Mapping Metageographies: The Cartographic Invention of Italy and the Mediterranean

Mapping Metageographies: The Cartographic Invention of Italy and the Mediterranean

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Mapping Metageographies: The Cartographic Invention of Italy and the Mediterranean

By Veronica della Dora

California Italian Studies Journal, Vol.1:1 (2010)

Abstract: This article discusses the emergence of Italy as a discrete object in the Mediterranean in the history of Western cartography. In particular, it focuses on different coexisting Renaissance mapping traditions that rested on two opposed spatial understandings and experiences of the basin: on the one hand, as a functional region and a sequence of interconnected places grounded in an older Ancient and Medieval tradition of itineraries, mappae mundi and portolan charts; on the other, as a compact geographical area defined by forms and dimensions (through Ptolemaic chorographic mapping). These two different spatial understandings persist in contemporary debates about the nature of the Mediterranean region. The latter can be likened to the “great Mediterranean body,” or formal organic unit conceived by Braudel. The former is a vision “from the sea” in line with the “functional” approach recently proposed by Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, who portray the Mediterranean as a space made of coastal flows and connectivities between “microregions.

Excerpt: In the Middle Ages, the ancient periplus developed into the portolan, a cartographic genre that endured until the second half of the seventeenth century. As the word suggests, portolans originated as written lists of “porti,” or ports, accompanied by compass bearings and sometimes even by textual descriptions. Since the late thirteenth century, these lists started to be translated into graphic images (portolan charts), which nevertheless continued to betray their origins, as “the characteristic listing of names follows the meandering line of coast.” Portolan charts were constructed from the sea, from a mobile “shipboard perspective” and were originally meant for the practical use of seafarers. As Tony Campbell suggests, they “preserve the Mediterranean sailors’ firsthand experience of their own sea, as well as their expanding knowledge of the Atlantic Ocean.” Not taking into account the curvature of the earth, portolani were nevertheless much more reliable and useful for navigation in restricted bodies of water such as the Mediterranean than for crossing oceans. The interior of the continents was initially left blank and later filled with blazons, icons of prominent mountains, and (in the case of America and Africa) with exotic, or even monstrous figures.

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