“But must a map, in order to be authentically a map, approximate to the real geographic world on which it is purportedly based? Certainly not, at least not for those maps that are cosmological or religious in import…Indeed, does any map, even the most scientifically exact, ever truly approximate the world it purports to represent[1] ?”


To understand what the city views in the Civitates Orbis Terrarum (1572–1617) are, as well as the visual and theoretical strategies their makers employ, we must first consider one of the labels commonly applied to them: maps.

Maps are such commonplace and yet diverse objects in twenty-first century life that it becomes difficult to establish a universal definition. Maps are commonly understood today as factual and objective two-dimensional representations of the earth used for navigation; however, they are made by people with individual worldviews who are trying to put their knowledge of the world in order[2] . The positionality of the patrons and artists [3] involved in mapmaking is especially important when we consider the historical context of the images. For example, the views in Civitates Orbis Terrarum were created in the nascency of imperial colonialism and in the height of the European Renaissance. 

Theorists have probed the concept of “map” to produce philosophical definitions of the term that help us understand the multidimensional ways that the images in the Civitates Orbis Terrarum operate. These definitions refute the understanding of a map as a direct replica of reality[4] and consider them as tools for expressing ideological agendas. 

Christian Jacob theorized the map as “a symbolic mediation between humans and their spatial environment, but also between individuals who can communicate through this visual medium[BF5] .” In Jacob’s understanding, maps are a materialization of an intellectual framework that the creator constructs while trying to understand the world around them. From the physical world, to the eye, mind, and hand of the creator, to the physical or digital page, man’s relationship with the environment is interpreted and reinterpreted. Even after its creation, the representation on the map continues to be interpreted in new ways by the viewer. 

Indeed, Denis Cosgrove agrees that while a map is the “spatial embodiment of knowledge” it is also a “stimulus to further cognitive engagements[6] .” Mapmakers make theoretical knowledge about the three-dimensional world physical again in a two-dimensional form. Then, the viewer repeatedly engages intellectually with the map through the act of viewing, each time creating new knowledge for themself. 

It is important to note that maps can extend the abilities of the human body to form knowledge about the world around them[7] . Cosgrove likens maps to tools that enhance vision, such as telescopes and microscopes. In maps, artists visualize the world at scales that are impossible to see with the naked eye, and that are often difficult to imagine. Artists can also bring disparate parts of the world together in a map or book of city views, as we see in the Civitates Orbis Terrarum

Mapping History’s visualizations of the Civitates Orbis Terrarum make it clear that the Frances Hogenberg and Georg Braun did more than document the physicality of early modern cities. They made contextually informed interpretations of three-dimensional spatial forms and visualized them in two-dimensions for viewers, who continue to mediate their relationships with these spaces and images into the present day. In this way, the views of the Civitates Orbis Terrarum cut across practical and theoretical understandings of “map.” They are representations of spatial embodiments of knowledge, symbolic mediations between humans and their environment, tools that enhance vision, and more. Theoretically, the views fit into the above definitions of “map”, yet practically they do not assist navigation or directly replicate reality. The views in the Civitates Orbis Terrarum, thus, go beyond maps and enter into the domain of chorography.


[1] Edward S. Casey, Representing Place: Landscape Painting and Maps (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), pg. 137–136.

[2] Britta Ricker, Menno-Jan Kraak, and Yuri Engelhardt, “The Power of Visualization Choices: Different Images of Patterns in Space,” in Data Visualization in Society, ed. Martin Engeresten and Helen Kennedy (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2020), 409; Charles W. J. Withers, Placing the Enlightenment: Thinking Geographically about the Age of Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 13.

[3] How to Read a Map: Power Dynamics

[4] Tamara Bellone et al., “Mapping as Tacit Representation of the Colonial Gaze,” in Mapping Crisis: Participation, Datafication and Humanitarianism in the Age of Digital Mapping, ed. Doug Specht (University of London Press, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, 2020), 29; Benjamin Schmidt, “Mapping an Empire: Cartographic and Colonial Rivalry in Seventeenth-Century Dutch and English North America,” The William and Mary Quarterly 54, no. 3 (1997): 578

[5] Christian Jacob, The Sovereign Map: Theoretical Approaches in Cartography throughout History, ed. Edward H Dahl, trans. Thomas Conley (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 8.

[6] Denis Cosgrove, “Introduction: Mapping Meaning,” in Mappings, ed. Denis Cosgrove (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press; Reaktion Books, 1999), 2.

[7] Denis Cosgrove, Geography and Vision: Seeing, Imagining and Representing the World, 2nd ed. (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012), 168.

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