Mapping the City and the Territory: Florence and Milan

The early fifteenth century marked a turning point in the history of cartography. Medieval maps portrayed cities as allegorical and generalized abstractions with little attention to geographic accuracy. The Renaissance, in contrast, depicted cities with an unprecedented level of precision and detail. Several technologies developed just before and during Leonardo’s lifetime accelerated the art of mapmaking: the invention of linear perspective, the ichnographic plan, and advanced surveying instruments and techniques. As a result of these achievements, maps became both tools for navigation and repositories of knowledge. Jacopo de’ Barbari’s famous woodblock print of Venice, published in 1500, exemplifies these developments—every canal, square, and bell tower is captured with such precision that the viewer feels transported to Piazza San Marco.

With the advent of the printing press, books became an essential source for the dissemination of maps. For example, Foresti’s Supplementum chronicarum (1483) included one of the earliest detailed and accurate maps of Rome, allowing those who had not yet visited the Eternal City to trace its streets from home. Armchair travel was a marketable feature of early modern maps, as confirmed in Braun and Hogenberg’s preface to Civitates orbis terrarum: “with the present work, we have relieved lovers of history of the hardship, danger, and expense of traveling.” Before the map of Milan (illustrated here) was published in the Civitates orbis terrarum, Leonardo sketched his own maps of the city that anticipated later cartographic innovations. He also made territorial maps in Tuscany and Romagna when he was asked to address strategic military and engineering problems.

[Alexandria R. Tsagaris]

George Braun, 1541–1622, and Franz Hogenberg, 1539–1590

“Mediolanum (Milan),” in Civitates orbis terrarum

Cologne: Peter von Brachel, 1640

David Rumsey Map Collection G1015 .B7 1640

Gift of Mr. David Rumsey

It has been suggested that the figures on this map of Milan were intended to prevent an Ottoman reader from scrutinizing European maps for military secrets, as it was thought that Islam forbade Turks from viewing depictions of the human form. That was certainly not true, as hundreds of Ottoman figural miniatures attest, though it demonstrates how maps were harbingers of fact and fiction alike. Leonardo’s own representations of Milan recorded the urban transformation that occurred under Duke Ludovico Sforza’s rule, as well as hinting at future canal projects.

At a time when there was no way of capturing aerial views, artists had to find alternative methods of orienting themselves within a physical space. Leonardo is physically present through his mapmaking process, both through his use of his artistic and mathematical background in measurement and proportioning and in his familiarity with the landscape gained during his extensive time in Milan spent working on city projects, urban redesign, and festival planning. The aerial perspectives in Leonardo’s cartographical work were further developed in Braun and Hogenberg’s Civitates orbis terrarum, completed in 1640. The views from above recall Leonardo’s identity as a “bird-man” observing the world from a powerful vantage point; he both inserted and distanced himself from his surroundings, surveying the land below. Leonardo tried to make sense of his own place in new urban or rural environments through graphic skill—rendering familiar local contours and connecting natural landscapes with manmade planes. However, there were very few cartographic models to guide Leonardo. A generation or two later, they would be well established.

[Meagan Wu]

Abraham Ortelius, 1527–1598

“Ducatus Mediolanensis,” in Theatrum orbis terrarum

Antwerp: Gielis Coppens van Diest, 1570

David Rumsey Map Collection G1006 .O7 1570 F

Gift of Mr. David Rumsey

The “Ducatus Mediolanensis” shows the Duchy of Milan, Piedmont, and Liguria and is one of the fifty-three maps that form the first modern atlas, the Theatrum orbis terrarum. Compiled by Flemish geographer and cartographer Abraham Ortelius, the atlas complements descriptive texts with preexisting maps to recreate an experience of each geographical section. This method was inspired by the 1543 anatomical atlas of Andreas Vesalius, who had used illustrations to facilitate the absorption of knowledge. Beyond accessibility, Ortelius’s Theatrum aspired to universality; its title implied a circularity that echoed the shape of the world and suggested completeness and coherence. The chart renders the region’s waterways, lakes, and mountains in an artistic rather than a topographical manner: elevation is depicted as landscape, while undulating lines indicate the flow of water and recall the venous system included in Vesalius’s books. Conversely, towns are marked by place names next to a schematic citadel.

An accomplished cartographer, Leonardo employed a similar technique in his own maps of various Italian territories. Familiarity with the lay of the Lombard land furthermore benefited him during his employment in Milan, where he served as a military, civil, and hydraulic engineer under Ludovico Sforza and later the French. In his graphic work, however, the polymath dissected not only nature but also man. Each line an incision, the anatomical and geographical drawings provided objective insight into the structure of micro- and macrocosm. Like the Theatrum, these studies relied on the precision and realism of images to re-present the world.

[Helen D. Krüger and Lorenzo Bartolucci]

“Florentia nobilissima Hethruriae civitas, deformata ad nostra tempora” [in Sebastian Münster, Cosmographia universalis]

Basel: Heinrich Petri, 1572, pp. 268–269

David Rumsey Map Collection G1001.M8 1572

Leonardo surely knew this famous map of Florence, often described as the first “modern” view of a city. First engraved by Francesco Rosselli (1448–before 1513) in 1482–1490, then copied and republished around 1510, possibly by Lucantonio degli Uberti, the View of Florence with a Chain became one of the most well-known Renaissance cityscapes, described as such because it depicted the chain across the Arno. Frequently reproduced, it is not surprising that Sebastian Münster included it in his Cosmographia.

Rosselli’s original map reflected many of the innovations that had been made in cartography by the late fifteenth century. He depicted Florence from a southwestern view, the vantage point of an artist drawing the city from a hill above it. The mapmaker is on the map—this is his view of Florence. Yet when we look carefully, we discover that no single perspective offers this complex panorama of the city, its principal buildings, and the surrounding countryside.

The View of Florence with a Chain is a composite portrait created by combining multiple perspectives from surveys of the principal monuments, topographic maps, and direct observation. Rosselli considered how to incorporate different perspectives on buildings, depicting their façades as well as a rooftop view. While the fine-grained details of the (now lost) original engraving have disappeared, and others, including the portrait of the draftsman, were selectively removed, Münster’s woodcut nonetheless captures Rosselli’s vision of Florence as a city in perspective. Leonardo’s colored relief maps of the region between Florence and Terracina, with their attention to river systems and mountain ranges, should be seen in relation to the chain map.

[Paula Findlen]