40,000 Early Modern Maps Are Now Freely Available Online (Courtesy of the British Library)

Most of us do not, today, live in des­per­ate need of maps. On the inter­net we can eas­i­ly find not only the cur­rent maps we need to nav­i­gate most any ter­ri­to­ry on Earth, but also an increas­ing pro­por­tion of all the maps made before as well. You can find the lat­ter in places like the David Rum­sey Map Col­lec­tion, which, as we wrote last year here on Open Cul­ture, now boasts 91,000 his­toric maps free to down­load.  It will sure­ly add even more, as human­i­ty seems to have only just begun dig­i­tiz­ing its own many attempts to make the phys­i­cal world leg­i­ble, an art that goes back (as you know if you read the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chicago’s The His­to­ry of Car­tog­ra­phy online) to pre­his­toric Las­caux cave paint­ings of the night sky.

By that stan­dard, the maps cur­rent­ly being dig­i­tized and uploaded by the British Library are down­right mod­ern — or ear­ly mod­ern, to be more spe­cif­ic. Dat­ing between 1500 and 1824, says Medievalists.net, these maps “are part of the Topo­graph­i­cal Col­lec­tion of King George III (K. Top),” which also includes “maps, atlases, archi­tec­tur­al draw­ings, car­toons and water­col­ors.”

Part of “the larg­er King’s Library which was pre­sent­ed to the Nation by George IV in 1823,” the col­lec­tion was amassed “dur­ing the for­ma­tive peri­od of the British Empire” and thus shows “how Britain viewed and inter­act­ed with the wider world dur­ing this peri­od.”

The British Library plans to post 40,000 of these maps (broad­ly con­sid­ered), and you can now view the first set of rough­ly 18,000 at the insti­tu­tion’s Flickr Com­mons col­lec­tion. Medievalists.net names as high­lights of the full Topo­graph­i­cal Col­lec­tion of King George III such arti­facts as “a hand-drawn map of New York City, pre­sent­ed to the future James II in 1664,” “The vast Kangxi Map of Chi­na of 1719 made by the Ital­ian Jesuit Mat­teo Ripa,” “the ear­li­est com­pre­hen­sive land-use map of Lon­don from 1800,” and even “water­col­ors by not­ed 18th cen­tu­ry artists such as Paul Sand­by and Samuel Hierony­mus Grimm.”

Many of the pieces the British Library has thus far uploaded to Flickr look like maps to us still today, but just as many, per­haps most, strike us more as works of art. This goes for tra­di­tion­al bird’s-eye-views ren­dered more vivid­ly (and some­times imag­i­na­tive­ly) than we’re used to, as well for as rich­ly drawn or even paint­ed land­scapes, all of which exist to pro­vide a faith­ful rep­re­sen­ta­tion of land, sea, and sky. You can view more such images along that spec­trum, as well as read their sto­ries in con­text, at the British Library’s Pic­tur­ing Places site. The artis­tic and his­tor­i­cal rich­ness exud­ed by these maps today echoes the more tan­gi­ble val­ue they had when first cre­at­ed: back then, those who had the maps pos­sessed the world.

via Medievalist.net

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Behold an Incred­i­bly Detailed, Hand­made Map Of Medieval Trade Routes

Ancient Maps that Changed the World: See World Maps from Ancient Greece, Baby­lon, Rome, and the Islam­ic World

Down­load 91,000 His­toric Maps from the Mas­sive David Rum­sey Map Col­lec­tion

The His­to­ry of Car­tog­ra­phy, “the Most Ambi­tious Overview of Map Mak­ing Ever Under­tak­en,” Is Free Online

The British Library Puts 1,000,000 Images into the Pub­lic Domain, Mak­ing Them Free to Reuse & Remix

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.


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