Frank Lestringant. Mapping the Renaissance World: The Geographical Imagination in the Age of Discovery. Trans. David Fausett. Berkeley: U of California P, 1994. xvii+197 pp. ISBN 0520-08871-9.
Garrett Sullivan
Pennsylvania State University

Sullivan, Garrett. "Review of Mapping the Renaissance World." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.2 (1996): 8.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/02-2/rev_sul1.html>.

  1. The sixteenth-century Welsh cartographer George Owen once reported a parliamentary mishap involving what we would consider a misreading of Christopher Saxton's atlas. According to Owen, members misconstrued two pages of the atlas; unaware of the vagaries of scale, they assumed that the three counties represented on one sheet of the atlas took up the same amount of space as the single county pictured on the other. Consequently, that one county was taxed three times as much as were each of the others. This anecdote powerfully suggests not the cartographic illiteracy of sixteenth-century map readers, but the extent to which conventions of map-reading were in formation in the early modern period. It also foregrounds two topics central to Frank Lestringant's provocative account of the career of the sixteenth-century French traveller and map-maker, André Thevet: the nature and implications of map reading (and map production), and the problem of scale.

  2. While Owen's anecdote attests to an unfortunate strategic use of maps, Lestringant reads Thevet's work in terms of cosmography, a "grand synthesis" that encompassed what we would think of as cartography, geography, history, botany, and other disciplines that could be used to suggest "the admirable variety of the world" (129). Through the analysis of Thevet's maps and travel narratives, texts torn between a fascination with specific aspects of the cultures Thevet encountered and the desire to integrate those aspects into a global (or cosmographical) whole, Lestringant delineates the decline of cosmography and gestures toward emergent disciplines or practices that were suspicious of the former's "grand synthesis." In doing so, he intriguingly describes the tension between Thevet's maps and the contexts in which they were read -- for example, between Thevet's fragmented rendering, in atlas form, of a series of islands, and a ship captain's need for an itinerary, or "rutter," that would allow him to navigate those islands. Such an atlas, called an isolario, emerges out of a cosmographical tradition in which Thevet was steeped and which had its practical uses. However, Thevet's isolario also "interrupted the practical continuity of navigation, isolating from it vestiges that were scattered among so many island receptacles, closed on to themselves" (107). This example illustrates Lestringant's interest both in map-reading and in scale: the atlas not only fails to offer a navigator a rutter, it also attends to the local at the expense of the global. This latter problem represents for Lestringant a fundamental crisis in cosmography. Wed as it is to a hubristic (and potentially blasphemous) pursuit of an "eternal and ubiquitist knowledge" of the earth, cosmography must at the same time attend to minutiae, to every island and archipelago (130). In the face of both practical uses for geographic and topographic knowledge and an emergent empiricism, the global ambitions of cosmography seemed increasingly antiquated, and by the time of his death Thevet, the one-time cosmographer to the crown, was understood by many as trafficking in falsehoods.

  3. For Lestringant, Thevet's ambitions and actions were shaped by the (cosmographic) problem of scale. What Lestringant says of Thevet's isolario is true also of his Brazilian travel narratives: "In his desire to affirm at all costs the unity of practical [or local] knowledge and global science, he managed to retain of the cosmos only a loose and indefinitely fragmented knowledge ..." (124). While Thevet's pre-ethnographic practice is informed by a desire to join local knowledge with global science, it also suggests a fascinating hybridization of European and Brazilian traditions and mythologies. For example, Lestringant shows how the myth of the "American Amazon," a "fourth sort" supposedly discovered by Thevet, attests not only to the European displacement onto the Other of anxieties regarding female agency, but also to the power of Brazilian myths of warrior women (79). (Interestingly, late in his career, Thevet attempts to discredit the Amazon legend that he had earlier promulgated, but Lestrigant shows convincingly how Thevet shores up that legend even as he attempts to undermine it). For Lestringant, what remains fascinating about Thevet is that while he adheres to the failing cosmographical project of integrating particulars into a whole (or, in this case, fragments of Brazilian culture into an overarching European context suited to the production of justificatory narratives for colonial exploitation), the particulars he describes assert their own authority and interest -- at some level they refuse integration. Thevet enacts the failure of cosmography even as he acts in its service.

  4. What pleases me most about Lestringant's book is the implicit critique it offers of recent accounts of the cultural significance of maps. While many literary and cultural critics of this period have followed Richard Helgerson in understanding maps in terms of their complex and varied iconography -- consider, for example, John Gillies's recent book on Shakespeare and geography -- Lestringant situates maps in terms of specific reading practices. Moreover, his crucial articulation of the relationship between cosmography and chorography, an articulation which suggests the different uses for and readings of maps, hints at the variety of meanings that maps can produce. Sadly, much of this is underdeveloped. At times Lestringant fails to acknowledge the extent to which maps are ideologically shaped and charged. Consider his discussion of:

    . . . a general constraint that weighed on geography at the dawn of the modern age -- namely, that any given map was never established on entirely fresh ground, but always inherited from previous maps a not inconsiderable -- even a preponderant -- share of its information. Even in the best of cases it integrated new data into a received form or contour. (112)

    This formulation presupposes a modern map "established on entirely fresh ground," one that does not depend upon received forms. With new geographic discoveries come new, "accurate" maps whose formal features merely reflect or contain that accuracy. One could start by pointing out that Lestringant is simply wrong here -- map historians such as R. A. Skelton have traced representational continuities from maps of the classical era to those of the present, and J. B. Harley, among others, has convincingly shown the ideological nature of contemporary cartographic productions -- but this example also bespeaks a troubling positivism that runs throughout Lestringant's book and shows up in his intriguing discussion of experience. Thevet articulates his authority in terms of his experience of exotic lands; he has knowledge that his predecessors did not. Lestringant is right when he analyzes Thevet's strategic use of his experience. However, he fails to problematize or historicize that experience -- he seems to see experiential knowledge as transparent in its nature and meaning, and he doesn't consider the way in which such experience is shaped by cultural and ideological forces.

  5. Lestringant would have benefitted from considering George Owen's example. Saxton's text, an "accurate" one usually touted as the first modern British atlas of England and Wales, was still open to a range of readings that emerged out of its semiotic multiplicity and the different uses to which it was put. Cosmography does not in any straightforward fashion give way to the representation or production of maps that are precise and univocal in their meaning, just as "inaccuracies" do not melt away before the transparent authority of experience, in any of its forms. Lestringant assumes that the fictions of cosmography were replaced by the facts of early modern empiricism, and that the false mapping of the Renaissance world was eventually supplanted by the truth of modern cartography. Nevertheless, his achievement is that he renders in a full and variegated fashion the rich complexity of a lost cosmographic imagination.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

© 1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(August 21, 1996)