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Horror vacui

With Savage Pictures Fill their Gaps’: On Cartographers’ Fears of Blank Spaces, By Chet van Duzer

Historians of cartography occasionally refer to cartographers’ horror vacui, that is, their fear or hesitancy to leave spaces blank on maps that might be filled with decorations. Some scholars have denied that this impulse was a factor in the design of maps, but the question has never been examined carefully. The maps exhibited here show that a fear of empty spaces on maps, or at least a fondness for filling every available space, was indeed an important factor in the design of maps, at least for some cartographers, from the sixteenth to the early eighteenth century. In the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries maps began to be thought of as more purely scientific instruments, cartographic decoration declined generally, and cartographers managed to restrain their concern about spaces lacking decoration in the interest of presenting their work as modern and professional. Some cartographers adopted this new aesthetic before others, but as more and more cartographers did so, maps adopted their typically unadorned modern appearance.

Typus orarum maritimarum Guinae Langren, Arnold Florent van Amsterdam: 1596
The Dutch cartographer Jan Huyghen van Linschoten (1563-1611) uses a remarkable variety of decorative elements to fill the southern Atlantic on this map which he published in his Itinerario: inset views of the islands of St. Helena and Ascension, with elaborate borders; two cartouches with elaborate borders; compass roses; three ships; a sea monster; and very ornate lettering for place names. He did not deploy this same variety of techniques to avoid emptiness in his other maps; for example, in the world map in his Itinerario he only uses florid lettering and a few ships and sea monsters.
A NEW, Plaine, and Exact Map of AMERICA, Walton, Robert, 1618-1688. London: [1660]
Both a printer of maps and a seller of imported maps, the Englishman Robert Walton (1618-1688), like Linschoten, uses a variety of decorations to fill the oceans on this map of the Americas: an inset map of the northern polar regions; a cartouche; descriptive texts; images of native peoples; ships; sea monsters; and large lettering for the names of the oceans. It is tempting to think that the map’s busy appearance attracted and held the eyes of his customers, and thus helped increase sales.
Henri Abraham Chatelain, Carte Tres Curieuse de la Mer du Sud, Amsterdam: 1719
The great profusion of inset maps and scenes along the northern and southern edges of Henri Chatelain’s 1719 “Very Curious Map of the Pacific” show the cartographer’s desire to strong desire to avoid empty space, and more specifically to conceal his ignorance of what lay in the extreme northern and southern reaches of the world. The south is essentially tiled over with inset maps that include ethnographic scenes; in the north note that he conceals his ignorance of northwestern North America with a series of portraits of explorers. He fills the oceans with descriptive texts and the traces of the courses sailed by the explorers Magellan, Le Maire, Schouten, L’Hermite, and Olivier van Noort.
Maris Pacifici, (quod vulgó Mar del Zur) In hand-colored Ortelius, 1595 Ortelius, Maris Pacifici, (quod vulgó Mar del Zur), 1589
On this map of the Pacific, first printed in 1589, Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598), the creator of the first modern atlas, uses a different strategy than Gutiérrez to fill the vast reaches of the ocean. Instead of using a flotilla of ships or a bevy of sea monsters, he stretches out the name of the ocean in large, widely-spaced letters in five lines that reach from 23° north to 50° south: “The Pacific Ocean, which is commonly called the Southern Ocean.”