Mystical Mapping Before Flight: the value of panoramic cartography as an historical source

Cartography has shaped the limits of our knowledge for thousands of years. Since ancient times, map-makers have sought to render their impressions of the known world, often skewing hard evidence for dubious political gain. These maps in term have aided history’s foremost explorers and navigators, allowing them to stretch the bounds of earth further still.

Whilst ‘flat’ maps have played a crucial role in global history, the panoramic depiction is often overlooked. Today we are constantly bombarded with birdseye views of continents, cities and townscapes which give us the detailed overviews of persisting human development and interaction.

New York Panorama
New York Panorama

However, even before the advent of flight and extraterrestrial satellites, cartographers and artists alike have depicted their homelands from the air. Their imaginings, sometimes derived from vantage points such as bell towers and forts, sometimes conjured up from the recesses of their minds, give us an alternative historical source.

De’ Barbari Map of Venice, 1500


Jacopo de’ Barbari’s 1500 panorama of Venice provides a powerful and detailed overview of what was, at the time, one of Europe’s preeminent cities. Capturing the Republic of Venice at its peak – shortly before the commencement of the inexorable decline that would see its maritime empire usurped by Ottoman Turks – de’ Barbari conveys the aura of wonder that many travellers experienced when passing through the lidi into the fabled lagoon. The depiction of Neptune astride his seahorse, facing skywards, testifies to Venetian maritime glory and its association with divine providence.

De’ Barbari had completed his map after taking a series of detailed surveys from the city’s campaniles – despite the optimistic promises of a certain Leonard da Vinci who had tried to persuade the Doge to patronise his imaginative ‘flying machine’.

The 1590 woodcut below, however, showing a panorama of medieval Rome, did not strive for such detail. Rather, it is concerned with the important buildings and structures of the city; the aqueducts, the towers, the palaces and the churches. This is a cultured, pious Rome, free from the religious strife that upended much of late 16th century Europe.

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When compared to Giambattista Nolli’s 1748 aerial map of Rome below – one oozing precision and dedication – the woodcut can appear rather feeble. Yet somehow the panoramic view overcomes the lack of detail; it gives a sense of Roman culture, a truly Christian civilization elevated by the expertise of its engineering. The Nolli map, meanwhile, is of greater practical significance, giving us a fascinating portrayal of the planning and urban growth of an early modern city, a remarkable feat for the time.

Nolli Map, 1748
Nolli Map, 1748

Even after the advent of flight, maps continued to single out the buildings that brought their cities alive. By 1926, most Americans knew what New York looked like from the air. Yet the map below, created to promote the Paramount silent film New York, draws attention to the landmarks that make the city special. The road alignments are inaccurate but that is irrelevant; this is an expression of American optimism during the ‘Roaring Twenties’ before the Wall Street Crash made New Yorkers question the validity of the American Dream.

New York Movie Map, 1926
New York Movie Map, 1926

Panoramic maps, in addition to being more aesthetically pleasing than traditional flat maps, allow us a cultural snapshot of a town, city, state or people at a certain point in history. Whilst undoubtedly vulnerable to cartographical bias and inaccuracy, they allow us to view the past in a different way, enable us to achieve a degree of understanding of what it must have been like to inhabit a particular place at a particular time.

As such they deserve their place amongst the historical sources, if only as an artistic reminder of the ingenuity of our ancestors.


Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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