Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art

Have just been to the British Library’s exhibition Magnificent maps: power, propaganda and art. This fantastic, beautifully curated, must-see exhibition traces the history of the map as an object of the projection of (mainly colonial) power. This can be either direct and intimidating – Besson’s 1709 “‘L’Etat du Duc de Savoy de ca et de la des Monts, for example, is a blunt statement of the consequences for the Duke of Savoy should he continue to resist French power in the region. But other details hint at how maps can reflect tensions in the thinking of the times. Fra Mauro’s 1448 Mappa Mundi is noteworthy because, having carefully surveyed all available knowledge on the subject, Fra Mauro concluded that, on balance, the Garden of Eden could not be cartographically represented as a place on Earth, so he detached it and placed it separately in the bottom right hand corner. One wonders if a taxonomy of such challenges to conventional thinking in cartography over the ages could be developed. Fascinating too are the more human stories — one can surely see the verdant plans of seventeenth century landowner’s domains as talking points over the fireplace to impress visiting neighbouring lords of the manor. The Sheldon tapestry map of Oxfordshire is a particularly good example. One can tell, from the way that all possible topnyms have been included, at the expense of all else that this is basically a visual inventory of possessions. It brought to mind, tangentially at least, the way that multinational corporations flex their muscles by listing/flaunting all the places they do business.

Splashed out on the excellent exhibition guide in the BL bookshop, but resisted the temptation to buy a £3700 atlas.

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