BLOG Category: Art Destination

The Art of Early Modern Map-Making
The Power of Public Sculpture
Modern Art Pilgramage to the South of France
Student Ambassadors Program Overview

The Art of Early Modern Map-Making

The first academy of art was established in Florence in 1563 and focused on the three “arts of design”: painting, sculpture, and architecture.  This designation has come to dominate our modern interpretation of what constitutes “art”.  However, before the late-sixteenth century, notions of art were more expansive.

Prior to, and during the Renaissance, art was more than an aesthetic entity viewed for its own sake.  In fact, art had a purpose.  It came in diverse forms and had diverse functions.  During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, art was closely linked to the idea of craft.  In fact, “art” comes from the Latin “ars”, meaning skilled work.  As a result, historians tend to use the broader concept of “visual culture” when considering Renaissance “art”.

The skilled craft of cartography, or map-making, transcended the creation of functional objects.  Early modern map-making was considered an art, contributing to the diverse visual culture of Renaissance Europe.  From the mid-fifteenth century, Italian humanists rediscovered the golden ages of Greek and Roman antiquity, leading to a revolution in art and philosophy.  At the same time, European states began to explore beyond the Mediterranean.  New maps were produced for this “age of discovery”, reflecting changing theological and philosophical thought, as Europeans had to come to terms with an expanding world.  Thus, Renaissance visual culture took on a new global dimension.

Gerard Mercator, World Map, 1569

Gerard Mercator was a calligrapher, engraver, and publisher from Flanders.  His 1569 World Map is one of the most famous maps ever created.  His unique projection of the earth still forms the basis of maps today.  It is immediately impressive due to its sheer size, made up of eighteen sheets of paper, measuring 202 by 124 cm.  While this was one of the most accurate maps produced to date, using the most recent accounts from European explorers, it was not a navigational tool used by sailors.   The size of the map made it impractical for such use, and although it was detailed, it was far from accurate and extremely difficult to use.

Mercator’s intention to map the whole world reflects the Renaissance mindset.  Europeans were opening their minds to a new global dimension and placing themselves within this changing world.  Mercator shows the extent of European discovery by 1569 and demonstrates the prevailing belief in European superiority by placing Europe at the centre of the map.  His map embodied European culture at the time, and such objects became a luxury.  Like paintings and sculptures, they were sought after and commissioned by the wealthiest in European society to reflect their power and worldview.

Abraham Ortelius, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, 1570

Just a year after Mercator’s ground-breaking world map, Abraham Ortelius of Antwerp produced the first atlas.  The first edition was comprised of 53 sheets, and for each map there was a description of the economic, social, and cultural practices of the region and its inhabitants.  Once again, these atlases were luxury objects.  They were not used by sailors but bought by wealthy merchants and court officials.  In fact, these “map books” and similarly detailed wall maps were commissioned by buyers, just as a patron commissioned a painting from an artist.

Ortelius used accounts of contemporary voyages alongside texts of ancient authorities to piece together these maps.  His maps are a visual representation of the Renaissance mindset, which revolved around building on, and surpassing, the authorities of antiquity.  Just as Mercator’s map is a visual representation of the need to situate Europe within an expanding world, Ortelius uses his atlas to situate himself within history.  At the bottom of this image, Ortelius quotes Cicero: “Who can consider human affairs to be great, when he comprehends the eternity and vastness of the entire world”.  Alongside this, he includes inscriptions about the recent discoveries of the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan and Italian traveller and diarist Ludovico di Varthema.  Therefore, this map it a visual embodiment of the belief that Europeans were building on and surpassing the wisdom of ancient Greece and Rome.

Anthony Jenkinson, Wall Map of Russia, c.1567

This map was produced in c.1567, based on the observations and writings of Englishman Anthony Jenkinson.  He was an ambassador of Queen Elizabeth I and agent of the Muscovy company, sent to Russia in 1557 to find a route to China.  Jenkinson made it to Russia where he met with Tsar Ivan the Terrible, who allowed him to travel through his lands.  He made it to Persia and crossed the Caspian Sea before having to return when his route was blocked by conflicts.

This map closely resembles what we would consider a work of art.  It is the decorative elements of the map which dominate, and this was certainly not used for navigational purposes but for display.  It is far from accurate and lacks much geographical information at all.  Rather, this map tells the story of Jenkinson’s journey.  It depicts Ivan the Terrible on his throne, the warriors who escorted Jenkinson, and the caravans of merchants he came across. 

However, this map is more than a visual representation of Jenkinson’s journey.  It also tells the story of the era.  The inclusion of exotic elements such as camps of nomads, exotic animals, and pagan gods reflects the feeling of curiosity towards the east.  Furthermore, this map allows us to consider the complexity of Renaissance visual culture.  We are able to see the extensive amount of people involved in the production of this map through the cartouches, or inscriptions.  These mention Jenkinson (the traveller), along with the editor of his text, the engraver, and the painter of the map.  Furthermore, Henry Sidney, the patron, is mentioned.  Like a work of art, this map required a commission by a wealthy patron and the talents of many skilled craftsmen.  Therefore, Jenkinson’s map of Russia reflects how Renaissance visual culture was so much broader than the modern definition of art.

The production of early modern maps required complex layers of skill and patronage, just like the paintings and sculptures of Renaissance masters.  They were a part of the visual culture of the time, reflecting the attitudes and interests of early modern Europeans.  The Renaissance was about curiosity, discovery and surpassing the knowledge of antiquity.  The maps of Mercator, Ortelius, and Jenkinson directly reflect this and provide a convincing argument for the wider definition of art as visual culture in this period.

To find out more about Renaissance art and visual culture you can visit these pages:

This post was written by Lucy Green, part of the third cohort of Student Ambassadors for The Art Story.

I graduated with a history degree from the University of Birmingham in June 2020, specialising in seventeenth-century Anglo-Ottoman relations and the European ‘Age of Discovery’.  I have a strong passion for history and art and hope to complete a Master’s degree in museum studies to pursue a career in heritage.

I am particularly interested in seeing how art speaks to historical movements and themes.  I am fascinated by early modern maps and how their cultural significance was often more important than their practical use in navigation.

The Power of Public Sculpture

From the pyramids and temples of ancient Egypt to the streets and piazzas of Florence, sculpture in public places has been fundamental in informing the visual consciousness of a society for millennia. Today, there’s even more on show than ever and – the best part is – it’s all free!

Here are a few of the best sculptural works on public display from around the world, including some lesser-known gems:

  1. Jacob Epstein, Sculptures for the British Medical Association Building (1908)

Location: The Strand, London

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Just around the corner from London’s Trafalgar Square are these fantastic figures by Epstein, which are placed in niches high atop a building. When they were first proposed, their nudity caused a controversy and public opinion was divided on their appropriateness for display on the street. Thirty years later, when acid rain had made them unstable, some traditionalists relished taking a chisel to these amazing works and reducing them to mere torsos. Even headless and limbless, however, these sculptures remain incredibly powerful.

  1. Dan Flavin, Untitled (1996)

Location: 548 West 22nd Street, New York

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This site-specific artwork by Dan Flavin is managed by the Dia Foundation and is always open to the public. Featuring Flavin’s signature fluorescent lights, the work was completed just before the artist’s death. Understated and slightly eerie, the piece demonstrates Flavin’s sensitivity to the specifics of the architectural space. Tip: it’s particularly atmospheric if you go at night.

  1. Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate  (2006)

Location: Millennium Park, Chicago

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Cloud Gate is hard to miss. This huge sculpture by Anish Kapoor dominates the plaza at Chicago’s Millennium Park, where it has been affectionately nicknamed “the bean”. The highly polished surface reflects distorted images of the cityscape around it and of the crowds of people who can pass around and under it. It’s like a funhouse mirror on steroids. This mirroring visually dissolves the form of the enormous metal structure, simultaneously blending in with its surroundings and asking the viewer to look again.

  1. Joan Miro, Oiseau Lunaire  (1966)

Location: Square Blomet, Paris

This large work by Joan Miro (92 x 82 x 59 inches) stands in a public park in Paris’ Montparnasse area, once home to a plethora of artists living and working there in the 1910s and 20s. Miro’s sculpture, designed as a site-specific work, is intended to be a memorial to those artists who promoted avant-garde forms and theories, and influenced the work of generations of artists to come.

  1. Fernando Botero, The Hand  (1976)

Location: Paseo de la Castellana, Madrid

If you’re looking for public sculpture, Madrid should be high on your list of destinations. It even boasts a little-known (but enormous) Museum of Public Art, which contains sculptures by Miro and Julio Gonzalez. Elsewhere in the city, you’ll find this huge sculpture of a hand by Columbian artist Fernando Botero. The work is characteristic of Botero’s voluminous style and was produced soon after the artist suffered a hand injury in a car accident.

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  1. Jacques Lipchitz, Prometheus Strangling the Vulture  (1943)

Location: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

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This late work by sculptor Jacques Lipchitz is positioned outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art in a city that boasts more than its fair share of incredible works of art on public display. One of his lesser-known pieces, Lipchitz’ sculpture depicts the myth of Prometheus breaking free of his bonds and strangling the vulture who has been pecking at his entrails for an eternity. Lipchitz saw this as symbolic of the human race fighting against the atrocities of Nazi Germany.

  1. Lynn Chadwick, Couple on Seat  (1986)

Location: Canary Wharf, London

Official site:

Canary Wharf is home to London’s tallest, shiniest buildings and to crowds of harassed-looking people in suits. It might not sound like an obvious place to go looking for modern art, but Canary Wharf is also home to Lynn Chadwick’s Couple on Seat, positioned with its back to a large fountain. It’s a powerful work, taking inspiration from Henry Moore, and is well worth seeking out.

  1. Jeff Koons, Balloon Flower (Red)  (2006)

Location: 7 World Trade Center, New York

Official site:

Koons created his Balloon Flower (Red) as a memorial to those who survived 9/11. It exhibits the highly polished style that can be found in several of his sculptures. Its bright color and shiny surface make it feel distinctly upbeat, a celebration of moving forwards as well as looking back. Its resemblance to a giant balloon confuses the viewer’s eye; you almost expect it to start floating up into the air.

The Background Info:

Public sculpture in the United States saw a revival under the Federal Art Program in the 1930s, designed by the government to help the country out of the Depression and to promote a connection between art and the public. In the UK, public art was similarly encouraged by the post-War Labour government in the 1950s, who chose sculpture as a tool for promoting socialist values across the country.

This strong tradition continues today, and there is consequently a wealth of fantastic twentieth-century and contemporary sculpture on public view around the world. Unfortunately, these works can become sidelined, missed by pedestrians who don’t stop to think about the work of art that they are hurrying past. Nevertheless, seeking out public sculpture can be highly rewarding; you’ll be surprised what’s just around the corner.

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Modern Art Pilgramage to the South of France

It’s always a good time for art lovers to flock to the South of France. Museums retracing the footsteps of modern masters are plentiful and full of jewels waiting to be discovered.

Aix-en-Provence: Fondation Vasarley

  • The Vasarley Foundation will make you rethink the definition of techno after you see Victor Vasarley’s works of “social techno art.” Making plastic the new black, see how Vasarely integrated the material into art and architecture.

St-Paul-de-Vence: Fondation Maeght

  • Bonnards, Calders, and Legers oh my! The Maeght Foundation has works by the top modern and contemporary artists; with so much to see you may have to extend your trip.

Antibes: Musee Picasso

  • Think that the only Picasso Museums are in metropolitan capitals? Well you are wrong: step away from the busy streets and look at some Picassos in sunny Antibes. The artist stayed in the area and was so entranced that he created over sixty new works.

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Cannet: Musee Bonnard

  • The Musee Bonnard on the Cote d’Azure is the best place to go to learn more about this member of Les Nabis. Pierre Bonnard lived in le Cannet for over two decades, creating many works during his “cannettane” period. The museum is full of his mesmerizing impressions of the Mediterranean countryside.

Menton: Musee Jean Cocteau

  • A unique artist deserves a unique museum. The Jean Cocteau Museum in the south of France has a brand new building, and a collection, as distinctive as the artist to whom it’s dedicated.

Biot: Musee National Fernand Leger

  • If the works of Fernand Leger stir something inside you, then a pilgrimage must be made to Biot to see its museum dedicated to the artist who frequented this Cote d’Azur town. After Leger’s death, the artist’s wife and right-hand-man donated the building and much of the collection to the state to create the museum. Many great artists at the time, from master glassmakers to sculptors worked together to bring this dream structure to life.

Nice: Musee Matisse

  • Nice is so nice you have to visit it twice! The area’s fantastic museums are dedicated to modern art. The Matisse Museum offers a comprehensive look at Matisse’s artistic career. From the Fauvist paintings for which he is so beloved, to his sculptures and cut-outs, this is a major museum of the modern master. Didn’t get enough Matisse after visiting the museum? Then make sure to go to the Vence Chapel designed by the artist and filled with original works.

St. Tropez: L’Annonciade – Musee de Saint-Tropez

  • When you go to St. Tropez take a break from the beach at visit the Museum of the Annonciade. This sixteenth century chapel was transformed into a temple of modern art. The town has entranced artists from Paul Signac to Andre Derain and Henri Matisse – many have left their visual impressions of the unique St. Trop on the walls of this building.

Aix-en-Provence : Paul Cezanne’s Studio

The Atelier Cezanne in Aix-en-Provence offers a new way to experience the great artist’s works. This is Cezanne’s studio, the birthplace of many of his most famous paintings. See where Cezanne staged his still life’s, and then follow the trail to see the iconic view of the infamous Mont St. Victoire – that Cezanne painted dozens times.

Haut-de-Cagnes: Musee Renoir

  • Live like Renoir, or at least see where he lived, at the Renoir Museum in Haut-de-Cagnes, where the great artist’s former home is now open to the public. Fun fact about the museum: the Renoir original above can be recreated exactly in the room at right!

Nice: Musee National Marc Chagall

  • The Marc Chagall Museum is home to the largest collection of the artist’s works in the world. Visiting the museum truly gives you a peek inside Chagall’s visions, and he was actually involved in the building of the museum and created some works especially for it.

Interactive Map:

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