Maps give insight into artists as much as locations

The British Library's Magnificent Maps exhibition presents the map as a personal, political and artistic snapshot of the world.

Pierre Desceliers' world map from 1550 is a good example of how map making is an ideological process, one of selecting and omitting, highlighting or hiding away.
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Maps have long held a fascination that goes far beyond any simple practical value. They allow us to locate ourselves within the world and relate ourselves to other places, peoples and cultures. They are records of knowledge and exploration, ideological statements and instruments of power. They are also objects of great beauty and craftsmanship, and are currently being celebrated at the British Library's aptly titled Magnificent Maps exhibition.

"Since 1800 most people have had the wrong idea of what maps have traditionally been about," says the exhibition curator Peter Barber. "They think of maps as purely geographical, but before 1800 they were talked of in the same breath as Old Master paintings." Barber believes the appeal of maps is not just aesthetic, but is also rooted in something fundamentally human: the desire to find ourselves. "On a fundamental level, people want to know where they are," he says. "It's the homing instinct. Put someone in front of a map and they will look for places they know, places they've been, or where they are from. It's wrong to dismiss maps as just a way of getting from A to B with nothing to say about life."

The 100 maps on display do indeed have plenty to say - about place and time, history, memory and power. A map is not just a geographic record, but tells a story and puts across a viewpoint. Interestingly, the exhibition is not arranged chronologically but rather reflects the contexts in which the maps would originally have been displayed. First comes a Versailles-style gallery, in which sumptuous wall-maps in gold leaf, woodcut and tapestry aggrandise kings and threaten dukes, advertise cities and praise colonies. Next is an audience-chamber, where fabulously coloured territorial maps and ornate globes would have overawed visitors and emissaries before the monarch had even entered.

The one notable absence here is that of Islamic wall maps. "The exhibition is underpinned by a lot of research," says Barber, "and to the best of my knowledge this sort of research has hitherto only been done on display maps shown in a west European context. The few non-European maps and globes in the exhibition can be shown to have been displayed in a European context. "I did at different points consider including other non-European maps, but in each case we could not discover firm evidence of where they would have been displayed in the course of their existence. In no way can the absence of Islamic mapping be taken to indicate a value judgement about such maps," Barber continues.

"One of our largest such maps, Abdur Rahim's map of the Vale of Kashmir of about 1836, was displayed in the exhibition the Lie of the Land a few years ago to great acclaim." The political intent of some of the maps included in the exhibition is explicit. Jacopo de'Barbari's Woodcut of Venice, dated 1500, is both the largest woodcut map ever created and a fierce assertion of Venetian independence and superiority. The floating city stretches like a country all of its own, full of magnificent churches and palaces, while the mainland is a tiny collection of hills and villages in the background.

"These maps were very expensive to produce," explains Barber, "and whoever was responsible for selecting the features that would be shown on the map would make sure these reflected well on them, whether in terms of prestige for a private individual, or power for a ruler." In this sense, all map-making is an ideological process, one of selecting and omitting, highlighting or hiding away. De'Barbari made the modest-sized city-state as large as the technology of his day would permit, and showed its glories in fabulous and intricate detail.

But maps were intended to impress not just through proclaiming the possession of territories. The maps themselves are works of art, many of them masterpieces of technique that demanded the skills of the calligrapher, draughtsman and engraver. These objects were given as gifts, used to bribe princes and kings, displayed as treasures and used as devotional items. One of the centrepieces of the exhibition is a new, digitally cleaned restoration of the Hereford Mappa Mundi, carried out by the Folio Society. The original is too fragile to be moved, and 700 years have left its surface darkened and cracked. The Folio version shows the map in something like its original brilliance, and the result is a breathtakingly detailed and beautifully strange vision of the medieval Christian world that, as was usual circa 1300, presents the East at the top.

"This is the etymology of the word 'orientation'," says Barber. "In almost all civilisations there is a collective ancestral memory of something significant happening in the Iraq region very early on, and, in fact, as you travel further east, many Islamic cultures orient their maps westward, facing back toward the Holy Land." At the centre of the Mappa Mundi stands Jerusalem, and the three known continents of Africa, Europe and Asia radiate out from it until they fill the globe, hemmed in by ocean.

To modern eyes, medieval maps may seem strange and fanciful, but as Barber points out, no map is an accurate picture: "No map can be a 1:1 representation of a place, and so one must always select what goes into it. Electronic maps are complete works of fiction, and just as ideological. The Swiss government even appealed to Google Earth to show their country in a nicer shade of green, in order to attract tourists."

Rather than being true representations of the world, maps tell stories - personal, political, national, religious. Perhaps the ultimate example of this is the artist Stephen Walter's 2008 work The Island, which satirically portrays London as a self-obsessed island surrounded by strange seas - the oceans of Surrey, Kent and Essex. Every inch of the enormous and detailed map is covered with anecdotes, comments and memories. Islington is "gentrified" while neighbouring Holloway is playfully labelled "ungentrifiable".

This is map as memoir, parody and guidebook - cafés, bars and museums all show up, together with comments and hazy memories. As always, when faced with a map, the viewer seeks out the familiar: the place you live, where you've been, the routes you've taken, and what lies just beyond them.