Published: July 11, 2000
GREENWICH, CONN. – The Bruce Museum of Arts and Sciences presents “Earth’s Elusive Shores: After 1500” through October 1. The exhibition features more than 40 antique maps and sea charts, all printed in woodcut or engraved, most hand-colored, and all dating after 1520. These early maps and charts demonstrate the progressive if sometimes eccentric shaping of the continents and seas by gifted Renaissance cartographers and publishers, few of whom ever ventured beyond their studios to see the real world they were mapping. On view are maps covering the known world in general, the American continents in particular, some of the seven seas, a few unrecognizable lands and some wholly invented ones.
Early world maps illustrate the state of global cartography which developed following the voyages of Christopher Columbus and succeeding multinational explorers. After 1492, had its own unique renaissance, as the explosion of “New World” information created an ever-changing view of the Earth for sailors and merchants, historians and philosophers, scholars and kings.
On view in “Earth’s Elusive Shores: After 1500” are examples of early maps and charts of the newly discovered Americas that reveal the highly imaginative application of New World data. California, for example, is seen charted as an island – and it was commonly interpreted as one until well into the 1700s. These maps of the Americas remind us that early publishers were hungry for information from the shipmasters and explorers, and from the naturalists and clerics who accompanied them on their voyages, to create original and attractive products for citizenry having its first experience with the printed book.
To accomplish this, cartographers quickly applied the latest information, however sketchy, or included the latest rumors to their works prior to going to press. Thus, these early maps, minus the luxury or fact-checking, comprise a unique mixture of accuracy and fancy. Included in the exhibition is a small group of maps that especially demonstrate some common errors and falsifications of the period.
Modern cartography had its origins in the early Fifteenth Century, with a revival of the theories of Ptolemaic, the great Second Century geographer who conceived of locating places by means of their latitude and longitude. The Ptolemaic revival coincided with advances in printing. And by the mid-1400s a new industry of publishing was born, with bound books of geography, cosmology, history, exploration and travel becoming increasingly available to Europe’s intellectuals. Fine leather-bound and vellum-bound books filled library shelves of all who could afford them.
Many antique maps have survived for hundreds of years, and with good reason. They were printed on sturdy acid-free papers; they were bound in volumes that protected them from harmful external influences; and they were cherished and studied with care by their owners. Thus, the works of such well-known cartographer/publishers such as Munster, Fries, Waldseemuller, Blaeu, Ortelius, Mercator, Van Keulen, Jansson, DeWit, Dudley and Speed – all of whom are represented in this exhibition – have been preserved for us to enjoy and learn from.
“Earth’s Elusive Shores: After 1500” demonstrates that early cartography was remarkably rich in detail and astonishingly accurate, considering the primitive methods used to take the measure of the Earth. The exhibition highlights an element inherent to printed cartography of the post-Columbian era but not readily found in today’s supremely accurate, satellite-derived, computer-drawn maps: that of the grace, charm and beauty which comes only from the hand of the fine artist.
The maps on display in “Earth’s Elusive Shores” are from the collection of Jack A. Somer. To share his passion and knowledge of antique maps and charts, collector Jack A. Somer will conduct a series of lecture/gallery tours giving his insights on the subject at the museum.
The Bruce Museum of Arts and Science is located at 1 Museum Drive. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm, Sunday, 1 to 5 pm. For information, 203-869-0376.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm