“While most modern definitions emphasize chora+graphia, meaning ‘writing about a country or region’, I prefer to translate graphia more broadly as ‘representation,’ with choros rather than chora; thus, in simplest terms, I define chorography as ‘the representation of space or place.’ This definition is supported by the broad corpus of chorographic works from antiquity up to the present.” - Darrell J. Rohl, “The chorographic tradition and seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Scottish antiquaries,” The Journal of Art Historiography, No. 5 (Dec 2011): 1.


Between maps and landscapes there are chorographies. This project argues that in the visual arts chorographies, put simply, are representations of cities and their immediate surroundings that utilize an elevated viewpoint, comingled visual perspectives, prominent and recognizable monumental architecture, and a general disinterest in charting the navigability of the urban fabric.[1] These views of cities range in period and style, but are generally produced from the fifteenth century onward in what is now considered the continent of Europe. Despite their localized production, chorographies depict cities across the globe.

Debates in Chorography

Twentieth- and twenty-first century scholarship on chorography studies the visual phenomenon from four major perspectives:

1. The intellectual history  of Ptolemy’s treatise, The Geography (c. 150 CE)

Claudius Ptolemy’s cartographic treatise is a common starting point for scholars writing about early modern chorography. They pay particular attention to his distinction between two methods of representing the world: geography and chorography. Ptolemy writes that geography represents the entire world, and that chorography represents only a small part of the world, primarily a city and its hinterland.[2]

Recently, scholars have complicated the assumption that Ptolemy’s definition structured early modern cartography by suggesting new ways of understanding their relationship throughout time.[3]

2. Image making, consumption, and reception

The published lectures of David Woodward in Maps as Prints in the Italian Renaissance (1996) sparked a renewed interest in how early modern maps were made, purchased, displayed, and understood by their viewers.[4] Technological advancements in the fifteenth century across the fields of land-surveying, art-making, and printing occurred around the same time as changes in representing the three-dimensional world in two-dimensional forms.

As artists began printing chorographic views on paper, the audience for these images increased in size and scope. Previously, city views made by hand – on vellum manuscripts, in glass and stone mosaics, or with embroidery as tapestries – could only be purchased by elite members of European society.[5] This change in media also increased the frequency and quantity of image production, and image copying!

3. Urban studies of individual cities

Much of the scholarship on chorography addresses views of individual cities. Rather than consider chorography over a broad geographic region, they look at how one city in particular was visualized under different historical contexts. Some follow the work of specific mapmakers or printers, and others the way visualizations of a city change over time. In the literature Mapping History surveyed, cities in Italy, Great Britain, and the Low Countries received the most attention.[6]

4. The boundaries between art and science

Scholars have abstracted Ptolemy’s definitions of geography and chorography into oppositional terms that refer to rational science and creative art, respectively. Geography became the domain of measurements, mathematics, and the grid-system, while chorography encompassed textual, visual, and symbolic renderings of places. Ptolemy’s separation of the two categories for visualizing and describing the world created a dichotomy between methods and outputs that continues to be upheld. Much of the previous scholarship on chorography takes interest in this binary and looks for places in the history of city views where art and science meet. Recently, scholars have demonstrated the lack of separation in premodern textual and visual discourses between art and science, aesthetics and knowledge, and landscape and maps.[7]

Chorography in Mapping History

The above perspectives further our understanding of the creation and context of chorographic images, such as the city views from the Civitates Orbis Terrarum examined in Mapping History; however, they do not answer one of the fundamental questions of our project – why do chorographies look the way that they do?

Mapping History argues that artists made intentional choices when creating chorographies that incorporated both scientific theory and contemporary trends in the visual arts, and that these choices had significant effects on the images. Through the digital analysis techniques explored in this project, we are able to better understand these visual choices.

[1] Note: Chorography encompasses multiple modes of representation, such as prose and poetry.

[2] Claudius Ptolemy, The Geography, trans. & ed. Edward Luther Stevenson (Mineola, NY: General Publishing Company, 1991), 25.

[3] Veronica della Dora, “Topia: Landscape before Linear Perspective,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 103, no. 3 (2013), 688-709; Jesse Simon, “Chorography Reconsidered: An Alternative Approach to the Ptolemaic Definition,” in Mapping Medieval Geographies: Geographical Encounters in the Latin West and Beyond, 300 – 1600, ed. Keith Killey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 23–44.

[4] David Woodward, Maps as Prints in the Italian Renaissance: Makers, Distributors & Consumers, The Panizzi Lectures (London: British Library, 1996).

[5]  Hilary Ballon and David Friedman, “Portraying the City in Early Modern Europe: Measurement, Representation, and Planning,” In The History of Cartography, Volume 3, Cartography in the European Renaissance, edited by David Woodward, 680; Francesca Fiorani, The Marvel of Maps: Art, Cartography and Politics in Renaissance Italy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005); Genevieve Carlton, Worldly Consumers: The Demand for Maps in Renaissance Italy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015); Jeffrey C. Stone, “Timothy Pont and the Mapping of Sixteenth-Century Scotland: Survey or Chorography?,” Survey Review 35, no. 276 (2013), 420; Filippo Camerota, “Looking for an Artificial Eye: On the Borderline between Painting and Topography,” Early Science and Medicine, Vol. 10, No. 2, Optics, Instruments and Painting, 1420-1720 Reflections on the Hockney-Falco Thesis (2005): 263-285.

[6]  Jessica Maier, “A ‘True Likeness’: The Renaissance City Portrait,” Renaissance Quarterly 65, no. 3 (2012): 711–52; Juergen Schulz, “Jacopo de’ Barbari’s View of Venice: Map Making, City Views, and Moralized Geography before the Year 1500,” The Art Bulletin 60, no. 3 (1978): 425–74; Thomas Frangenberg, “Chorographies of Florence: The Use of City Views and City Plans in the Sixteenth Century,” Imago Mundi 46, no. 1 (1993), 41-64.

[7] E.g. della Dora; Carlton; Maier.

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