Visualizing Dante’s Hell: See Maps & Drawings of Dante’s Inferno from the Renaissance Through Today

The light was departing. The brown air drew down
     all the earth’s creatures, calling them to rest
     from their day-roving, as I, one man alone,

prepared myself to face the double war
     of the journey and the pity, which memory
     shall here set down, nor hesitate, nor err.

Reading Dante’s Inferno, and Divine Comedy generally, can seem a daunting task, what with the book’s wealth of allusion to 14th century Florentine politics and medieval Catholic theology. Much depends upon a good translation. Maybe it’s fitting that the proverb about translators as traitors comes from Italian. The first Dante that came my way—the unabridged Carlyle-Okey-Wicksteed English translation—renders the poet’s terza rima in leaden prose, which may well be a literary betrayal.

Gone is the rhyme scheme, self-contained stanzas, and poetic compression, replaced by wordiness, antiquated diction, and needless density. I labored through the text and did not much enjoy it. I’m far from an expert by any stretch, but was much relieved to later discover John Ciardi’s more faithful English rendering, which immediately impresses upon the senses and the memory, as in the description above in the first stanzas of Canto II.

The sole advantage, perhaps, of the translation I first encountered lies in its use of illustrations, maps, and diagrams. While readers can follow the poem’s vivid action without visual aids, these lend to the text a kind of imaginative materiality: saying yes, of course, this is a real place—see, it’s right here! We can suspend our disbelief, perhaps, in Catholic doctrine and, doubly, in Dante’s weirdly officious, comically bureaucratic, scheme of hell.

Indeed, readers of Dante have been inspired to map his Inferno for almost as long as they have been inspired to translate it into other languages—and we might consider these maps more-or-less-faithful visual translations of the Inferno’s descriptions. One of the first maps of Dante’s hell (top) appeared in Sandro Botticelli’s series of ninety illustrations, which the Renaissance great and fellow Florentine made on commission for Lorenzo de’Medici in the 1480s and 90s.

Botticelli’s “Chart of Hell,” writes Deborah Parker, “has long been lauded as one of the most compelling visual representations… a panoptic display of the descent made by Dante and Virgil through the ‘abysmal valley of pain.’” Below it, we see one of Antonio Manetti’s 1506 woodcut illustrations, a series of cross-sections and detailed views. Maps continued to proliferate: see printmaker Antonio Maretti’s 1529 diagram further up, Joannes Stradanus’ 1587 version, above, and, below, a 1612 illustration below by Jacques Callot.

Dante’s hell lends itself to any number of visual treatments, from the purely schematic to the broadly imaginative and interpretive. Michelangelo Caetani’s 1855 cross-section chart, below, lacks the illustrative detail of other maps, but its use of color and highly organized labeling system makes it far more legible that Callot’s beautiful but busy drawing above.

Though we are within our rights as readers to see Dante’s hell as purely metaphorical, there are historical reasons beyond religious belief for why more literal maps became popular in the 15th century, “including,” writes Atlas Obscura, “the general popularity of cartography at the time and the Renaissance obsession with proportions and measurement.”

Even after hundreds of years of cultural shifts and upheavals, the Inferno and its humorous and horrific scenes of torture still retain a fascination for modern readers and for illustrators like Daniel Heald, whose 1994 map, above, while lacking Botticelli’s gilded brilliance, presents us with a clear visual guide through that perplexing valley of pain, which remains—in the right translation or, doubtless, in its original language—a pleasure for readers who are willing to descend into its circular depths. Or, short of that, we can take a digital train and escalators into an 8-bit video game version.

See more maps of Dante’s Inferno here, here, and here.

via Atlas Obscura

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Plate Tectonic Evolution of the Earth Over 500 Million Years: Animated Video Takes You from Pangea, to 250 Million Years in the Future

Christopher R. Scotese, a geologist affiliated with Northwestern University, has created an animation showing "the plate tectonic evolution of the Earth from the time of Pangea, 240 million years ago, to the formation of Pangea Proxima, 250 million years in the future." The blurb accompanying the video on Youtube adds:

The animation starts with the modern world then winds it way back to 240 million years ago (Triassic). The animation then reverses direction, allowing us to see how Pangea rifted apart to form the modern continents and ocean basins. When the animation arrives back at the present-day, it continues for another 250 million years until the formation of the next Pangea, "Pangea Proxima".

According to an article published by NASA back in 2000, Scotese's visualization of the future is something of an educated "guesstimate."  "We don't really know the future, obviously," he says. "All we can do is make predictions of how plate motions will continue, what new things might happen, and where it will all end up." You can see his predictions play out above.

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The Mother of All Maps of the “Father of Waters”: Behold the 11-Foot Traveler’s Map of the Mississippi River (1866)

Image courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Center

Everybody knows a fact or two about the United States of America, even those who've never set foot there. At the very least, they know the US is a big country, but it's one thing to know that and another to truly understand the scale involved. Today we offer you an artifact from cartographic history that illustrates it vividly: a 19th-century traveler's map of the Mississippi River that, in order to display the length of that mighty 2,320-mile waterway, extends to a full eleven feet. (Or, for those especially unfamiliar with how things are in America, displays the river's full 3,734-kilometer length at a full 3.35 meters.)

With a width of only three inches (or 7.62 centimeters), the Ribbon Map of the Father of Waters came on a spool the reader could use to unroll it to the relevant section of the river anywhere between the Gulf of Mexico and northern Minnesota. First published in 1866, just a year after the end of the Civil War, the map "was marketed toward tourists, who were flocking to the Mississippi to see the sights and ride the steamboats." So writes Atlas Obscura's Cara Giamo, who quotes art historian Nenette Luarca-Shoaf as describing the river as “a source of great awe. That kind of length, that kind of spaciousness was incomprehensible to a lot of folks who were coming from the East Coast."

Luarca-Shoaf describes the map, an invention of St. Louis entrepreneurs Myron Coloney and Sidney B. Fairchild, in more detail in an article of her own at Common-Place. "The completely unfurled map extends beyond the limits of the user’s reach, wondrously embodying the scope of the river in the time it took to unroll it and in the eleven feet of space it now occupies," she writes. "At the same time, the care required to wind the strip back into Coloney and Fairchild’s patented spool apparatus reiterates the precariousness of human control — either representational or environmental — over the mercurial Mississippi." We still today talk about "scrolling" maps, though we now mean it as nothing more than a digital metaphor.

Unwieldy though it may seem, the Ribbon Map of the Father of Waters must have struck its travel-minded buyers in the 1860s — some 150 years before technology put touchscreens in all of our hands — as the height of cartographic convenience. Despite having sold out their Mississippi River map quickly enough to necessitate a second edition, though, Coloney and Fairchild did little more with their patented concept. You can see a surviving example of the Ribbon Map in greater detail at the Library of Congress and the David Rumsey Map Collection. The current generation of river tourists yearning for an understanding of the surprising breadth of America's land and depth of its history may even constitute sufficient market for a replica. But what happens when it gets wet?

via Atlas Obscura and Slate

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch the Rise and Fall of the British Empire in an Animated Time-Lapse Map ( 519 A.D. to 2014 A.D.)

The genre of animated time-lapse video maps—portraying the rise and fall of empires, the spread of people groups, the succession of rulers over hundreds of years, and other histories that used to fill entire textbooks—is one of those internet-only phenomena with useful, if limited application. As the bombastic music that sometimes accompanies these videos suggests, one primary effect is the production of maximally sweeping historical drama through mapping, which captures the imagination in ways dry prosaic descriptions often can't.

The subject of the video above—the British Empire—seems to justify such an approach, given that, as one educational website notes, “the British Empire was the largest formal empire that the world had ever known.” Whether one celebrates or deplores this fact is a matter for political or moral debate—categories that have little seeming relevance to the production of animated video maps.

“At its height in 1922,” writes Jon Stone at The Independent, “the British Empire governed a fifth of the world’s population and the quarter of the world’s total land area.” His comment that this legacy “divides opinion” grossly understates the case. Yet as bare historical fact, the spread of the Empire is astonishing, an achievement of military and maritime power, unprecedented commercial ambition, bureaucratic systemization, trade maneuvering, and the massive displacement, detention, and enslavement of millions of people.

How did it happen? To paraphrase an often-divisive British singer, empire began at home.

The video begins in 519 A.D., after the end of Roman rule in England, when the so-called Heptarchy formed, the seven Anglo-Saxon tribal kingdoms ruled by Germanic peoples who killed off or enslaved the native Celts. From there, we proceed through the Norman invasion, the English attempts to take French territory in Europe, Henry VIII’s invasion and annexation of Ireland, and other colonizing and empire-building events that precede British entry onto the far-flung global stage with the founding of the British East India Company’s first post in Surat, India in 1612 and Puritan settlement at Plymouth in 1620.

We see these events unfold in a split screen map showing different parts of the world, with a box on the side providing context and a color-coded legend. This rush through Imperial history occurs at a relatively breakneck speed, taking only 18 minutes to cover 1,500 years.

The long, slow rise of the British Empire was followed by a precipitous fall. By the mid-20th century postwar years, Britain saw its major colonies in India, Africa, and the West Indies achieve independence one by one. “By 1979,” writes Adam Taylor at The Washington Post, the Empire “was reduced to a few pockets around the world.” And by the current year, the former global power’s overseas colonial holdings comprise 14 small territories, including mostly unpopulated Antarctic land and the Falkland Islands.

See many more fascinating animated time-lapse maps, documenting all of world history, at the creator Ollie Bye’s YouTube channel.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

View and Download Nearly 60,000 Maps from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)

By reasons of parenting, I’ve become well acquainted with a song—perhaps you know it?— called “Fifty Nifty United States,” taught to schoolchildren as a geographical mnemonic device. The lyrics mention that “each individual state contributes a quality that is great.” What are some great qualities of, say, Delaware, New Mexico, or South Dakota? We aren’t told. Hey, it’s enough that a five or six-year-old can remember “shout ‘em, scout ‘em, tell all about ‘em” before rattling off an alphabetical list of “ev’ry state in the good old U.S.A.”

But if you hail from the U.S., you can enumerate many contributions from a few nifty states, whether culinary delights, historical events, writers, artists, sports heroes, etc. And most everyone’s got stories about visiting natural wonders, hiking mountain trails, fording rivers, gazing upon breathtaking vistas.

We may be occasional tourists, travel enthusiasts, or experts, but whatever our level of experience in the country, it’s probably kid stuff compared to the work of the scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

Established by Congress in 1879, this august body has documented U.S. lands and waters for 125 years, gathering an incredible amount of detailed information as “the nation’s largest water, earth, and biological science and civilian mapping agency.” Thanks to the Libre Map Project, the general public can view and download nearly 60,000 of those topographical maps, from all fifty states, and nearly every region within each of those states. See Colorado’s Pike National Forest and surrounding environs, at the top, for example, created from aerial photographs taken in 1950. Above, see a map of San Francisco, compiled in 1956, then revised in 1993 and further edited in 1996.

And just above, the devastating Kīlauea Volcano, in a map compiled from aerial photos taken in 1954 and 1961. (See the USGS site for the latest info about the ongoing eruption there.) Below, a nifty map of New York City, created “by photogrammetric methods from aerial photographs taken [in] 1954 and planetable surveys [in] 1955. Revised from aerial photographs taken [in] 1966.” Google maps may be more current, but these USGS maps have an aura of scientific authority around them, evidence of painstaking surveys, checked and rechecked over the decades by hundreds of pairs of hands and eyes.

Browsing the archive can be a challenge, since the maps are catalogued by coordinates rather than place names, but you can enter the names of specific locations in the search field. Also, be advised, the maps “are best used with global positioning software,” the archive tells visitors. Nonetheless, you can click on the first download option for “Multi Page Processed TIFF” to pull up a huge, downloadable image. Enter the archive here and get to scouting.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

It’s the End of the World as We Know It: The Apocalypse Gets Visualized in an Inventive Map from 1486

When will the world end?

We can find serious scientific answers to this question, depending on what we mean by “world” and “end.” If civilization as we currently know it, climate scientists’ worst-case scenario points toward somewhere around 2100 as the beginning of the end. (New York magazine points out that it “probably won’t kill all of us”). It’s possible, but not inevitable.

If we mean the end of all life on earth, the forecast looks quite a bit rosier: we’ve probably got about a billion years, writes astrophysicist Jillian Scudder, before the sun becomes “hot enough to boil our oceans.” Still not a cheerful thought, but perhaps many more creatures will take after the tardigrade by then. That’s not even to mention nuclear war or the epidemics, zombie and otherwise, that could take us out.

But of course, for a not inconsiderable number of people—including a few currently occupying key positions of power in the U.S.—the question of the world’s end has nothing to do with science at all but with eschatology, that branch of theological thought concerned with the Apocalypse.

Theological thinkers have written about the Apocalypse for hundreds of years, and the world's end was frequently perceived as just around the corner for many of the same reasons modern secular people feel apocalyptic dread: disease, natural disasters, wars, rumors of wars, imperial power struggles, uncomfortably shifting demographics….

Take 15th-century Europe, when “the Apocalypse weighed heavily on the minds of the people,” as Betsy Mason and Greg Miller write at the National Geographic blog All Over the Map: “Plagues were rampant. The once-great capital of the Roman empire, Constantinople, had fallen to the Turks. Surely, the end was nigh.”

While a niche publishing market in the nascent print era produced “dozens of printed works” describing the “coming reckoning in gory detail… one long-forgotten manuscript depicts the Apocalypse in a very different way—through maps.” As you can see here, these maps convey the unfolding of worse-to-worser scenarios in a number of visual registers: temporal, symbolic, geographic, thematic, etc.

At the top, the nested triangles depict the rise of the Antichrist between the years 1570 and 1600. The central concern for this author was the supposed global threat of Islam. Thus, the next map, its “T” shape a common Medieval world map device, shows the world before the Apocalypse, the text around it explaining that “Islam is on the rise from 639 to 1514.”

Then, we have a circular map with five swords pointing at the edges of the known world, illustrating the author’s contention that Islamic armies would reach the edges of the earth. The other maps depict the “four horns of the Antichrist,” above, Judgement Day, below, (the black eye at the bottom is the “black abyss that leads to hell”), and, further down, a diagram describing “the relative diameters of Earth and Hell."

Made in Lübeck, Germany sometime between 1486 and 1488, the manuscript is written in Latin, “but it’s not as scholarly as other contemporary manuscripts,” write Mason and Miller, “and the penmanship is fairly poor.” Historian of cartography Chet Van Duzer explains that “it’s aimed at the cultural elite, but not the pinnacle of the cultural elite.”

Pointing out the obvious, Van Duzer says, “there’s no way to escape it, this work is very anti-Islamic,” a widespread sentiment in medieval Europe, when the “clash of civilizations” narrative spread its roots deep in certain strains of Western thinking. This particular text also “includes a section on astrological medicine and a treatise on geography that’s remarkably ahead of its time.”

Van Duzer and Ilya Dines have studied the rare manuscript for its insightful passages on geography and cartography and published their research in a book titled Apocalyptic Cartography. For all its theological alarmism, the manuscript is surprisingly thoughtful when it comes to analyzing its own formal properties and perspectives.

Mason and Miller note that “the author outlines an essentially modern understanding of thematic maps as a means to illustrate characteristics of the people or political organization of different regions.” As Van Duzer puts it, “this is one of the most amazing passages, to have someone from the 15th century telling you their ideas about what maps can do.” This marks the work, he claims in the introduction to Apocalyptic Cartography, as that "of one of the most original cartographers of the period."

The Apocalypse Map now resides at the Huntington Library in Los Angeles.

via Nat Geo

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


19th Century Atlas Creatively Visualizes the Expansion of Geographical Knowledge Over 4000 Years of World History: From the Biblical flood to the Industrial Revolution

The age of the “universal history” has come and gone. The genre flourished in times when it seemed possible to assume a vantage point outside of time—to see purpose and pattern in thousands of years of human action. “It might be possible,” wrote Immanuel Kant, “to have a history with a definite natural plan for creatures who have no plan of their own.” The view assumed by such a history tends to exclude the circumscribed perspective of the viewer, or—in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous, and oft-parodied, phrasing, “all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God.”

Few historians today assume such a gods-eye-view, for better or worse, but without it, we would never have seen the development of its visual analogue: the timeline map, an infographic form especially popular in the 18th to the early 20th centuries, when thinkers from Schiller to Herder to Kant to Hegel to Marx to Weber produced universal accounts of human history that, to varying degrees, purported to account for vast historical developments as the movement of impersonal forces toward some definite goal.

From the perspective of the timeline map, civilizations grow naturally from each other like branches from a tree, or flow one into another like a river’s tributaries, or produce, as in John B. Sparks “Histomap,” colorful puzzles in which every piece has its neatly-assigned place….

We’ve featured several such maps here, like the Histomap and Eugene Pick's 1858 Tableau De L'Histoire Universelle, both from the extensive map collection of David Rumsey. In the version you see here, we have a very unusual variation on the theme—rather than a historical timeline map, Edward Quin produced in 1830 An Historical Atlas; In a Series of Maps of the World as Known at Different Periods.

The question, “as known by whom?” seems entirely relevant. The perspective of Quin’s atlas is godlike, gazing down at the world through the clouds, but unlike Emerson’s transparent view, it does not “see all”—those clouds occlude the vision, restricting it to indicate, as the Rumsey collection notes, “the expansion of geographical knowledge over time.” You’ll have to read Quin’s text—available here—to understand how he accounts for the chronology and perspective.

The atlas begins in 2348 B.C. with “the Deluge,” the mythical Biblical flood. Biblical history inexplicably gives way to the secular. In a description of the atlas by Donald A. Head rare books, this strange document “intended to cartographically depict political change from the time of creation to the year 1828," when it reveals "the enlightened world in the midst of the Industrial Revolution…. Divided into twenty-one periods… the clouds fully disappear at the nineteenth period: ‘A.D. 1783 at the separation of the United States of America, from England.” In his preface, Quin explains his project in the typical terms of universal history, as illustrating “by the changes of colour the empires which succeed each other.”

Quin’s description of the unchanging perspective he adopts might remind some modern readers of certain comic book characters as much as of the vision of a god or a transparent, detached eye: “Like the watchman on some beacon-tower, he views the hills and peopled valleys around him, always the same in situation and in form, but every changing aspect of the hours and seasons….” View Quin’s complete Historical Atlas, scanned in high resolution detail, at the David Rumsey Map Collection.

On our page here, see individual pages from the Historical Atlas. Or, up top, see an animated gif that lets you view all 21 maps in the atlas in chronological order.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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