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Francesca Fiorani, The Marvel of Maps.

Francesca Fiorani, The Marvel of Maps (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005) 347pp. ISBN 0-300-10727-7. US$60.

Many of us have been puzzled by the wonderful displays of Renaissance art and cartography exemplified in the Map Cycles at the Vatican in Rome and the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Francesca Fiorani's book, The Marvel of Maps, is certain to dispel most of the mysteries regarding their creation, background and political context.

A scholarly tour-de-force, Fiorani's book is as thorough in its historical and artistic analysis of Renaissance Italy as it is lavishly illustrated. Indeed, given the size of these maps, it is certainly easier to appreciate many of their features in the abundant and detailed illustrations that decorate this sophisticated work.

Renaissance iconography, art and politics are scrutinised to extract the artistic and cartographic devices used during the court of duke Cosimo I de' Medici (1537-1574) and the papal court of Gregory XIII Boncompagni (1572-1585). Both these map cycles are monumental in size and scope and are colourful displays which illustrate the political and religious control (or claims to control) of these rulers.

Beginning with a study of the use and development of the cartographic grid in perspective and bird's-eye views, Fiorani traces the intricate relationship between patronage and art, cartography and science, as exemplified in these cycles.

The first half of the book is dedicated to the map room of Cosimo I's Ducal Palace, known as the Palazzo Vecchio, in Florence. This map cycle is located in the Guardaroba Nuova, on the second floor of the palace, in a room normally known as the Sala delle Carte Geografiche (Room of Maps) or Sala del Mappamondo (Room of the Globe). The room was originally used as a cupboard and archive, very much alongside the cabinets of art and curiosities, or Kunstkammer.

Cosimo I moved to the palazzo di piazza with his family in 1540, and renovated it under the direction of architects Battista del Tasso and, later, Giorgio Vasari. The culmination of these renovations took place under Vasari, when the Sala Grande was decorated with thirty-nine canvasses of historical paintings related to Florence.

The Guardaroba Nuova was decorated at the same time as the Sala Grande, between 1563 and 1565, with images of the world. It is on the second floor of the Ducal Palace and contains fifty-four maps by two mapmakers. Egnazio Danti made thirty-one of them between 1563 and 1575 and Stefano Bonsignori made twenty-three, from 1577 to 1586.

These maps, the original sequence of which is closely related to Ptolemy's Geography, are described and illustrated in detail by Fiorani, who concludes that "the Guardaroba Nuova was a three-dimensional display of Gastaldi's edition of Ptolemy's Geography and Munster's Cosmographia universalis" (p. 89). Also, this display owes much to classical authors such as Pliny and Vitruvius.

The second section of the book is devoted to the study of "Maps as Sacred Art," concentrating especially on the Vatican's Gallery of Maps. Beginning with a nuanced study of Gregory XIII's Sala Bologna, Fiorani details here the evolution of mapping as art. This process culminated in the representation of Italy in regional maps in the new corridor on the third floor of the Vatican Palace, the Belvedere Courtyard.

Here, according to Fiorani, classical authors such as Strabo and Pomponius Mela infuse a representation of Italy that merges geography and history. This construction was part of Gregory XIII's wish to renovate Rome to commemorate the jubilee of the Council of Trent in 1575, and which continued thereafter.

The corridor, built by Ottaviano Mascherino, was completed in 1579 and the frescos decorating it, two years later. It comprises forty brightly coloured maps, each of which is around three by four metres. The maps encompass Italy as though viewers "were walking along the Apennine ridge from north to south" (p. 174). They also include what Fiorani calls "a utopian construction of a place under the ecclesiastical authority of the papacy" (p. 182), exemplified in the cartographical representation of, for example, the Battle of Lepanto against the Turks (1571) or the island of Malta defended by the Order of the Knights of St. John. In this cycle, then, maps of Italy are associated with episodes of church history.

The cosmographical maps were done following the design of the Reverend Father Egnazio Danti, who was bishop of Alatri, while the paintings of the vault were planned by Girolamo Muzziano and designed by Cesare Nebbia of Orvieto. Altogether they directed the creation of a collection of maps of monumental proportions, which, though carried out by a team, achieves a remarkable unity.

Fiorani claims that her book explores "the interactions between mapping and other forms of knowledge, other systems of representation, and other symbolic realms" (p. 253). However, it falls short of doing this, mostly concentrating on the intricacies of the process of creation and the political and religious motives infusing it. Moreover, although purporting that "the order of maps was used as a system for the organization and transmission of knowledge" (p. 253), this Foucaultian paradigm is left without further elucidation.

Often, for the present reader, too many names are crowded in what appears at first sight to be a coffee-table book. The work then becomes a quasi-encyclopaedic summary of Renaissance artists, architects, religious and political figures.

For Fiorani, maps are "hybrid systems ... combining at once indexical, iconic, and symbolic signs" (p. 7). In Fiorani's own words, the book seeks "to recapture the context of these map cycles through a narrative reconstruction of the cultural nexus from which they emerged" (p. 13). Consequently, the relationship between cartography and power, although mentioned, all but disappears in a book that concentrates on the intricacies of the artistic creation of the cycles and their historical context.

Fiorani acknowledges her debt to authors who have led the critical upheaval of the study of history of cartography since the 1980s, mentioning specifically Denis Cosgrove, Brian Harley, Catherine Delano Smith and David Woodward. Nevertheless, Fiorani's book is not the place to test the theories developed by these writers nor to locate a challenge to the traditional view of maps as artistic or scientific tools.

For example, although there is a detailed analysis of the development and use of the grid at the beginning of the book, and Lucia Nuti's study of bird's-eye views is taken into consideration, the important works of Samuel Edgerton or Ken Hillis are not incorporated. This is especially unfortunate, as these writers have certainly presented the most nuanced and innovative ways of looking at the "disembodied viewer" that Fiorani studies.

A technical and unfortunate problem arises with the book's Index, where all the entries are misplaced by one page. Thus, if one tries to find something on p. 285 it will surely be on p. 286, as the error runs consistently throughout.

In sum, Fiorani offers an encyclopaedic and historical study of the creation of these interesting cycles. Though uncritical, the book certainly exposes and presents the "marvels" it claims to explain.

Assoc-Prof. Mercedes Maroto Camino

School of European Languages and Literatures, University of Auckland
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Author:Camino, Mercedes Maroto
Publication:The Globe
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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