivers and other geographic features and the Atlantic Ocean is decorated with rhumb lines and illustrations of whales and ships
Carte de la Nouvelle France, Samuel de Champlain (1574-1635), 1640. Champlain’s maps of New France helped transform what was seen as a barren wilderness into an abundant land, ripe for colonization. Interestingly, Champlain is also described as the first European mapmaker who relied on accounts of Aboriginal peoples to map areas he had not explored. 


Invented Lands and Phantom Islands

Maps are fascinating records of what was known and unknown about the world at time.  Early cartographers rarely had first-hand knowledge of the territories they mapped. They worked from travelogues and relied on the accuracy of the mapmakers who came before them. Either honest mistakes or conscious fabrications, historical maps sometimes feature places that never actually existed.

The maps displayed here feature some curious cartographic fictions. On maps of the North Atlantic, the mythical island of Frisland was rendered in a surprising amount of detail. These “mistakes” were copied again and again by subsequent mapmakers. California, for example, was depicted as an island by mapmakers for over 250 years.    

The fictional island of Frisland is shown in pink at right side of map
Frislanda, Scoperta da Nicolo Zeno Patritio Veneto Creduta Favolosa, o nel Mare Somersa by Vincenzo Coronelli (1650-1718), 1695.
A square map of the North Pole is annotated to show four mountainous islands surrounding a black magnetic rock
Septentrionalium terrarum descriptio Gerard Mercator (1512-1594), 1613. This is the first printed map of the North Pole. In an example of the artistic license often taken by early cartographers to explain the unknown, Mercator envisioned the Arctic as four mountainous islands surrounding a black magnetic rock, itself surrounded by a whirlpool and river rapids.


Charting the Sea

Sea charts were created by seafarers to help navigate vast and dangerous waters. Medieval mariners used charts to plot compass bearings and map the coastlines of the Mediterranean. These charts contain vital information such as currents and the locations of rocks, shoals and harbours.

Designed for practical purposes, sea charts can be appreciated for their artistic qualities. Most feature graphic radiating lines - known as rhumb lines - which helped sailors navigate along the bearings of a compass.  Some sea charts were never intended to be used for navigation but were collected by nobles and royalty for display.

Sea charts are often decorated with images of fish, sea monsters and bizarre animal hybrids. These creatures convey the peril and uncertainty of deep waters. Dragon-like monsters also appear on early maps but not, as some believe, accompanied by the Latin phrase Hic sunt dracones (“here be dragons”). This phrase is only known to have appeared on one small copper engraved globe from the early 16th century. 

A sea chart covered in intersecting solid and dashed lines and is decorated with ships and human figures
Septemtrionaliora Americae a Groenlandia from Zeekaerton, Frederick de Wit (1630-1706). Amsterdam: De Witte Pascaert, 1675. Frederick de Wit was one of the most famous dealers of maps, prints and art during the Dutch Golden Age. His atlas Tabulae Maritimae featured sea charts of waters around the world, embellished with finely etched cartouches.


Charting the Skies

Celestial maps chart the positions of stars, planets, galaxies, comets and other astronomical bodies. The oldest known star chart dates back 32,500 years.

People have used the stars and planets to guide them on voyages and journeys. Astronomical charts and maps were also used to determine fortunes and predict future events. 

A circular map shows animals and mythological figures representing constellations
Figure 34 of Beschreibung des Gantzen Welt-Kreysses, Allain Manneson Mallet, (1630-1706). Frankfurt: David Zunner, 1685. Original published in Paris: 1683. French cartographer Allain Manneson Mallet’s Description de L'Univers contains maps of all parts of the then-known world, including star maps, astronomical charts, and illustrations of costumes, customs, cities and religions of many nations.


Mapping the City

Maps, plans and views help to define a city’s character. Cartographers offer new perspectives and selective highlights: important landmarks, architectural styles, boundaries, and places of civic importance. Maps can also be tools for visualizing and planning for future development.  

On display here are hand-coloured views from Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg’s Civitates Orbis Terrarum (“Cities of the World”). First published in 1572, the atlas contains 546 birds-eye views of the great cities of the world. The exhibit also features a rare 1493 edition of the Liber Chronicarum (known as the Nuremberg Chronicle). This illustrated history of the world is regarded as one of the most important collections of city views of the late Middle Ages. 

Colourful map of the star-shaped fortified city of Palma
Palma from Civitates Orbis Terrarum, Georg Braun (1541-1622), Frans Hogenberg (1535-1590), 1593.



Curatorial note (July 2020)

We recognize that this exhibit regretfully failed to include any Indigenous perspectives on mapping and to fully consider the ways that cartography has served to erase Indigenous names, knowledge, histories and presence across traditional territories.

Explore Indigenous mapping projects

Native Land: Native Land is a tool and app that maps out Indigenous territories, treaties, and languages.

Gwich’in Place Name and Story Atlas: an interactive online Atlas that invites visitors to explore the culture, history, traditional knowledge and land use of the Gwich’in through Gwich’in place names.

Inuit Siku (sea ice) Atlas: online, interactive, multi-media atlas is a compilation of Inuit sea ice knowledge and use.

Stz’uminus Storied Places Digital Atlas: digital map of traditional knowledge of Stz’uminus territory and place names shared by Elders through a youth-involved, community-based video stories.

Squamish Atlas: Squamish language place name map tool developed by the Indigenous non‐profit Kwi Awt Stelmexw

Views from the North Atlas: collaboration between the Inuit training program Nunavut Sivuniksavut and Carleton University with contributions from the Library and Archives Canada.

Ogimaa Mikana Project: an effort to restore Anishinaabemowin place-names to the streets, avenues, roads, paths, and trails of Gichi Kiiwenging (Toronto).

Kitikmeot Place Name Atlas: ongoing project record the traditional Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun place names of the Kitikmeot Region, led by the Kitikmeot Heritage Society.

The "Oka Crisis": A Digital Atlas of the 1990 Events at Kanehsatà:ke: a digital, interactive map of the 1990 Kanien’kehà:ka resistance and uprising at Kanehsatà:ke, also known as the “Oka Crisis.”

Húy̓at Territory Tour: 360° virtual tour and interactive map developed by the Heiltsuk Nation, researchers and project partners from Simon Fraser University, the University of Victoria, and Greencoast Media.

Cartography 17: restorative, collaborative and inclusive project that is creating new map of Toronto with the input of its diverse residents on the foundation of the culture and tradition of the First Nations people of the region. (Exhibited at Toronto Reference Library in 2018.)

Canadian Geographic Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada: Created by The Royal Canadian Geographical Society in conjunction with Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the Assembly of First Nations, the Métis National Council, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and Indspire.