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 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.
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.
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.