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Book Review


Buisseret, David. The Mapmakers' Quest: Depicting New Worlds in Renaissance Europe (Oxford University Press, 2003). 227 pp, $35.00.

     In The Mapmakers' Quest, David Buisseret describes both the causes and implications that an explosion of mapmaking had in Europe in the period between 1400 and 1650. A Professor of History at the University of Texas at Arlington specializing in the History of Cartography, Early Modern France, and the Colonial Caribbean, Buisseret's well-illustrated volume (which includes 12 color plates) explores both advances in cartographic skill as well as the desire of European monarchs to expand their power. 1
     The historical significance of maps is illuminated via a three pronged thematic approach which seeks to expand the definition of maps (claiming that they are more then graphic representations of the earth's surface), places maps in a social and economic context that attests to a larger human experience, and shows that maps are universal to human societies everywhere. In the introduction Buisseret highlights how historians, like J.B. Harley, have come to appreciate in recent decades that the mappaemundi of the Middle Ages were more varied then has been imagined. After that brief historiographical introduction, the book is divided by subject area into six chapters which move chronologically from the influence of the cartography of antiquity (especially that of Cladius Ptolemy) on Renaissance mapmakers (chapter one) to the mapping of European towns and the countryside at the turn of the 19th century (chapter six). Chapter two describes the impact of the stylistic changes of Renaissance paintings on maps, the advent of the "painter-cartographer," and the eventual separation of cartography and art in the second half of the 17th century. Chapter three places maps in a political context as testaments to the desire of the European elites to be more effective and powerful rulers. The use of mathematical coordinates in mapping was an important technological development which helped to make European expansion possible in the years between 1400 and 1700. The focus on this expansion, in chapter four, is the most useful section for the world historian, as it highlights the movement of European explorers into the Americas (particularly the Iberian wave of expansion) and the advantage that these maps gave Europeans when it came to controlling the New World. The "Military Revolution" of 1500-1800 takes the focus of the book back to the European domestic stage in chapter five with the development of military innovations, but it also considers the more powerful European armies in the context of building overseas empires. The latest manifestations of these maps are described, briefly, in the conclusion. By 1700, Europe led the world in map production, and soldiers, farmers, sailors, and administrators were among those who used these maps frequently. 2
     Although focused on the innovations of early modern European cartography, the underlying context of the book is Europe's eventual domination of the world. Buisseret asserts that more extensive overseas mapping meant "not only that the mind could now dwell in remote places that could be visited through maps, plans, and views, but also that the body could also return there, thanks to maps and charts which eventually made the whole world the Europeans' oyster" (9). This book is a useful tool in assessing how Europe, so small and lacking in natural resources, came to dominate the globe and thus is a good introduction to a theme which is essential in any study of modern world history. Discussing the reasons why Europe "found" itself to be such a powerful force on the world stage is an excellent topic for class discussion. 3
     The Mapmakers' Quest is useful reading for instructors on the secondary and collegiate levels who are preparing to teach the Age of Exploration, and the maps make for useful visual references in classroom discussions. This book is also useful for undergraduate students, but it is best used to supplement materials that give a more detailed account of European encounters in the New World and the development of centralized states in Europe itself. This work is in no way a total picture of the political, social, cultural, and economic circumstances which produced these maps, but instead represents a thoughtful commentary on the growth of their significance in European affairs. 4
Christine Contrada
SUNY Stony Brook

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