Maps and how their image is changing.

From the different kinds of leones belgica (Dutch lions) to mapae mundi (world maps) to atlantes (atlases); I love maps! There is just something about them that speak to me. The way they convey raw data and a creator’s vision at the same time is astounding. Especially older maps have a place in my heart. When you see the works of Claudius Ptolemaeus or the Blaeu family you get a sense of what they thought the world was like. One example I saw a couple of days ago was a map used by the pilgrims and found in North America. Dating from the seventeenth century, it depicts the old and the new world from the perspective of someone who cannot possibly have seen it all. The map is scattered with drawings; little towns and trading outposts, ships sailing from and to continents and ports, trade goods on the locations where one might buy them and so forth. It included a sense of wonder that is indescribable.

Leonis Belgici, Jodocus Hondius (1611, Wikimedia)

Triangulation, also known as surveying, had greatly increased the accuracy of maps and geographical data in the past, but with the rise of satellite-imagery we are reaching new levels of true-to-life maps never seen before. This comes at a cost, however. They may very well be a lot more useful than in the past, but the maps beauty is lost.

Do not get me wrong; I am not against this change. After all, I would hate to look at a sketchy, hand-drawn map just to find my way to the nearest pharmacy. And do not get me started on using maps while driving. I remember my parents having some heated squabbles, because one of them did not take the right exit off the freeway. Or maybe the other one gave the wrong directions? Who really knows? The introduction of software from companies like TomTom during the late 90’s and early 2000’s is invaluable. Nowadays you do not even need to buy a separate computer, calculating away and trying to find the best route from A to B, because everyone has one in their pockets. Your phone is your guide. Google Maps, Apple Maps and OpenStreetMap gave us the power to find all the geographical information we need on a daily basis, and we carry that information with us all the time!

Sometimes, it seems to me like the purposes of those maps from the past is no longer relevant today. Maps are seemingly more and more about functionality and less about sending a message or telling a story. However, when I open one of my atlases or when I am lurking on reddit’s mapporn section, I see beautiful and functional maps! Something that actually conveys true data. Data that is not seen through tinted spectacles, because some guy in the seventeenth century thought it would look better. And when I do see one of those maps, I remember that true artistic maps still exists.