Cartography is subjective. This is a well-known fact borne out year after year, map after map. The early Christian church sponsored T-O maps that showed the world as a metaphorical “body” of Christ. Automotive companies funded city maps from the mid-20th century that plainly showed highways and boulevards with rail and tram lines in diminished (or invisible) marks. Or contemporary “post-modern” maps that turn the world inside out and show spaces and boundaries not visible to the naked eye (see e.g. Mission Possible).
One striking example of subjective cartography is this map of Bruges from 1562. A massive, beautiful map. Originally etched on 10 separate plates, printed and composited into a 70×40” masterpiece. At first glance, this map is startling in its obsessive detail and precision of line. But the map’s precision is only a feint at geographic accuracy and serves to distract — like any good magician — from the map’s illusion and intended purpose.
Bruges, it should be noted, is an obsessively precise city: its center a mess of medieval streets perfectly and proudly preserved. Bruges is in northwestern Belgium, near Antwerp, the North Sea, and other ports of the Flemish region. Just across the narrow sea is the Thames and London, and the port lies almost equidistant from the Baltic and Mediterranean seas. The region has long been the commercial hub between major shipping lanes and the overland trade-routes of inland Europe. A trip down one of the city’s wistful canals or cobblestone streets will no doubt impart that Bruges was one of the prosperous and wealthy centers of this trade.
The medieval character of the city is undeniably interesting and well-preserved, spiting the bombs of the world wars. In the 1970s, the city experienced a modern Renaissance, first being adopted as a World Heritage Site and subsequently experiencing massive reforms to city planning that enabled the preservation of the inner city and its tourism while promoting industrial and residential growth in other neighborhoods. For example, automobiles would disrupt the pedestrian-scaled inner streets of the city, and so are parked in lots “extra-muros.” (Tour buses, thankfully, suffer the same fate.) Commercial development of main corridors is encouraged as channels for tourists, but similar painstaking efforts keep other alleys and streets quieter for citizens. The city’s many medieval and Renaissance facades have been refurbished, and to this day the churches are being repainted and re-frescoed to their original splendor.
Given the place’s obsessive and picturesque quality (a quality darkly parodied by the film In Bruges) it’s no wonder that a map of the place should articulate the same kinds of obsession. The medium — etching — is of course almost incapable of producing anything but such fine lines. But the cartographer Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder (Marcus Gerards) pushes his rendering further. He starts with painstaking surveys of the old city, applies precise architectural renderings to the city’s key landmarks (the Belfort Tower, the Church of Our Lady, etc.), then imaginatively decorates the margins with peasants, boats, geese, sheep, and cows — rarely to scale. The gold and teal palette is striking. And the result is a glorious mess of stories and meaning: each detail eye-catching and brightly distracting.
All of this, however, mask a larger illusion. The map shows a city that is almost too perfect: surrounded by a delicate-but-bargeworthy circlet of a canal, its gold landmarks tall and proud, wide canals clearly marked, wide streets for trade, easy river access to the sea. But so much of this, from a more “correct” 21st century viewing via satellite, is just plain wrong. For starters, the canal encircling the city is shaped more like a dented avocado than a jeweled tiara. The canals and streets are much narrower than they appear. The Grote Markt (Central Market) and Belfry are not at the literal geometric center of the city, but would be more accurately drawn further to the east. The river is too wide, the sea much too close.
The sum of Gheeraerts’s manipulations to geographical accuracy result in a Bruges that is at the center of a bustling commercial empire, closely linked to the sea and ripe for trade. In fact, “when the city council gave Gerards the commission, they were acutely aware that the silting up of the River Zwin, linking Bruges with the North Sea, had made access to Bruges much more difficult. Consequently, they told him to make the river and its tributaries look wider than they were.” (source) Advertising sea access with a well-drawn map encouraged traders from afar to engage with the Bruges economy and declared its prominence on the world scene. In hindsight, it’s unclear how well the advertising worked: the so-called Golden Age of Bruges ended in the 16th century, and not until the 19th century did strong economic prosperity return to the city.
Indeed, a map with a purpose. The rendering remains a popular artifact in the history of Bruges. Copies decorate many walls in the city and it is oft-referenced by tour books and historical essays concerning the city’s landmarks. (One citizen went so far as to obsessively build Gheeraerts’s map to scale with 3d models.)
And indeed it is a delightful map: imaginatively playful, stark and purposeful, precise and utterly bold. A proud map for a proud city.
Thanks to Elisa Colombani and Nathan Mueller for reading earlier drafts of this post. Further research on this map is happening at MAGIS Brugge (updated Dec 2013).