Cartography is the study and practice of mapmaking, a science that combines science, aesthetics and technique and builds upon the premise that reality can be modeled in ways that communicate spatial information effectively. Its origins lie in the Greek khartes, which stands for “papyrus, sheet of paper and map”, and in graphein which means “write”. They are two-dimensional representations of reality, depicting only selected information about a specific area or space.
Maps use a certain set of conventions to construct the stories of places and topographies. Changing the scale of a map can reveal or exclude information about a particular area. The cartographic imagination is therefore a specific way of describing topography. Early maps for example, based more on fiction than facts, were a way of visualizing a world yet to be charted.
The advancement of technology has brought the real and its representation closer together than ever. But there still remains, the challenge of translating three-dimensional information into a two-dimensional surface. How to represent the spherical surface of the earth on the plane surface of a map has always been a universal problem in geography and each solution tended to produce new inaccuracies. In choosing a projection for a map, we are guided by what we want to show most correctly.
The cartographic imagination is a study of the importance of multiple representations, of seeing and depicting various realities depending on the relevance of the occasion. It all depends on the purpose of the map and the story it is trying to tell. The complexity of representing the world and its surface requires an equally complex set of conventions. A knowledge of these conventions enables us to participate in the world. But cartographic conventions also have the capacity to help us imagine fragments of new landscapes, cities, and houses. What is given is topography and what is yet to come is design.
The term used to describe cartographic representations or maps would be “logical space”. Logical because it has been modified and adjusted to our understanding and preconceptions of space, making it easier to comunicate. It does not mirror reality, quite on the contrary, it transforms it. Let me explain. If we look at the definition of geography we quickly come across geography being the description of the earth. But this actually is not very true because we have forgotten the one fundamental and most important part: That through this description we are reducing the world to the earth, the earth to the surface and the surface to a plane, implying a triple transformation, a transformation of the chaotic and complex world to the logical space, the cartographic representation on a plane.
So besides the problem of physically representing a sphere in two dimensions we also have the problem of verticality and depth: The world is not only the surface of planet earth, implying the geographic dimension that consists of length and width. It is the whole of the social, economic, political, cultural relations inside which human life takes place, the physical dimension which is based on depths and hights. This is what makes it so hard to describe what the Earth is, because every definition implies a personal viewpoint.
In fact, if we look at the ancient origins of the word geography we see that it is composed of two parts. Gé which comes from the latin Gaia and signifies “the Earth that shines in the light” and Ctòn which signifies “underground and cave-like”. It is composed of surface (horizontal elements) and of depth (vertical energies).
The first person to confront the problem of the cartographic pojection seems to have been Eratostene, but it was Tolomeo who transformed the Earth into space, the sphere into a map. Before Tolomeo the cartographic representation, in other words the reduction of the world to a plane, only concerned the things that could be seen. But with the modern perspective the cartographic representation started to colonize and affect also what could not be seen.
The geographic grid describes the net of lines of longitude (meridians) and lines of latitude (parallels) with which we try to recretae the curvature of the globe on the map. This process is called projection and includes the substraction of one dimension of the earth: the sphere and the plane are in one another irreducible because their surfaces don’t have the same qualities.
The first is round and limited, the second on the contrary is open and its lines are not closed. Consequentally only the latter, the cartographic representation, allows an infinite process and uninterrupted expansion which in every way characterize the modern era and western culture.
In medieval times the cartographic representation were copies of the world and mirroried the relations from which the world was composed. Maps were a religious and philosophical interpretation of the world, rather than a drawing (Edson 1997). They were at the same time potrait but also self-portrait of the culture who produced the portrait (Barber 2001).
The earliest known map is a matter of some debate, but we can be more or less certain it is a wall painting depicting the ancient Anatolian city of Çatalhöyük (previously known as Catal Huyuk or Çatal Hüyük) and has been dated to the late 7th millennium BCE. The oldest surviving world maps are from 9th century BCE Babylonia.
The ancient Greeks and Romans created maps since Anaximander in the 6th century BCE. In the 2nd century AD, Ptolemy wrote his treatise on cartography, Geographia. This contained Ptolemy’s world map – the world then known to Western society (Ecumene).
In ancient China, geographical literature dates to the 5th century BCE. In the book of the Xin Yi Xiang Fa Yao, published in 1092 by the Chinese scientist Su Song, a star map on the equidistant cylindrical projection.Although this method of charting seems to have existed in China even prior to this publication and scientist, the greatest significance of the star maps by Su Song is that they represent the oldest existent star maps in printed form.
Mappa mundi are the Medieval European maps of the world. Approximately 1,100 mappae mundi are known to have survived from the Middle Ages. Of these, some 900 are found illustrating manuscripts and the remainder exist as stand-alone documents.
The Arab geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi produced his medieval atlas Tabula Rogeriana in 1154. He incorporated the knowledge of Africa, the Indian Ocean and the Far East, gathered by Arab merchants and explorers with the information inherited from the classical geographers to create the most accurate map of the world up until his time. It remained the most accurate world map for the next three centuries.
In the Age of Exploration, from the 15th century to the 17th century, European cartographers both copied earlier maps and drew their own based on explorers’ observations and new surveying techniques. The invention of the magnetic compass, telescope and sextant enabled increasing accuracy. In 1492, Martin Behaim, a German cartographer, made the oldest extant globe of the Earth.
In the 17th Century Netherlands, landscape painters and cartographers exchanged their knowledge and it was the world itself that was visualized. Visualized through maps, that had the quality and appearance of paintings, and paintings, which were conceptually cartographic.
Between the 16th and 17th century every recursive model completely and definitely disappeared from the concept in which geography reduces the world to a spatial image. Maps became more and more precise and reliable and replaced the spatial image from past centuries. Truthfulness seems to transform itself into the rigidity of representation, in other words into a science with severe rules.
In cartography, technology has continually changed in order to meet the demands of new generations of mapmakers and map users. The first maps were manually constructed with brushes and parchment; therefore, varied in quality and were limited in distribution. The advent of magnetic devices, such as the compass and much later, magnetic storage devices, allowed for the creation of far more accurate maps and the ability to store and manipulate them digitally.
In the 20th century, aerial photography, satellite imagery, and remote sensing provided efficient, precise methods for mapping physical features, such as coastlines, roads, buildings, watersheds, and topography. Advancements in electronic technology ushered in another revolution in cartography. Ready availability of computers and peripherals such as monitors, plotters, printers, scanners and analytic stereo plotters, along with computer programs for visualization, image processing, spatial analysis, and database management, democratized and greatly expanded the making of maps. These days spatial information can be stored in a database, from which it can be extracted on demand. These tools lead to increasingly dynamic, interactive maps that can be manipulated digitally.
1998 marked the year that opened up a new era of experiencing and reading space. It was the year Al Gore coined the term “digital Earth”, used to describe a virtual representation of the Earth that is georeferenced and connected to the world’s digital knowledge archives. At the time this seemed quite futuristic but only in 2001 Earth Viewer was founded, followed by revolutionary Google Earth in 2005.