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Cartographia: Mapping Civilizations
By Vincent Virga
Little, Brown and Company
HC, 272 pgs., $60
ISBN: 0-3169-9766-8

The world through the mapmaker's eyes

By Steven Martinovich
web posted February 18, 2008

CartographiaMaps have always served a utilitarian purpose, they exist after all to tell us where something is in relation to where we are, but they can also tell us a great deal about ourselves. How we relate that information tells us how we organize our world and what we find important. Not surprisingly, people around the world have tended to organize their world in different cartographic ways, resulting in different ways to tell the same stories.

Vincent Virga's dazzling Cartographia: Mapping Civilizations is an excellent introduction to the world of maps. Short of visiting the U.S. Library of Congress' maps section – a repository of nearly 5 million maps from around the world and from which the book's examples are drawn – Cartographia is a wonderful collection which features insightful commentary, though with some exceptions.

Cartographia is divided into four broad sections – The Mediterranean world, Eurasia and Africa, the Americas, and Oceania and Antarctica – which are in turn covered in a chronological order. Utilizing 200 maps Virga shows that maps are more than simply devices which assist us in finding places or showing us what we have, they have allowed humans to comment about the world they exist in.

Take, for example, a Buddhist mandala which is actually a spiritual map. Illustrating the circle of life, the map informs the reader how enlightenment can be endangered by earthly desires such as lust and anger. While the map may not inform the reader where the next settlement is, it does speak of how Buddhists viewed humanity's place in the world and how our desires could be achieved.

Contrast that with French map making from the post-medieval period. Crafted with a mathematical precision which eventually spread across the world these cartographic examples helped, as Virga points out, build the modern French nation. Those maps served as a visual metaphor for the growing size of the kingdom, the stability that was being introduced and local political rivalries that were ostensibly disappearing thanks to strong central government.

Elsewhere maps served as a vehicle for imagination. Until relatively recently, much of western and northern North America had yet to be mapped or even explored. Early maps showed fanciful details which included non-existent cities and kingdoms, misplaced geographical entities and location of riches enough to satiate any desire.

Unfortunately Cartographia isn't a perfect effort. In the accompanying text Virga made the decision to frequently editorialize – not surprising perhaps given the book is dedicated in part to his friend the late Susan Sontag – which often pulls the reader out wonderful story he's constructing. Noting the effects that colonialism has had on the Third World is different from launching diatribes against it and western philosophy at several points in the book.

While Virga's efforts to politicize Cartographia do detract from his efforts, it is still a very strong effort. Humanity's pains through the millennia to orient itself in relation to the world, be it spatial, spiritual or metaphorically, are on full display and the reader learns that there are different ways to present the world outside of the clinical western mapmaking tradition. If its purpose were limited to simply being an attractive coffee table book, Cartographia would be a success, but it manages to achieve more. ESR

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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