From ancient times we have tried to make sense of the world around us and it is this drive to understand and document our environment has given rise to one of arts’ least appreciated gems – antique maps and cartography. Although today we are used to maps as dry, functional things that we occasionally reach for when lost, it was only a few centuries ago that they commanded the attention and wonder normally reserved for great works of art.
Cartography as Art
The earliest maps date back to ancient Greece and the works of the Greek astronomer Ptolemy from the 2nd century are still referred to now as elegant examples of the rise of early cartography. Map making went into decline during the Medieval era as leading thinkers concentrated more on religion and spiritual matters than the details of geography. However with the rise of European navies in the 16th and 17th centuries all this changed with cartography attracting not only the best geographers and astronomers, but also attracting the attention of many skilled artists. During this time cartography took on new importance with many commercially produced maps being considered valuable works of art as well as useful tools for maritime travellers .Given that maps in the past were very valuable objects, it is no surprise that they were treated in much the same way as art, as objects to be cherished by their owners. In addition many cartographers were accomplished draftsmen due to the nature of their profession, and often embellished their work with decorative details such as sea creatures and mythical gods. Now many are looking again at the artistry of antique maps as prints or tapestries as an unusual addition to their home décor.
Many antique maps are available to buy from specialist retailers online which cover almost every conceivable area of cartography, including grand world maps of the 17th century. Originals from centuries ago are quite rare, although given their nature of use on long sea voyages they were built for endurance. Because of their rarity they can often command prices in the tens of thousands of dollars range. However much they cost there is no doubt that, properly mounted and framed, these impressive testaments to history can make a very dramatic statement.
Prints and Posters
Some of the best examples from history are now available as prints or posters, and are a real treasure trove of information as well as a unique piece of wall art. One of the most popular is Typus Orbis Terrarum by Abraham Ortelius (1527 – 1598). It covers the known world of the 16th century and is a testament not only to the craftsmanship of cartographers but it demonstrates an impressive level of knowledge for its day.
Although prints enjoy a unique position in home décor popular world maps are increasingly available as tapestry wall hangings. A particularly impressive example is one of the most famous maps ever produced in the 17th century; Jan Baptist Vrient’s Orbis Terrae Compendiosa, meaning “A Brief Representation of the World”. It contains an astonishing amount of detail and like earlier maps that it was based on it is decorated with numerous details including symbolic figures at each corner, exotic animals and fauna from the far-off shores it represents and landscape vignettes. It is one of several world map tapestries now woven by our European weavers; all ideal for a sitting room, office or family room.