Probably more than any other physical phenomenon, cities are a reflection of the incredible complexity of the modern world. And in the mid-1500s, as modern cities began to burgeon throughout Europe, cartographers and artists scrambled to depict their new shapes and sizes. In some cases, these cityscapes were considered entertainment—the first atlas of cityscapes ever published, 1572’s Civitates Orbis Terrarum or Cities of the World, was wildly popular throughout Europe for decades.
Thanks to its global trade empire, its academic centers, and its reputation for navigation on the high seas, the Netherlands was at the center of the mapping revolution in the 16th century. And Civitates was kind of like its Planet Earth: a beautiful, exotic glimpse into 450 different cities all over the world, drawn by dozens of different artists who wove together different styles of painting and cartography into images that told vivid stories about the places they depicted, and even functioned as advertising for them.
Reissued by Taschen with a foreword by Rem Koolhaas a few years ago and recently reviewed by Hyperallergic, it’s widely considered the grandaddy of urban mapping projects, a reflection of the fascination people of the 16th century felt about their rapidly evolving world.
Even though many artists contributed to the atlas, most of them came from the famous Frans Hogenberg, a Dutch engraver whose style combined realistic perspectives of cities with raucous colors and symbolic flourishes. Some mixed first-person perspectives with aerial views—at that point, bird’s-eye view was radical, and limited to the imagination of the artist. "It is impossible to read and look at this book without feeling profound awe and intense envy," Koolhaas writes in his foreword.
They were beautiful, for sure, but the real point of the maps was to communicate a town’s prospects, as the editor of Taschen's reprint, Stephan Füssel, writes. Harbors and rivers indicated a city was—or could be—a center for trade. A city wall or castle would "symbolize peace and order," while natural features nodded to a "healthy landscape," Füssel explains. Gallows could indicate civil order, while mills might hint at burgeoning industry. The harborside maps are by far the most elaborate and detailed, and Koolhaas points to the "liquidity" of those coastal cities, "an ominous foreboding of the future chaos the centrifuged forces of globalization will unleash."
Each drawing was a unit of semiotic meaning that could tell you about a city’s history or its business; in a way, they were an early form of visual identity.
And in at least one case, a city from the atlas was outraged over its depiction. Füssel writes about the German town of Wismar, on the northern coast, which wasn’t just mislabeled as the wrong city—its description was devoted to an account of a horrifying murder that took place in the city in which a carpenter murdered his wife and child. "Dear God, is it possible to imagine anything more dreadful than this murder?" wrote the tome’s editor, Georg Braun. He made it up to Wismar in the next edition, which "praises the city and its harbor in ringing tones."
Wismar’s indignation shows how important the atlas was to cities of the 16th century—these weren’t just maps, they were advertisements. Being a mayor of a European city in this age probably wasn’t an easy job. After all, you might’ve managed your town’s lurching transition from a religious or aristocratic hub to a bustling trade city, or perhaps you’d struggle to bring notoriety and business to your backwater village. Nearby towns might be competing with your own. Even back then, city administrators could benefit from some good PR.
So, how did mayors and administrators of the 16th century get their cities into Civitates, if Hogenberg or another artist hadn’t come calling? The editor actually asked for submissions. In a preface from 1576, Braun wrote: "Should anyone not find their home town or native city in either of these first two books, however, I would kindly invite them to draw it from life and send it to me."
It would be another 300 years before aerial cartography really took off, spurred by artists who might attach cameras to balloons to bring back the first real bird's-eye views of cities—and another 50 years before zeppelins and airplanes let humans see from that perspective themselves. In that light, it's pretty incredible that the cartographers of the 1550s even thought to imagine what their cities might look like from the air—and it's no wonder Civitates became a hit.