Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
The fourth installment in this occasional series features the world’s earliest surviving “ichnographic” map.
Perhaps the most common type of city map is the kind on Google Maps: a flattened out, “ichnographic” plan, where all buildings and features appear perfectly perpendicular to a single, aerial viewpoint. This unrealistic view allows newcomers to grasp a city’s entire layout, relative to its environs and the cardinal directions. In the era of GPS and aerial photography, creating an accurate ichnographic plan isn’t too difficult. But one such map, created by a famous Renaissance polymath, pre-dated airplanes and satellites by centuries.
Who made this map?
The mapmaker in question is Leonardo da Vinci (as if we needed another reason to appreciate him). He made this map of the Italian town of Imola toward the end of his life—after creating The Vitruvian Man, but before his most famous masterpiece, The Mona Lisa.
In 1502, da Vinci entered into the patronage of Cesare Borgia, a general and statesman whose hunger for power served as inspiration for Machiavelli’s The Prince. Borgia’s forces had already overtaken the city of Imola in 1499, but the Roman-born conqueror “probably did not have a very good grasp of the geography of the city he now governed and defended,” according to Phaidon, the publisher of Map: Exploring the World, a book that details da Vinci’s cartography and many others. Da Vinci mapped Imola in order to help Borgia get acquainted.
Why was it important?
A map made by da Vinci would be interesting even if he hadn’t applied his fabled genius to the task. But here, he absolutely did. Besides this being a beautiful map, with its delicate colors and washes, it achieves a technical precision few others did at the time.
Most Renaissance maps are known for their fanciful inclusion of dragons, castles, and undulating mountainsides, and most of them show buildings in elevation, or the “oblique perspective.” But da Vinci’s sought to capture the proportions and relationships between land features more accurately, and he developed new technologies to do so. To make this map of Imola, he may have used the special hodometer and magnetic compass he’d already invented (he’d been fascinated by maps and optics for years). With careful measurements in hand, he drew every “street, plot of land, church, colonnade, gate and square, the whole encompassed by the moat,” writes the Renaissance historian Paul Strathern.
Da Vinci centered the plan in a circle with four crossing lines, representing the points on a compass. And he showed the city ichnographically, “as if viewed from an infinite number of viewpoints,” perhaps inspired by his study of avian flight. It is the earliest such map in existence.
But is it really that accurate?
Well, not 100 percent. Da Vinci was a stickler for aesthetics. Based on comparisons to da Vinci’s own earlier sketches and actual details of the city, scholars say that he did occasionally privilege beauty over exactness in this portrayal of Imola. But in this way, too, he was ahead of his time. “Even as similitude became a touchstone for evaluating maps, cartographers manipulated their creations to serve aesthetic principles,” writes Genevieve Carlton in Worldly Consumers: The Demand for Maps in Renaissance Italy. That’s still very much the case; Google Maps, after all, is hardly perfect when it comes to scale.