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Cartographers pore over travel narratives, cosmographies, and religious tracts in order to gather material to incorporate into their maps.

Chet Van Duzer

Lazarus Project, University of Rochester, U.S. | GEOPAM

Fig. 1. Abraham Ortelius's Aeneae Troiani Navigatio ad Virgilij sex priores Aeneidos (Antwerp, 1609). Click for details. Courtesy of Barry Lawrence Ruderman Rare Maps.

My colleague Stephen McCormick of Washington and Lee University and I are organizing a conference on early modern intersections between cartography and literature that will take place on May 5, 2023, at the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies – Center for Early Global Studies at UCLA. As a foretaste of the conference, and to take advantage of some of the research I have done on the subject, I would like to use this short blog post to explore some of the multifarious ways that maps and literature can intertwine.

One obvious way that maps and literature can interact is that a cartographer can make a map of the world created in a piece of literature, or of the journey of a character in a poem or novel, whether that journey takes place in a fictional world or the real one. An example of such a map is Abraham Ortelius’s Aeneae Troiani Navigatio ad Virgilij sex priores Aeneidos (“Voyage of Aeneas the Trojan according to the Six First Books of the Aeneid”) of 1609, which he included in later editions of his Theatrum orbis terrarum, the first atlas in the modern sense of the word (Fig. 1).

After the Greeks had conquered his native Troy, Aeneas fled with his family and following a long voyage reached western Italy and founded the “Roman race.” The map does not show Aeneas’s route with a dotted line, but it does show all of the places he visited, and Ortelius quotes lines from the poem in a few places, integrating parts of the poem into his map. At the bottom of the map he condenses a passage from Book 1 of the poem; translated, the lines read:

I am Aeneas the good, who carry with me in my fleet my house-hold gods, snatched from the foe; my fame is known in the heavens above…. With twice ten ships I climbed the Phrygian sea… scarcely do seven remain, shattered by waves and wind.... [I have been] driven from Europe and from Asia.¹

The map shows two fleets of ships: Ortelius quotes some lines from Virgil that identify the fleet to the east as that of Dido on her way to found Carthage;² other lines identify the fleet to the west as that of Aeneas struggling on its way to Italy. Those lines read: “The seventh summer is now on the wane since Troy’s overthrow and we measure in our course all seas and lands, with many rocks and stars inhospitable, while o’er the great deep we chase a fleeing Italy and toss upon the waves.”³

One wonders if Ortelius did not show Aeneas’s route because he wished to leave this as an exercise for the reader, but a later cartographer, Pierre du Val (1619-1683), made a map in 1650 that does depict Aeneas’s precise route. The title of the map is Carte du voyage d’Enée et de tous les lieux qui sont nommez dans les Oeuvres de Virgile pour bien entendre cet Auteur (“Map of the journey of Aeneas and all the Places that are Named in the Works of Virgil to Properly Understand this Author”).

Another way that maps and literature can interact is that the cartographer may include a quotation from a piece of literature to explain something on his or her map. For example, the German cartographer Caspar Vopel includes several impressive sea monsters on his world map of 1558. One of them is a mermaid-like creature, half woman, half fish, in the South Atlantic, south of the southern tip of Africa (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Detail of the sea monster Scylla on Caspar Vopel’s world map of 1558, titled Nova et integra universalisque orbis totius ... descriptio. Courtesy of the Houghton Library at Harvard University.

There is some text beneath the monster that reads, in Latin, Prima hominis facies et pulchro pectore virgo pube tenus, postrema humani corpore pistrix, that is, “Above she is of human form, down to the waist a fair-bosomed maiden; below, she is a sea dragon with a human body.” This is a quotation from Virgil’s description of the sea monster Scylla (Aeneid 3.426-427), who was first described in Book 12 of Homer’s Odyssey. The cartographer makes a mistake in his quotation—the word humani should be immani, and the meaning should be “below, she is a sea dragon of monstrous body”—but this quotation allows us to identify the monster, and add her to the corpus of illustrations of Scylla.

Another interesting quotation from classical literature appears in the corner of the third state of Abraham Ortelius’s world map, which is dated 1587 but seems not to have been printed till 1592. Ortelius added medallions in the corners of the map with quotations from the Roman philosophers Cicero and Seneca (Fig. 3). To me the most interesting of these is the one in the lower left-hand corner: Hoc est punctum, quod inter tot gentes ferro et igni dividitur; o quam ridiculi sunt mortalium termini! “Is this that pinpoint which is divided by sword and fire among so many nations? O, how ridiculous are the boundaries of mortals!”

Fig. 3. Abraham Ortelius’s world map Typus orbis terrarum of 1595, with medallions in the corners with quotations from Cicero and Seneca. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

A cartographer can also allude to a work of literature to proclaim the literary sophistication of those who inhabit the lands he or she is depicting. One such example appears on John Rocque’s map England and Wales, Drawn from the Most Accurate Surveys, Containing all the Cities, Boroughs, Market Towns & Villages (London, 1790). The map’s decorative title cartouche (Fig. 4) shows a personification of Britain enthroned, holding aloft a liberty cap.¹ The lion below symbolizes British power, and the cornucopia spilling coins symbolizes British wealth. Minerva, the Roman goddess of warfare and justice, stands on the right, an ally of the nation, and she gestures to Mercury, the Roman god of commerce, who is seated below and is recording trade in a ledger. Further to the right are ships and a cannon, symbolizing British trade and military power.

Fig. 4. John Rocque's map England and Wales, Drawn from the Most Accurate Surveys, Containing all the Cities, Boroughs, Market Towns & Villages (London, 1790). Click for details of the title cartouche. Stanford University, David Rumsey Map Collection. Courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection.

On the left is a winged woman representing the arts and sciences—symbolizing Britain’s cultural sophistication—and beside her she has various implements of the different arts and sciences: a lyre representing music, a plan of a building representing architecture, a compass representing geometry, sheet music, a painter’s palette, a globe representing geography, a bust representing sculpture, a telescope representing astronomy—and she lays her hand on a book labeled “Shakespear.” This of course represents the literary accomplishments of the nation, and it is worth remarking that Shakespeare is the only practitioner of any of these arts who is named here.

Maps are also described in works of literature, often as symbols of the owner’s power and knowledge. About the year 1100, Baudri de Bourgueil (1046-1130), who was later Archbishop of Dol-de-Bretagne in western France, wrote a poem titled To Countess Adela (Adelae Comitissae) in which he describes the elaborate decorations of an imaginary chamber belonging to Adela, Countess of Blois, who was the daughter of William the Conqueror. The poem presents the decorations as showing the range of knowledge that an educated person would have at the end of the twelfth century: the princess is surrounded by knowledge. The ceiling of Adela’s chamber was painted to mimic the night sky, with constellations and planets; the walls were hung with tapestries depicting scenes from history; her bed was surrounded by a tapestry depicting the Norman conquest of England, and by statues of Philosophy, Medicine, and the Seven Liberal Arts—and the floor was a mosaic or painted world map showing the earth encircled by the ocean.¹¹

Baudri’s description of the mappamundi (lines 719-948) begins as follows:

Now is the time to sing of the floor and the way it is structured;

But my lazy mind shrinks from the enormous task.

Who can grasp and contain the entire world in a poem?

That's what I’m called on to do: the floor depicted the world.

To put it another way: the floor was a mappa mundi.

Monsters and marvels it showed both of land and of sea.

Each thing was named in writing, in tituli close to the pictures:

That was the artist’s design, orderly and precise.

And the entire picture was under a glass-like cover,

Lest any grime or dust sully the artist’s work.

“Glassy sea” is the name they gave to this wonderful surface,

All translucent and bright, clearer even than glass.

To protect it from breaking, as people daily walk on it,

There are marble supports bearing it up from below.¹²

He begins his description with the circumfluent ocean, and says that it contains islands and also whales and all other sea monsters, and it seemed that one could reach into the water and pull the sea creatures out with one’s hand. With regard to the land, he places particular emphasis on the mountains and rivers, while barely mentioning any cities, perhaps because he already discussed human history in his description of the chamber’s tapestries. He ends his account of the map with descriptions of the monsters in Africa that are depicted on it.

The poet describes Adela’s chamber as a space in which one would learn about astronomy, history, and geography merely by casting one’s eyes about: it is the ultimate cultured space, and the map is an important part of making it that.

Finally, maps can inspire literature: writers can use maps to give geographic structure to narratives, to supply the names of exotic places, and to help them imagine the surroundings of scenes in their novel, epic, poem, play, or short story. To mention a classic example, in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), the map of the island was famously the source of the narrative in two different ways. First, Stevenson created the map—with his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne—before he wrote a word of the novel, and the map was the seed of and inspiration for the narrative. As Stevenson later wrote:

As I pored upon my map of Treasure Island, the future characters of the book began to appear there visibly among the imaginary woods; and their brown faces and bright weapons peeped out upon me from unexpected quarters, as they passed to and fro, fighting and hunting treasure, on these few square inches of a flat projection. The next thing I knew I had some papers before me and was writing out a list of chapters.¹³

Second, within the novel, it is Jim Hawkins’ finding of the treasure map at the bottom of Billy Bones’s sea chest that sends Jim, Squire Trelawney, and Doctor Livesey on their adventure (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5. The map in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (London and New York: Cassell & Co. Ltd., 1885). Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Maps can certainly inspire literature; and there are many ways in which literature can inspire maps: cartographers pore over travel narratives, cosmographies, and religious tracts in order to gather material to incorporate into their maps.

I hope that this glimpse into the interactions between cartography and literature has proven enticing.


¹ Virgil, Aeneid, Book 1, 377-386; the English is from Virgil, Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid I-VI, trans. H. R. Fairclough (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1916), pp. 267 and 269.

² Virgil, Aeneid, Book 1, 362-364; Fairclough, vol. 1, p. 267 translates: “…ships, which by chance were ready, they seize, and load with gold; the wealth of grasping Pygmalion is borne overseas, the leader of the work a woman.”

³ Virgil, Aeneid, Book 5, 626-629; the English is from Fairclough, vol. 1, pp. 487 and 489.

⁴ Pierre du Val made the map for vol. 15 of Jean de Beaurain’s Atlas Geographique, contenant les cartes pour servir à l’intelligence de l’histoire prophane (Paris, 1749-1838).

⁵ The one surviving exemplar of Vopel’s 1558 map, which is titled Nova et integra universalisque orbis totius ... descriptio, is in the Houghton Library at Harvard, and a zoomable image of the map is available on Harvard’s website.

⁶ Virgil, Aeneid, Book 3, lines 426-427; I adapt the translation by Fairclough, vol. 1, p. 377.

⁷ George M. A. Hanfmann, “The Scylla of Corvey and Her Ancestors,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 41 (1987), pp. 249-260.

⁸ For discussion of the quotations from Cicero and Seneca on Ortelius’s world map see Lucia Nuti, “The World Map as an Emblem: Abraham Ortelius and the Stoic Contemplation,” Imago Mundi 55 (2003), pp. 38-55, at 46 and 54-55.

⁹ The translation is from Seneca, Naturales questiones, trans. Thomas H. Corcoran (London: W. Heinemann, and Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), vol. 1, p. 8.

¹ On the history of the liberty cap see Frank Zeiler, “Visuelle Rechtsverteidigung im Nordamerikakonflikt. Ein Beitrag zur Rezeption der englischen Freiheits- und Verfassungssymbolik in nordamerikanischen Druckgraphiken der Jahre 1765-1783,” Signa Ivris 13 (2014), pp. 315-346.

¹¹ The passage in Baudri’s poem about the floor of Adela’s chamber is translated into French and discussed in Xavier Barral i Altet, “Poésie et iconographie: Un pavement du XIIe siècle décrit par Baudri de Bourgueil,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 41 (1987), pp. 41-54; the poem has been translated into English by Monika Otter, “Baudri of Bourgueil, ‘To Countess Adela’,” Journal of Medieval Latin 11 (2001), pp. 60-141, with the section about the floor on pp. 83-89.

¹² I quote the translation from Otter, p. 83.

¹³ Robert Louis Stevenson, “My First Book—Treasure Island,” The Courier 21.2 (1986), pp. 77-88, at 81.

About the author

Source: State Library of New South Wales, Australia, via Twitter.

Chet Van Duzer is a board member of the Lazarus Project at the University of Rochester, which brings multispectral imaging to cultural institutions around the world. He has published extensively on medieval and Renaissance maps; his recent books include Henricus Martellus’s World Map at Yale (c. 1491): Multispectral Imaging, Sources, and Influence, published by Springer in 2019, and Martin Waldseemüller’s Carta marina of 1516: Study and Transcription of the Long Legends, published by Springer in 2020. His book about cartographic cartouches, titled Frames that Speak: Cartouches on Early Modern Maps, will be published by Brill in 2022. Get in touch with Chet at or @maplegends (Instagram).

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