City View

Before 1490, German historian Wolfgang Behringer estimates there were about thirty city views with an identifiable urban subject (1). During the Renaissance period, an explosion in the production of city images, canonized in the masterwork of Braun and Hogenberg’s Civitates orbis terrarum, firmly established the city view as a significant genre of chorography, a field at the convergence of scientific convention and artistic practice. The six volumes of Civitatus orbis terrarum alone accounted for 546 published images of city views (2). The city view can be considered a cartographical material with the city as the primary subject. Often used interchangeably with bird’s-eye view, the city-view is a large subset of the chorographical genre, one that employs a diversity of perspective plans to convey a holistic view of the urban space, such as landscape, bird’s eye, town-plan, and profile.

The production of these topographical maps responded to increased demand for city views, as urban locations became the nuclei of political, economic, and cultural life, alongside venues of military defense. Considered the “first form of Ptolemaic cartography” (2), 16th century representations of cities demanded the most complex representational strategies of cartography at the time. Seeking to communicate both symbolic and physical conceptions, the author utilizes a perspective plan to convey a mode of representation, whether that be a profile –derived from nautical tradition -, a landscape, or a bird’s eye view. Attempting to imbue the images of cities with symbolic meaning, whether that be of political authority or religious affiliation, Renaissance artists straddled pictorial integrity with artistic description.

Draftsman of city views used visual observation, from a vantage point within or outside the city, alongside optical instruments and a perspective system to convey a spatial relationship between noted landmarks (3). While scientific knowledge regarding scale, perspective, and spatial geometry circulated throughout Europe and into the Ottoman Empire, both European and particularly Ottoman chorographers did not fully integrate this scientific knowledge into their work, abandoning certain systems in favor of symbolic representation or local artistic tradition (4).

Leonardo Bufalini’s map of Rome (1551) is an excellent case study (Fig. 1). Cataloging the streets, squares, churches, palaces, and streets with impressive detail, it offers specific plans for great monuments, and conventional grids for other large buildings. Most interestingly, it combines both ancient and modern structures, constructing a timeless image of the city; “Platea Capitolina” is bordered in the east by the medieval temple of San Maria d’Aracoeli and also by inscriptions denoting the temples of Janus and Jupiter, of which no historical documentation exists. Moreover, the most meticulous aspect of the map is the city wall, including correct directional changes, the dimensions of each section, and an accurate perimeter estimate. This belies Bufalini’s background as a military engineer. In other less prioritized portions of the map, such as the complex street plan, the configuration of streets remains far more approximation than exact depiction (3).

Fig. 1: Leonardo Bufalini’s view of Rome, published in 1551.

Ultimately, city views exhibit the similar motifs of chorography. They are topographical representations of a specific urban space, where scientific conventions are integrated to varying degrees, depending on the prioritization of the mapmaker. As such, these chorographies exhibit the perspectival distortions and artistic elements (moving characters, religious iconography etc.) that imbue each image with historical meaning. It is the ongoing aims of this project to decompose this embedded symbolic substance through the transformation of Braun and Hogenberg city-views into three-dimensional images, to glean greater insights on contemporary zeitgeists and the historiographical implications of this chorographical tradition.

Quote Library

“The growth of urban consciousness during the second half of the sixteenth century stimulated and was stimulated by the visual and written representations of the features and the life of a particular town.”

“The new type of city view appeared in forms as various as the audiences for which they were intended. The most widely disseminated is the one represented by Braun and Hogenberg’s atlas of cities.”

“Whether they were instruments of propaganda sponsored by government or commercial ventures aimed at a more general public, the challenge of picturing the city included the need to characterize it.”

“The bird’s-eye view created a new pictorial subject: the city as a complete, self-contained, and internally organized entity.”

“A bird’s-eye view conveys a notion of possession to the viewer. In other words, to represent and to see the city in its totality creates the impression that one encompasses and has control over the viewed, including, wherever they are present, the city dwellers.”

(1) Wolfgang Behringer, “La storia dei grandi Libri delle Città all’inizio dell’Europa moderna,” in Città d’Europa, 148–57, esp. 155

(2) 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.

(3) Nuti, Lucia. “The Perspective Plan in the Sixteenth Century: The Invention of a Representational Language.” The Art Bulletin 76, no. 1 (1994): 105.

(4) Brentjes, Sonja. Essay. In Frontiers of Ottoman Studies, 125–57. London: Tauris, 2005.

(5) Manners, Ian R. “Constructing the Image of a City: The Representation of Constantinople in Christopher Buondelmonti'sLiber Insularum Archipelagi.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 87, no. 1 (1997): 72–102.

(6) Camino, Mercedes. “Producing the City: Bird's-Eye Views of Habsburg Spain.” Cartographica: The International Journal for Geographic Information and Geovisualization 36, no. 3 (1999): 17–30.

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