In Magnificent Maps at the British Library (until 19 September) you are surrounded by splendid, if overbearing peaks of cartographic art: an atlas as tall as a man, wall maps of similar size, photographs of palace corridors where every wall is a painted map. There are smaller, curious, handsome and instructive things as well, but nothing is here just because it is a significant piece of scientific cartography. Johann Christoph Müller's 25-sheet map of Bohemia ('arguably the greatest cartographic achievement of the Central European Baroque') isn't here for the sake of its excellent representation of terrain. The book accompanying the exhibition (British Library, £12.95) wants you to attend to the implications of the picture of St Wenceslas, seen above the view of the city of Prague, which fills one corner of the map, and to the symbolic figures and scenes of abundance surrounding an elaborate cartouche that fills another. They are showy pieces of engraving: things to be read in quite a different way from the precise and comprehensive array of symbols ('over 50 signs for human settlements, physical relief, military installations and so on') that fill the topographic map that lies between them.
LRB 8 July 2010 | PDF Download