Google Maps, Circa 1570

A reprint of a 16th century atlas of cities is a font of knowledge not only about our urban past, but of what we lost as our towns became concrete jungles.

Noam Dvir
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Noam Dvir

Late 16th-century Jerusalem is "the most famous of Judea and the entire East, whose size and splendor marvels the imagination" according to German geographer and theologian George Braun, who during the Renaissance created several of the most important historical maps of the city.

"That Jerusalem is the center of the whole world and lies on high mountains in the middle of the land of the Jews is attested not just by geographers but by all historians and the holy Bible," he wrote in a text that is found at the top of a 1572 map.

A map of Jerusalem from “Civitates Orbis Terrarum,” Familiar landmarks such as the Dome of the Rock and the Tower of David can be seen. The figures in the foreground are meant to show local dress.Credit: Haaretz

The map of Jerusalem is one of 363 colored historical maps that appear in the book "Cities of the World," that was recently published in English by Taschen.

The book is actually a reprint of a famous atlas called "Civitates Orbis Terrarum," which was published at the end of the 16th century in Cologne, Germany.

Its editors, George Braun (1541-1622 ) and the engraving artist Franz Hogenberg (1535-1590 ), wanted to create for the first time a collection of maps of the most important cities in Europe, Asia, Africa and Central America. Their inspiration was "Theatrum Orbis Terrarum," the first modern atlas, which had been published two years earlier in Belgium, and presented an estimated picture of the world according to Europe.

The publication of the Civitates was made possible thanks to significant advances in the technology of printing, graphics and engraving. For example, the improvement of the technique of perspective during the course of the 15th century enabled artists to draw a bird's-eye view of cities even in the absence of a high tower or a mountain from which to overlook it. In addition, the technology of engraving on metal surfaces also became simple and available. In that way, thousands of eye-catching illustrations were printed at a relatively low cost.

Braun's lifetime project provides a unique portrait of urban life at the turn of the 16th century, a kind of early Renaissance version of the popular Google Earth software, as the publisher puts it. To every map he added a detailed explanation that was based partly on reliable information and partly on the eyewitness accounts of scholars or incidental tourists.

Occasionally the subjective dimension of the information led him to make strange statements. In a text that he appended to a map of the city of Braunschweig in Germany, which sits on the Oker River, he wrote that there was a serious shortage of drinking water, so most of the people drank beer, adding that wine was an expensive item so that there was not much demand for it.

Alongside a map of the English capital of London he wrote that it was a very prosperous city, "king of all the cities in England, situated on the River Thames," noting that expensive "Goods from all over the world are brought hither on the Thames" and that large ships could reach the city during high tide. On the map of London it is easy to identify St. Paul's Cathedral (with the pointed tower that was destroyed in 1561 ) and the round theaters of the South Bank in which bullfights and battles with wild bears took place.

An equally fascinating map was created for Milan, in which there were "magnificent houses, each more beautiful than the next," as Braun puts it. The city is surrounded by a high wall, fortifications and a moat, while the surrounding fields are "fertile and abundant." "Milan can easily be ranked as one of the largest cities in Europe ... So many different artisans live here that it is said that there are enough to rebuild Italy, but first you would have to destroy Milan in order to persuade its craftsmen and artists to migrate across the rest of Italy."

In the updated edition, parts of the original Latin texts are included alongside a new commentary by contemporary German geographer Stephan Fussel. The edition was made possible thanks to a rare and well preserved copy of the atlas, which was found in the archives of the historical museum in Frankfurt.

Between 1572 and 1617, six editions of the Civitates were published, with several more in French and German, all under Braun's close supervision. In an exceptional move, he even turned to the readers and asked them to write to him and suggest additional cities for the atlas. That is clear evidence of his business success and of his future intentions to expand the project, as well as an attempt to create a uniform universal lexicon for the geography of world cities.

From his office in Cologne he succeeded in managing a network of about 150 geographers, cartographers, engravers and artists who contributed their energy and knowledge to the atlas and made it very popular. All this in an era when sending a simple letter could take weeks.

The maps that appear in the Civitates are not like maps as we know them today. Alongside the precise geographical descriptions they include various narratives that are reflected in the illustrations. In front of the map one can often find figures in local dress, which provide the document with an additional dimension of knowledge and authenticity. Scholars now claim that this is in effect the most comprehensive encyclopedia of 16th-century fashion. In other instances there are drawings hinting at the city's culture or industries: mining shale in the city of Angera, traveling by sled in Moscow, dancers on the outskirts of Granada or scholars in a heated discussion in Oxford.

The introduction to the reprinted Taschen edition was written by Rem Koolhaas, one of the most important architects of our times. Like other architects and city planners who have perused the atlas in the past centuries he was attracted to the beautiful representations and figures that appear in it, and to the geographical and cultural knowledge they represent.

"It is impossible to read and look at this book without feeling profound awe and intense envy. Awe of a small team of editors, engravers and eyewitnesses and their ability to synthesize a huge amount of information that was gathered on over 450 cities, including their plans, history, situation and customs, to create a comprehensive portrait of the world in just six volumes," he writes.

Koolhaas adds that today it is no longer possible to represent the cities of the world by the same naive artistic means of geometric abstraction. "Our cities have become monstrous, too endless to represent, endlessly complicated, largely dysfunctional."

The pioneering work by Braun and Hogenburge made a tremendous contribution to Europe's geographical and cultural understanding, both when the atlas was published and in the following centuries.

The Civitates was superior to all the previous atlases in the wealth of detail, the description of the topography surrounding the cities, the architectural precision and the artistic harmony of all the components.

Europe had never been seen, or seen itself, in such detail. Whether we are talking about Paris, London, Cairo or Jerusalem, even after 400 years we can find similarities between the cities and the present reality, even to the point of using the maps to orient ourselves.

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