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The 'Apollonian Dream': Objectivity, Pluralism and Vision in the History of Cartography

Oliver Hirst[1], Department of History, University of Warwick


By viewing the history of cartography through the lens of 'objectivity', scholars have constructed a retrospective narrative of increasing geographical accuracy and realism which has culminated in modern 'scientific' cartography. While the postmodernist approach of 'critical cartography' has deconstructed and decentred these perspectives, recent developments in mapping technologies such as Geographical Information Systems (GIS) appear to position the twenty-first-century observer above the cultural and intellectual restrictions that shaped past cartography. However, this article argues that digital mapping technologies, rather than being a transhistorical 'end-point' of cartographic development at which we have an omniscient and 'objective' view of the world, remain deeply embedded in the cultural context of the Information Age. Ultimately, the article proposes that it is only by historicising the vision of the present as well as that of the past that we can extend our understanding. An acknowledgement of epistemological pluralism in maps is the most effective way for scholars to engage with historical cartography, reconstructing the ways in which maps construct, rather than reflect, their worlds.

Keywords: Cartography, history of science, mirror, theatre, GIS, Google Earth


Over five hundred years ago the humanist scholar Francesco Berlinghieri, in his introduction to Claudius Ptolemy's ancient text Geographia, declared that the map:

Offers divine intellect to human genius, as if it were by nature celestial, demonstrating how with true discipline, we can leap up within ourselves, without the aid of wings, so that we may view earth through an image marked on a parchment. Its truth and greatness declared, we may circle all or part of it, pilgrims through the colour of a flat parchment, around which the heavens and the stars revolve.
(Brotton, 1997: 23)

In the Information Age of the twenty-first century, with the development of digital mapping technologies, it would appear that this 'Apollonian dream' of cartography – to look down on the earth from above like the Greek god Apollo – has been fully realised (Cosgrove, 2003: 235). While scholars have increasingly challenged the concept of cartographic 'objectivity', applications such as Google Earth, offering a seemingly omniscient view of the world, threaten a resurgence of the scientific positivism that has severely limited the scope of past scholarship. However, by employing the approach of 'critical cartography', and adapting pioneering ideas regarding how vision itself is a culturally specific rather than a transhistorical perspective, historians of cartography can continue their commitment to understanding the map not as a 'transparent opening', but as 'a particular human way […] of looking' at the world (Harley, 1989: 3).

Historiography: critical cartography

In order to contextualise the present article within wider scholarship, it is first necessary to survey the historiography of the field. From its genesis in the nineteenth century to the late twentieth century and beyond, the history of cartography has been largely dominated by a positivist teleology in which maps are studied through the lens of geographical objectivity. Influenced by traditional history of science approaches, as well as the geographical field itself, scholars have constructed a retrospective narrative of increasing accuracy towards modern 'scientific' mapping. Fundamental to this idea is the ontological assumption that the world possesses an unambiguous existence that can be objectively known; there is a world of geographical facts 'out there', separate and distant from the observer, which can be 'discovered' and depicted on the map, a repository of 'unambiguous geographic facts' which varies only in its degree of geometrical accuracy and comprehensiveness of those facts (Edney, 2011: 74). Many scholars of cartography therefore presuppose the a priori actuality of geographic facts which must simply be collected through the scientific enterprise of the explorer and surveyor, and depicted through the neutral technologies of the cartographer.

The positivist narrative of scientific progress in mapping that has been created by this empiricist epistemology has had a profound impact on the history of cartography. Decontextualised and judged against the criteria of 'objective' geographical representation, medieval and early modern maps are reified as 'protoscientific' objects (Brotton, 1997: 19). As Christian Jacob explains, the 'errors, lacunae, and myths' of historical maps have been traditionally denigrated, but no effort made to 'conceptualize a different arrangement of knowledge and degrees of rationality'; ultimately the very historicity of maps has been overlooked (Jacob, 2009: 4). An indicative example of this positivist perspective posits the existence of an 'informal, prescientific phase of cartography', when mapmakers had 'neither the geographical knowledge nor the cartographic skill to make accurate maps' (Rees, 1980: 62). The concept of teleological development is evident when the historian suggests that this state of inaccurate and decorative mapping continued 'until science claimed cartography' (Rees, 1980: 63).

Against this background, however, the work of the so-called 'new cultural cartographers', influenced by post-structuralist and postcolonial thought, has problematised traditional notions about the presumed objectivity of maps in accurately and neutrally representing geographical fact (Craib, 2000: 7). Postmodernism has created an intellectual climate in which every image is open to critique, producing a 'crisis of representation' which has challenged even the most presumably value-free of cultural objects, such as maps, as embodying power relations all the more oppressive and dangerous due to their naturalisation (Craib, 2000: 8). Subsequent scholarship has employed the strategies of deconstruction in order to 'break the constrictive and exclusive link between reality and representation' that dominates cartographical thinking and that constitutes the 'implicit epistemology of its history' (Jacob, 2009: 4). Paralleling shifts in the history of science, where 'contextualist' studies have historicised science itself as grounded in the culture that nurtures it, historians have contested their previous aim of 'objective' judgement; as one scholar argues, 'the historian has no stake in adjudicating the truth of past convictions' (Dear, 2001: 2). With the linguistic turn, maps have been studied as a 'kind of language', a way of articulating and structuring the human world, subjectively representing rather than objectively uncovering (Harley, 2001: 53).

Particularly central to this movement has been the work of J. B. Harley, and the approach of 'critical cartography' which it has advanced. Harley argued that scholars should encourage an epistemological shift in the way that the history of cartography was understood; instead of the 'myth' of maps as an 'unquestionably "scientific" or "objective" form of knowledge creation', historians should rethink the nature of maps from different perspectives (Harley, 1989: 15, 1–2). To achieve this aim, critical cartography treats the map as a text, constructing the reality that it purports to neutrally represent. An acknowledgement of the textuality of maps means that interpretation can go 'beyond the assessment of geometric accuracy, beyond the fixing of location', to reading the map as a 'thick' text that constitutes a culturally constructed form of knowledge (Harley, 1989: 8; Harley, 2001: 52). Through this avenue, Harley deconstructs cartography through the Foucauldian concepts of discourse and power, and Derridean notions of rhetoric. Maps as texts constitute a 'cartographic discourse' which is evaluative, persuasive, and rhetorical, as opposed to simply naming, locating, and recounting (Harley, 2001: 54).

With these analytical tools, science is decentred as simply one representational strategy, with the 'symbolic realism' of modern maps seen as a rhetorical device as defined by its cultural context as the 'prescientific' mapping that historians have denounced (Harley, 1989: 7–10). No map is neutral or value-free, as each step in the process of their making – selection, omission, classification, the ordering of hierarchies – is inherently rhetorical (Harley, 1989: 11). As one subsequent historian has written, all maps are in some sense 'symbolic' in that they 'all inscribe and support notions of space and world that are logically prior to their specific content'; what distinguishes modern maps is that these symbolic dimensions are 'camouflaged' by overt claims to strict empiricism (Padrón, 2004: 40). This perspective has even manifested in a revised definition of the map itself, as suggested by Harley and his colleague David Woodward in their seminal History of Cartography series. Maps are defined as 'graphic representations that facilitate a spatial understanding of things, concepts, conditions, processes, or events in the human world', and thus the surface of the earth is not specified as the necessary object of cartographic representation (Harley and Woodward, 1987: xvi). This new definition acknowledges the cultural and historical contingency of cartographic strategies (Padrón, 2002: 43).

Critical cartography, by challenging the orthodox view of maps as 'neutral, mimetic devices' that 'mirror' the earth, therefore breaks down reductionist dichotomies that have been constructed by scholars in the history of cartography: true/false, accurate/inaccurate, modern/medieval (Turnbull, 1996: 7). On an epistemological level, and adapting developments from the history of science, historians of cartography have begun to look beyond the absolutes of scientific knowledge to the multiple processes by which knowledge was created within maps.

The 'omniscience' of digital mapping

Yet, contemporary changes in mapping technologies accompany a resurgence of the scientific positivist narrative, and the monopoly of the doctrine of 'objectivity' that for decades has undermined these more constructive and pluralistic approaches to the history of cartography.

Digital developments in the twenty-first century seem finally to have established the 'Apollonian' perspective promised by the scientific narrative of cartographic progress. It is an age in which we can physically, as well as imaginatively, look down at the surface of the globe from orbiting satellites; in which we can capture this view with photographic imagery and surveying technology; and in which this information can be digitally mapped through Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and made accessible through online geospatial applications, which combine geographical information with computer software. The most prominent of these, Google Earth, has been downloaded by more than half a billion people in an online global community of around two billion (Brotton, 2012: 406). Using the application, the world can be rotated, tilted, and panned; directions and destinations can be plotted around GPS locations; and users can zoom down through layers of data, travelling from thousands of miles above the earth to within a few metres of its surface, presented with photo-real images (Brotton, 2012: 406). The personified clouds and winds that bordered the sixteenth-century maps of Battista Agnese and Martin Waldseemüller have been replaced by real-time weather simulations; the blank spaces at the peripheries of early Ptolemaic projections have been overcome by a level of quantitative depth emblematic of the Information Age. Many have praised GIS such as Google Earth as a revolutionary new way of viewing the world, constituting the first convincing attempt at creating a mirror-world or simulacrum of the earth (Allen, 2009: 1). It would seem that the entire world is within our perception; each of us has transformed, more than ever, into what Michel de Certeau calls a 'voyeur-god' (Certeau, 1984: 93).

Figure 1: Google Earth

Figure 1: Google Earth (2014)

Despite the ubiquity and power of these recent technological developments, scholars have largely failed to analyse their potential implications for the history and theory of cartography. As Jerry Brotton suggests in his own constructive, albeit narrative-centred and pseudo-popular, work, anything approaching a history of these developments and their significance in the historiography of cartography is necessarily still to be written, as the technology continues to evolve on an almost daily basis (Brotton, 2012: 409). While many maintain that the development of digital mapping constitutes a scientific pursuit capable of producing objective knowledge of the world, some have begun to criticise GIS for its positivist epistemology, its instrumental rationality and data-led methods (Kwan, 2002: 645). Others have expressed concern at the widespread perception of digital mapping as a 'beacon of scientific truth', ostensibly providing a neutral 'eye of God' which is accepted unquestioningly by an uncritical public (Schuurman, 2002: 77; Schuurman, 2009: 574). However, there is an urgent need for an analysis of the possible effects of these technological changes on our historiographical perspective.

With regard to the history and theory of cartography, GIS and the ideology of 'total mapping' that surrounds the technology threaten a revival of the scientific positivism which has been the 'taken for granted' epistemology in many areas of the history of cartography (Harley, 1989: 3). The Apollonian perspective of digital mapping is one which privileges a 'particular form of seeing', characterised as 'distanced, objective, and penetrating' (Pickles, 2004: 83). As Jacob articulates, contemporary geographers have a long-standing stake in such a 'referential and positivist approach'; graphic sobriety and standardisation, functionality and the primacy of measure, are considered the inherent properties of the 'true map' (Jacob, 2009: 4). This 'myth' of progressive science has, furthermore, been uncritically accepted by a wider scholarship and public. The lessons of Harley's critical cartography seem more important than ever, as this renewal of the concept of geographical objectivity leads to a new positivism that threatens to undermine alternative approaches to historical cartography, which cannot simply be understood through an anachronistic lens of 'objectivity.'

Changing vision: from theatre to mirror

The idea of historicising 'vision', taking the perception and comprehension of the visual not as transhistorical but as deeply embedded within the cultural context of the time, offers an avenue to extend the framework of Harley's critical cartography and to challenge the resurgence of the scientific positivist approach. To employ Foucault's concept of the 'episteme', the specific 'epistemological field' of any one period is defined by the 'conditions of possibility' for knowledge, which have changed across time and space (Foucault, 1970: xxii, 168). At all points in history, individuals look and have looked on the world with an 'encoded' eye, using a conception of vision culturally specific to the locus of perception (Foucault, 1970: xxi). Indeed, following the influences of post-structuralism, it is now widely accepted that in any age visual experience, like its linguistic equivalent, 'can only mean something in relation to pre-existing cultural and social formations' (Clark, 2007: 6). This idea has led to concepts such as the 'period eye' in the history of art. In particular, the late medieval and early modern periods have been stressed as a critical point in the development of 'visual epistemology' (Robinson, 1972: 8–9). In this context, it is necessary to examine the question of how cartography might have been intellectually engaged with: how the map text might have been viewed and understood in a profoundly different epistemological and cognitive climate.

Figure 2: Battista Agnese, World Map from his Portolan Atlas

Figure 2: Battista Agnese, World Map from his Portolan Atlas (1544). Source: Wikimedia Commons

To a certain extent, the 'cartographic gaze' offered by historical maps seems to be decidedly modern in its seemingly omniscient perspective (Pickles, 2004: 77). Invited to situate oneself at an elevated point of view by the personified clouds and winds that frame Renaissance maps such as those of Agnese, the observer seems to perceive the whole world from a commanding height (Figure 1). Indeed, from the medieval period intellectuals had begun to emphasise the use of 'geometrical forms' to view and thereby understand the world, asserting that 'we can understand nothing fully unless its form is presented before our eyes' (Bacon, c.1260s: 223). Early modern writers continued to emphasise the primacy of vision in mapping, in language evocative of the scientific rhetoric of neutrality and objectivity which seems to suggest that the sixteenth-century map sought to provide its readers with a perspective on the earth that parallels the modern positivist interpretation of cartography's nature. Maps are said to provide a 'discription of the face, and picture of th'earth', a portrayal of real geography formed 'according to the rules of Geometrie' with the task of creating a 'full finished similitude' (Cuningham, 1559; Agrippa, 1530). These accounts reflected a new, emerging framework for spatial representation in which the whole geographical world was only available to the eye through the mediation of the map (Padrón, 2004: 60).

However, historicising vision is in fact deeply problematic for the positivist approach of charting increasing cartographic 'objectivity.' Scholars have increasingly come to see the idea of a transhistorical and 'objective' visual perspective as a modern invention, anachronistic when applied to past intellectual cultures. With regard to the early modern period, for example, historians such as Stuart Clark have persuasively undermined the notion that vision was 'objectively established or secure in its supposed relationship to "external fact"' (Clark, 2007: 1). Although the Renaissance shifted the relationship between sight and knowledge towards a more empirical, rather than symbolic, value, the fractured intellectual context of the Reformation and various philosophical movements undermined and destabilised 'visual epistemology' (Myers, 1993: 191–192; Robinson, 1972: 2). In the episteme of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the relation between what was seen and what was known was unsettled to the extent that what scholars have termed the 'representational' model of vision, based on the idea that the mind had direct access to accurate pictures of the world, collapsed in the face of multiple 'discourses on vision' (Dupré, 2006; Clark, 2007: 20, 4). Some movements such as Pyrronhism even proposed the modern-sounding notion that human subjects 'make' the objects they perceive, creating them out of the qualities that belong intrinsically to perception, not to the objects themselves (Clark, 2007: 20). The period was therefore characterised by cultural anxieties over the meaning of images and distrust of visual representations rather than a self-assured sense of 'objectivity'. European visual culture experienced 'not so much the rationalization as the de-rationalization of sight' (Clark, 2007: 329). The model of visual epistemology based on a rational and empirical relation between sight and comprehension, Clark suggests, was only conclusively re-established during the Scientific Revolution, on different philosophical principles (Clark, 2007: 3, 329).

Overall, by historicising vision in this way, it is possible to understand the ways in which sixteenth-century visual epistemology was ambivalent and contested, despite the rhetoric of geometric omniscience. One fascinating example of this ambiguous perspective is the metaphor of the theatre, prominent in European atlases at the end of the sixteenth century and beginning of the seventeenth (Blair, 1997: 153). Two examples of this are Abraham Ortelius's Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1570), and John Speed's The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine (1610). By presenting the map as a 'theatre of the world', these early modern cartographers employed a metaphor that symbolised the dual nature of reality. As an architectural emblem, the playhouse embodies the principle of replication, with the stage as a separate and independent space within the larger circle of the auditorium; this duality distinguishes the mimetic dimension of drama as an image of life (van den Berg, 1985: 45; Daniels and Cosgrove, 1993). Thus, the map as a theatre represented a self-declared imitation of reality to the sixteenth-century viewer. With cartography, as with the playhouse, the observer turned away from cosmos itself in order to contemplate its theatrical image, 'held apart from its referents in the outer world' and placed within the 'heterocosm of imagination' (van den Berg, 1985: 52). This contrasts with the modern, scientific conception of the map as an objective 'mirror' or 'window' on the world. An effective visual example of this perspective is given by the frontispiece to Mercator's atlas of 1595, which depicts Atlas as a map-maker, inscribing the features of the earth on a blank globe while he looks down on the world itself, set at his feet. While this depiction exhibits the sense of epistemological scope that the geometric rationalisation of maps brought to early modern cartography, it also shows an awareness of the abstraction from reality that the map-making process inherently involves. Maps, it may therefore be argued, signified to the sixteenth-century observer a more explicitly metaphorical and representational abstraction from the reality of the earth; the metaphor of the theatre provides an insight into this conception, albeit one that needs further research.

Figure 3: Frontispiece of Gerardus Mercator's Atlas sive cosmographicae

Figure 3: Frontispiece of Gerardus Mercator's Atlas sive cosmographicae (Duisberg, 1595). Source: Wikimedia Commons

(Post-)modern perspectives

Thus liberated by the idea of vision itself as a culturally constructed perspective rather than a transhistorical 'Apollonian' position, historians can challenge the doctrine of geographical objectivity in modern digital mapping, thereby problematising and historicising these representational strategies. All visions are grounded in the knowledge-making modes of their particular episteme.

One reason that GIS technologies often avoid critique is their use of satellite and aerial imagery. Though the photographic image has undergone intense scrutiny with regard to its status as an index of reality, the photograph still holds a connection to material space that is unmatched by traditional, hand-crafted maps (Farman, 2010: 874; Cosgrove, 2003: 259). This is extended even further as, while photographs are often associated with a photographer as 'witness', taking the picture at a particular moment in time, satellite and aerial photographs used in programmes like Google Earth are more commonly associated with the machinery that produces them, distancing maps from a creator and thus from a sense of subjectivity (Farman, 2010: 874). The disembodied visualisation that this produces positions the observer not only above the surface of the earth, but seemingly above the historicity and cultural specificity of mapping practices themselves. Again, this reiterates Harley's argument that the scientific 'myth' of measurement-based objectivity is most powerful when it appears as a neutral technological enterprise (Harley, 1988: 58).

However, this visage of reality can be deconstructed in the same way that any historical map can. While the distortion created by traditional cartographic projections – of a three-dimensional globe onto a two-dimensional planar representation – is superseded, GIS also suffers from the problem of projection, albeit in an opposite manner. In using satellite imagery, the software projects flat photographs onto a sphere, and as such employs an equirectangular projection, the General Perspective Projection, to achieve its cartographic representation (Farman, 2010: 878). Therefore, a level of selection and distortion is mathematically inherent in the creation of even the most accurate map text. Regardless of technological accuracy or ostensible neutrality in the 'mirroring' of geographical reality, this emphasises the fact that maps are, fundamentally and inevitably, abstractions.

Thus analysed, the idea of scientific objectivity in mapping can again be de-centred and understood as merely one representational strategy. Quantitative precision and visual realism constitute a cartographic rhetoric as deeply defined by wider cultural concepts as the orientation of medieval mappaemundi or the monstrous sea creatures lurking at the edges of Renaissance maps. As Harley so insightfully observed, science itself has become the metaphor; with the modern map attempting to purge itself of ambiguity and epistemological limitation, accuracy and austerity are the new 'talismans of authority' (Harley, 1989: 10). At a time in which postmodernist thought has deconstructed the notion of objectivity itself as a transhistorical category by which to measure all scientific inquiry and creation, historians are better equipped than ever to interrogate different forms of what these scholars term 'epistemic virtue' (Daston and Galison, 2007: 17–18).

This awareness facilitates the continuation of an approach based on epistemological pluralism, acknowledging the multiple cartographic knowledge-making perspectives. These constitute different ways of looking at the world and are accessible only through reconstructing the perspectives of the period, rather than judging by a set of transhistorical criteria, retrospectively applied. The 'mirror' provided by modern scientific mapping is just as historically and culturally specific as the 'theatre' provided by the Renaissance map-maker. All these strategies constitute valid and important ways to create cartographic meaning within their particular epistemes. This epistemological pluralism goes some of the way towards the call of map historians for a 'more inclusive language with which to think about territorial representation' (Padrón, 2004: 71). Such perspectives should serve to remind us of the historicity of not only medieval and early modern cartography but of our own mapping practices, challenging the historian to understand epistemological viewpoints through the eyes of the time rather than from our own position above the surface of the world, both in physicality and in imagination.


In conclusion, by historicising the vision of both the past and the present in their particular cultural epistemes, historians of cartography can extend the framework of Harley's critical cartography to further understand how maps construct, rather than reflect, their worlds. Far from being a teleological narrative of scientific progress towards the modern, 'objective' map-making of digital technologies, the history of cartography must be understood as consisting of multiple, shifting modes of seeing through the map.

Standing in front of the last surviving copy of Martin Waldeseemüller's momentous Universalis Cosmographia in the Library of Congress in December 2012, I found myself faced with one of the most significant cartographic artefacts in the sixteenth-century mapping of the world. Prominently displayed beneath the lavishly decorated interiors of one of Washington DC's central institutions, the curved meridians and distinctive heart-shaped cordiform projection of the twelve woodcut-printed sections offer visitors a view of the world as it appeared over five hundred years ago. What was most striking was the way in which the map offered an insight into a fundamentally different view of the earth, not reflecting but creating the particular world that it depicted.

By viewing the Universalis Cosmographia, I was offered an insight into a sixteenth-century world, the cartographic text pertaining to a 'different visual and intellectual – perhaps even impenetrable – universe' (Jacob, 2009: 184). Yet, in historicising the vision of the past, we must always be aware of the intellectual context of our own perspective; as one scholar writes, the history of maps can 'never be thought outside of the horizon of our own historicity' (Padrón, 2004: 52). As such, the developments of digital mapping and the shift in our perspective regarding the function and meaning of maps should be interrogated, not as a technological breakthrough that offers a transhistorical viewpoint, but as an abstraction from reality deeply shaped by the scientific epistemological structures of the Information Age. Even the approach of the present work is shaped by the historicity of my own perspective as the product of a postmodern episteme that problematises the accessibility of 'objective truth' and embraces pluralism. This in itself might be suggested as the product of a neoliberal globalism that has influenced both political and philosophical perspectives. Thus, my viewpoint on historical maps is as much limited by my intellectual worldview as the far clearer boundaries that shaped medieval or Renaissance maps. While there is no clear solution for this historiographical problem, the first step is necessarily awareness. Historians must therefore look down on our own viewpoint in the way that, during centuries of cartography, the observer has looked down on the map.


I would like to thank Dr Claudia Stein and Professor Rebecca Earle for their invaluable advice and encouragement during the completion of my final-year undergraduate dissertation, on which this article is based. I would also like to acknowledge the organisers of the International Conference of Undergraduate Research at the University of Warwick in September 2014, at which I was able to present part of this work.


[1] Oliver Hirst graduated from the University of Warwick in July 2014 with a First-class degree in History (With Year Abroad). He is now studying for an MPhil in Early Modern History at Jesus College, Cambridge.

List of illustrations

Figure 1: Google Earth (2014), Map Data: SIO, NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO, Landsat, IBCAO, U.S. Geological Survey, available at,-20.8198953,6317075m/data=!3m1!1e3?hl=en, accessed 19 December 2014.

Figure 2: Battista Agnese, World Map from his Portolan Atlas (1544). Image in the public domain and obtained from on 19 December 2014.

Figure 3: Frontispiece of Gerardus Mercator's Atlas sive cosmographicae meditations de fabrica mvndi et fabricate figvra (Duisberg, 1595). Image in the public domain and obtained from on 19 December 2014.


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