The Mapmakers’ Quest

David Buisseret, Oxford University Press, 2003, 227 pp, ISBN 019210053X,  $24.50 Amazon.com

In this small fact filled book Professor Busisseret describes, with the zealousness of an investigating journalist and historian, the evolution of maps, their authors and intended use in Western Europe between 1420 and 1800. On this historical journey the author takes great care to identify not only the cartographers of the cited maps but also nobles, church leaders and others who influenced events of their time.

Those readers wanting historic details and looking for research reference material will be especially rewarded by this book. While the author acknowledges other more extensive publications on the history of cartography, this reviewer found this compact account to be very enlightening.

As with many books dealing with this evolutionary subject, the author begins with the early-recorded mapping attempts of ancient Greece and Rome. Using related graphics he discusses the development of the early T-O maps and Portolan charts that laid the foundation for future maps. Continuing on this historic journey, he explores the contributions to Renaissance map making by scribes, illuminators and artists in the time of the Renaissance along with the intellectuals, clergy and military leaders of the period..

Buisseret credits Leon Battista Alberti’s (1404-72) with two techniques which were the basis for the development of today’s surveying tools used by archeologists and illustrators. One was the graduated circular overlay to accurately measure the location of ancient monuments in Rome. The other was the technique of using a transparent grid, known as a velo, to render a mathematically correct image of any subject. Buisseret highlights the contributions to cartographic development made by the foremost European countries of the time. With the use of numerous map reproductions and colored plates he explains how various citizens from each of these countries influenced map delineation. The final chapter is devoted to estate maps and town plans. Using graphic examples, he discusses various depiction methods such as profile, bird’s eye view and planimetric.

The book ends with a conclusive summary of cartographic evolution. Buisseret asserts that the growth of institutions such as religion and government, the development of trades and crafts, and the invention of the printing press which gave rise to wide-spread literacy were incremental steps in this evolutionary process. All of these steps have taken us from the T-O maps of antiquity to today’s satellite images of the earth and planets.

Reviewed by Chuck Gray
From the Society’s September 2007 Newsletter