world globe Asia Africa Africa Africa Asia Americas World WorldAmericasAfricaAsia

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Maps as tools of empire and cultural objects

Detail of Plautius engraving of ColumbusThe development of modern cartographic methods is only a part of the story of maps in early modern Europe. Maps shaped European awareness of the physical layout of the continents and of Europe's place among them, and visually represented the global reach of European power, as with this arresting image of Columbus presenting the world. Maps were also practical tools of empire. They marked claims to territory, spurred exploration of unknown lands, and attracted potential investors and settlers to overseas ventures. Maps and atlases became desirable consumer items; they fed people's appetite for information about the strange new lands and, when prominently displayed in someone's  Detail of Pontanus engraving of the Bourse home or office, attested to the owner's education and cosmopolitan tastes.

Amsterdam was the center of map production during most of the period covered by this exhibition. By the early 1600s the Dutch city was becoming the financial hub for European overseas trade, with the newly opened Amsterdam Bourse attracting merchants from across Europe and beyond, as this illustration from the 1611 city history suggests. Amsterdam was also a cultural center where some of Europe's best artists, engravers and printers were available to translate the explorers' and traders' geographical knowledge into stunningly attractive maps and town views, known as bird's eye views. Most of the maps and views shown in this exhibition were either produced by Dutch craftsmen or influenced by them. Dutch and other European maps and views of Asia, Africa and the Americas were more than exercises in cartography; they were also cultural documents that promoted particular ways of thinking about distant peoples and places. How these ways of thinking varied from region to region and how they changed over time is the subject of the rest of the exhibition.

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Introduction | Bibliography
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