Even those not familiar with Olaus Magnus’s 1539 map, Carta Marina, will recognize the beautiful and terrible creatures that are the focus of Joseph Nigg’s book, Sea Monsters (Univ. of Chicago, $40). A chief source of Renaissance sea-monster iconography, Magnus’s depictions still play a role in how we think about mythical sea creatures like sea serpents and krakens. Sea Monsters analyzes each of Carta Marina’s individual images, examining the historic, scientific, and cultural importance of the monsters and highlighting the map’s artistry and intended practicality. A fascinating read for cartophiles, history buffs, and art lovers alike, Sea Monsters is a complete guide to the most influential sea- monster map.
In his masterful survey of worlds and world views, the Renaissance scholar Jerry Brotton focuses on some of the most influential cartographic works of all times and places to tell A History of the World in 12 Maps (Viking, $40). Identifying pivotal moments when priorities shifted and crystallized, Brotton discusses Ptolemy’s enduring significance, looks at the rich science and art of 11th-century Islamic maps, presents 15th-century China’s neo-Confucian nonary (3x3) grids, explains Mercator’s—and later—projections of spherical models onto flat planes, and follows the Cassinis’ six-decade-long struggle to map France as a modern nation-state. The stories, personalities, and ideas are vivid, as are the repercussions so many maps have had, such as the violence unleashed by the 1947 line drawn between India and Pakistan. Knowledgeable and passionate about his subject, Brotton shows how maps have inspired and aided many a quest, whether for wealth, land, or power, even as map-makers themselves continue to pursue the elusive goal of objectivity.
Ancient Celtic culture didn’t go away when the Romans conquered Gaul in 50 B.C.—it only settled in more firmly, waiting to be noticed. Graham Robb, the intrepid cyclist behind The Discovery of France, noticed. His attention was caught by the way hill forts and other remnants of sites sacred to the pre-Roman tribes who populated Europe seemed to be aligned with the path of the solstice sun. Coincidence? Was he reading too much into the landscape? Robb set off along the Via Heraklea for a closer look at this “Druidic blueprint”; he reports his findings in The Discovery of Middle Earth (W.W. Norton, $28.95), a book of travels, history, and many “grand and rugged tales.” Blending—as the Celts did—science and myth, legend and solid geographical fact, Robb presents the hard and soft evidence to redeem the Celts from simplistic images as a pack of bloody and barbaric tree-worshippers (though, yes, Druid is derived from dru, meaning “oak”). Along with the evidence on the ground, irrefutable testimony to Celtic engineering and mathematical skills, Robb cites the Druids’ sophisticated communication and education systems and their remarkably accurate calculation of Pi. Delving as deeply into place names as into places, Robb revives the tradition of the Irish Dindsenchas, “the lore of place names”; fascinating in itself, this facet of the book also demonstrates the vitality of old practices.