Cartography and Memory


Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary who had studied in Rome, arrived Macau in 1583. He would spend the next 27 years in China, until his death in 1610. Ricci wrote his first book in Chinese in 1595—a book of maxims culled from classical and ecclesiastical texts—and the following year he published a small book on the art of memory for a prince of the Ming dynasty, the governor of Jiangxi province. In this work, Ricci laid out the classical system of artificial memory, said to originate with the Greek poet Simonides (“Xi-mo-ni-de” to his audience), a series of cognitive techniques designed to artificially extend what was seen as the natural human memory. Ricci presented a theory of mnemotechnics that had proven itself a dominant intellectual force for centuries in Europe. As Mary Carruthers argues in The Book of Memory, “Medieval culture was fundamentally memorial, to the same profound degree that modern cultures in the West is documentary. This distinction certainly involves technologies—mnemotechnique and printing—but it is not confined to them.” These techniques—technologies even—of memory were almost always variations on a similar theme involving the mental construction of an imaginary memory palace—a grand structure made up of a series of rooms each distinguished by unique architectural features like arches of columns. Into each of these rooms of this memory palace you would mentally place a collection of objects which would stand for what you intend to remember through some metonymic process. As you imagine yourself walking through this space—perhaps Giacometti’s The Palace at 4 A.M. approximates something of this process—each object would immediately and sequentially bring to mind the things committed to memory. Matteo Ricci wrote in his treatise on the art of memory:


Once your places are all fixed in order, then you can walk through the door and make your start. Turn to the right and proceed from there. As with the practice of calligraphy, in which you move from the beginning to the end, as with the fish who swim along in ordered schools, so is everything arranged in your brain, and all the images are ready for whatever you seek to remember.


Though Ricci’s devotion to the art of memory is apparent, Ricci was perhaps even more renowned for his work on mathematics and cartography. Ricci published a Chinese translation of Euclid’s Elements, and in his introduction he discusses the uses that mathematical study gives rise to, reserving the ultimate position for geography: “mountains, seas, kingdoms, continents, islands, and districts all laid down in miniature,” each “answering to the points of the compass” (the compass itself was a Chinese invention). One of the first large projects Ricci undertook upon his arrival in China was the construction of a full map of the world with place names translated into Chinese phonetic equivalents. This map apparently brought him great fame, and he later expanded it for publication with detailed historical and informational notes about the locations. A map must have a center somewhere: most European world maps put this center near Europe, but Ricci put the China smack in the center. A gigantic edition of the map was installed on six panels each six feet wide in one of the inner rooms of the palace of the emperor Wanli: as Wanli wandered his palace, he could be reminded of not only the cities and territories within his realm, but also of distant lands about which he had only heard stories.


The Great Khan owns an atlas whose drawings depict the terrestrial globe all at once and continent by continent, the boarders of the most distant realms, the ships’ routes, the coastlines, the maps of the most illustrious metropolises and of the most opulent ports. He leafs through the maps before Marco Polo’s eyes to put his knowledge to the test.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


According to Frances Yates, whose The Art of Memory is the authority on Renaissance mnemotechnics, Giulio Camillo “was one of the most famous men of the 16th century.” Camillo’s great achievement, though he is almost unknown today, was the creation of a “theatre of memory,” which was built in both Venice and Paris. The secret of this theatre’s operation was revealed only to Camillo’s patron, the King of France. Erasmus writes of Camillo: “They say that this man has constructed a certain Amphitheatre, a work of wonderful skill, into which whoever is admitted as spectator will be able to discourse on any subject no less fluently than Cicero.” Construction of the theatres began in the 1530s. Viglius, the Frisian scholar and jurist, wrote to Erasmus on the progress of the theatre:


The work is of wood, marked with many images, and full of little boxes; there are various orders and grades in it. He gives a place to each individual figure and ornament…He pretends that all things that the human mind can conceive and which we cannot see with the corporeal eye, after being collected together by diligent meditation may be expressed by certain corporeal signs in such a way that the beholder may at once perceive with his eyes everything that is otherwise hidden in the depths of the human mind.


Though Viglius balances his enthusiasm with the skeptical verb “pretends,” Camillo’s theatre proved to be a deeply captivating idea to the Renaissance audience. The theatre, in effect, embodied the ars memorativa, making materially real the techniques of memory. Instead of mentally construction an imaginary memory palace, a physical theatre is built of wood, possibly similar to the Vitruvian model of amphitheatre. Instead of placing particular mental images of objects within niches of the rooms of this palace as an aid to memory, real figures and ornaments (one must imagine metal or porcelain statuettes in addition to a host of the sort of knick-knacks one would expect to see cluttering a desk in a Holbein painting) are physically placed in the boxes and shelves of the theatre, and associated books and sheafs of papers were stashed nearby. But the systematization of knowledge presented by Camillo was not simply a filing cabinet for the mind, rather it was a system in which “the mind and memory of man is now ‘divine,’ having powers of grasping the highest reality through a magically activated imagination.” The archival theatre of memory is imagined as the ultimate cognitive aid, the ultimate extension of cognition. Not only does it embody and systematize all Renaissance learning, but it also allows anyone who enters to immediately “discourse on any subject no less fluently than Cicero.”

Italo Calvino, in his book Invisible Cities, transforms this theatre of memory into a city of memory: “This city which cannot be expunged from the mind is like an armature, a honey-comb in whose cells each of us can place the things he wants to remember: names of famous men, virtues, numbers, vegetable and mineral classifications, dates of battles, constellations, parts of speech. Between each idea and each point of the itinerary an affinity or a contrast can be established, serving as an immediate aid to memory. So the world’s most learned men are those who have memorized Zora.” The memory of this city organizes and archives all the world’s knowledge: historical and scientific, linguistic and religious. The palace has expanded to become a city, and a cartographic representation of this location (evoked by the traveler’s itinerary) becomes the basis for a systematization and recollection of the sum total of human understanding.


“I think you recognize cities better on the atlas than when you visit them in person,” the emperor said to Marco, snapping the volume shot.

And Polo answers, “Traveling, you realize that differences are lost: each city takes to resembling all cities, places exchange their form, order, distances, a shapeless dust cloud invites the continents. Your atlas preserves the differences intact: that assortment of qualities which are like the letters in a name.”

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Standing on the in the center of Camillo’s memory theatre, the macrocosm of the world is mirrored immediately in the microcosm of the individual, the stage becomes the world; this equation is inverted in Shakespeare’s As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage.” There are of course punning analogies between the Globe Theatre and the wider globe, but Yates argues in detail that the design of Shakespeare’s theatre is intimately influenced by the memory treatises of Robert Fludd, who was building off of Camillo. The theatre of memory becomes a theatre for entertainment: both become theatres of the world. It is no accident that the first true atlas ever published, by Abraham Ortelius in 1570, was titled, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, or The Theatre of the World. Maps were a key technology of the 16th century. During the last decade of the 15th century, two events in particular had enormous implications for both politics and cartography: the world was declared round by an Italian named Columbus, and the Pope declared that the extra-European world should be split between Spain and Portugal with the Treaty of Tordesillas. The technology of the map became increasingly important in controlling and expanding the empires of trade that grew up over the following centuries, and unsurprisingly the sudden rise of Dutch economic and trading power was accompanied by a steep increase in Dutch mapmaking. A map is a key link in the chain of conquest: the king of Spain, as he raises a globe in his palm, would not have been without justification for feeling a broad sense of ownership. As the historian of science Bruno Latour writes in his essay “Visualization and Cognition,” “The ‘great man’ is a little man looking at a good map. In Mercator’s frontispiece Atlas is transformed from a god who carries the world into a scientist who holds it in his hand.”

Mercator’s atlas followed Ortelius’ by a quarter of a century, but Mercator and Ortelius were friends and traveled together; they had discussed plans for a collection of maps—an atlas—in 1569. The science of cartography was based upon mathematics, as Ricci (who had brought a copy of Ortelius’ atlas, as well as Mercator’s famous direction-preserving projection of the world) describes in his translation of the Elements, but it was also another systematization of knowledge. Though the atlas of Ortelius is clearly not intended as a navigational aid, many of the maps are dominated by the constructions of geometry, and therefore encode not only data relating to the memory of a location, but also data derived from complex calculation: the lines of longitude and latitude, the compass rose from which spins a spindly net of directions, the distortion of the projection used, the scale of the map in multiple units (this often pinned to the maps surface by a drawing of another compass, this time the geometer’s compass, a medieval symbol of God’s act of creation of the world). The Theatrum also includes symbolic representations of forests, rivers, and mountains, but its most notable features are the cities, which speckle the continents like a swarm of bees. In maps of small scale, the cities are denoted by a cluster of three houses with peaked and curving rooftops rising up into spires; at larger scales, the more prominent cities sprout additional roofs and spires. Each city is labeled: Paris, Alexandria, Nubia, Delli, Cantan, Mecha, Lima, Orixa, Benin, Mosul, Novgrod…each is depicted identically, and as Calvino’s Marco Polo says to Kublai Khan, “Your atlas preserves the differences intact: that assortment of qualities which are like the letters in a name”: here, though, the only distinguishing properties of the cites are their relative positions and, of course, the assortment of letters that make up their names.

One city, Salis Burgensis (Salzburg, City of Salt), is unique in having an aerial map: the map of the surrounding territory on this folio spread is drawn to appear old and cracked, with tears along the edges and the lower right corner rolling and curling up to reveal the bird’s eye view of the city below. Though this is the only occasion in Ortelius’s Theatrum Orbis Terrarum where the charted cities are given accurate physical description, this particular page of Salzburg serves the essential function of reminding the reader of the purpose of the atlas: every city in the world could be located and recognized in the pages of the book; each grouping of three roofs with rising spires stood for a complete extensive city. It’s easier to recognize cities in an atlas than when you visit them in person, this almost says. Easier in that the atlas distills and condenses knowledge of the world into an easily accessible and memorizable form. As Ortelius writes in the 1606 Theatrum,


And when we haue acquainted our selues somewhat with the use of these Tables or , or haue attained thereby to some reasonable knowledge of Geography, whatsoeuer we shall read, these Chartes being placed, as it were certaine glasses before our eyes, will the longer be kept in memory, and make the deeper impression in us: by which meanes it commeth to passe, that now we do seeme to perceiue some fruit of that which we haue read. 


Parsing this grammatically convoluted text, we find the atlas therefore becomes mnemonic tool for storing date relating not only to space, but also to history since each atlas is accompanied by texts relating to the natural, biblical, and political history of the locations mentioned. This information, by connecting it to the spatial cartographic arrangement, can be remembered as if it were immediately before the eyes, Ortelius argues, and the student can now enjoy this fruit of their education by retaining this knowledge in his memory. The atlas becomes a microcosm of the universe, with all human history, from creation through to modernity, arranged within its pages, and the owner of the atlas becomes by analogy the caretaker of this weight of historical memory. Just as objects placed into mental memory maps through the classical art of memory immediately recall the memorandi—those things to be remembered—“The sight of a ‘modern’ geographical map spontaneously creates a mental historical map.” The map is a vital part of the vast Renaissance reconstruction of knowledge, and is an exponent of the encyclopedic and documentary urge that found various outlets in Wunderkammern, theatres of memory, and atlases.


Kublai asks Marco: “When you return to the West, will you repeat to your people the same tales you tell me?”

“I speak and speak,” Marco says, “but the listener retains only the words he is expecting. The description of the world to which you lend a benevolent ear is one thing; the description that will go the rounds of the groups of stevedores and gondoliers on the street outside my house the day of my return is another…It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.”

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities 

Bruno Latour tells the story of another cartologically inclined European sent to China: Louis XVI dispatched Jean-François de La Pérouse “with the explicit mission of bringing back a better map.” Upon landing on the place called Sakhalin, La Pérouse wanted to figure out whether it is an island or a peninsula. He met an older Chinese man who has a strong grasp of geography, and the old man drew a map of the island into the sand—as the tide was rising, and would destroy the map, a younger man took La Pérouse’s notebook and drew there the map. This symbolic representation of the land, of no particular value to either of the Chinese men on the beach, is as Latour says with slight exaggeration, the single object of La Pérouse’s journey:



He is passing through all these places, in order to take something back to Versailles where many people expect his map to determine who was right and wrong about whether Sakhalin was an island, who will own this and that part of the world, and along which routes the next ships should sail. Without this particular trajectory, La Pérouse’s exclusive interest in traces and inscriptions will be impossible to understand—this is the first aspect, but without dozens of innovations in inscription, in projection, in writing, archiving, computing, his displacement through the Pacific would be totally wasted—and this is the second aspect, as crucial as the first.


There are two interesting things about this. First is the role that memory plays in cartography. What for the local is stored mentally and immediately accessible whenever required must for the foreigner be depicted and remembered using external symbolic representations. La Pérouse’s map of Sakhalin, which he will bring back to Versailles with him, becomes an artifact in the archive of memory: future sailors and diplomats, traders and explorers, will “know” that Sakhalin is an island and not a peninsula. The memory is transferred from the internal storage into external storage as the map is drawn in the sand and in the notebook. The second interesting feature is that the construction of this map relied on a host of antecedent technologies: “dozens of innovations in inscription, in projection, in writing, archiving, computing” made the creation of this map possible. Technologies are required to externalize memory.

These three mapmakers who traveled to China—two Italians and a Frenchman, their visits at intervals of a few hundred years (1271, 1584, 1787)—have had their stories related by a novelist, a historian of China, and a historian of science. The first mapmaker carried an atlas in his head, an encyclopedic memory of cities both real and imaginary, visible and invisible, a memory of the encyclopedia of life and of living; the second mapmaker carried a physical atlas of the known world, a work known as the theatre of the world, a work which through its geographic arrangements of lands and cities not only helped the reader remember the history of the world, but also served as an external repository for the memories that Marco Polo carried within his head, a work upon which the second mapmaker based his publication of a vernacular map of the world; the third mapmaker carried with him a set of technologies: a ship, compasses, sextants, theodolites, systems of mathematics, computation, cartography, his mission was to bring back a map, to bring back a memory of an island (or perhaps it really was it a peninsula?) on the coast of China in the Pacific Ocean. The map is a special kind of epistemic artifact: it is an artifact that both structures and remembers the world for us.


So, the map revives her words, the spot, the time,

And the thing we found we had to face

Before the next year’s prime;

The charted coast stares bright,

And its episode comes back in pantomime. 

Thomas Hardy, “The Place on the Map”


It should not be surprising that cartography and maps are important tools of memory, or that they can serve powerful cognitive functions. In fact, the German cardinal and polymath Nicholas Cusanus (known alternately as “of Cusa”) used mapmaking as a metaphor for the entire cognitive process in a 1464 treatise on knowledge acquisition: a cosmographer stands in the middle of a walled city (the mind within the skull), where he gathers and records all the data brought to him by messengers entering the city through five gates, each one of the senses. He then creates “a description of the entire perceptible world represented in his own city,” and finally “he compiles in into a well-ordered and proportionally measured map lest it be lost.” It should of course be obvious by now that the cartographic epistemic system functions in a role closely related to the cognitive task of memory, serving in part as an external memory storage system and in part as a system encoding previously completed cognitive actions. The “memory content” of the map is greater than the knowledge of either the user or the creator (Ortelius poached sources from all over Europe and employed more than 90 engravers at one time or another to complete his atlas). As Edwin Hutchins writes in his Cognition in the Wild, a work exploring in meticulous detail the collective cognitive task of navigating a US Naval vessel, “A navigation chart represents the accumulation of more observations than any one person could make in a lifetime. It is an artifact that embodies generations of experience and measurement. No navigator has ever had, nor will one ever have, all the knowledge that is in the chart.”

There is one simple cognitive function that maps enhance which has so far not been explicitly mentioned: maps help us find our way from location A to location B. The map symbolically encodes information about how to get between any two points on the maps surface. It is this seemingly pedestrian task of navigation that concerns Hutchins. Hutchins describes with astounding detail the complex cognitive interactions that together meet the calculation-intensive task of getting the US Navy helicopter transport ship, which he calls the Palau, from A to B. As a point of departure and contrast, Hutchins includes an extended exploration of the navigation practices of Micronesian sailors. “The Micronesian navigator holds all the knowledge required for his voyage in his head. Diagrams are sometimes constructed in the sand for pedagogic purposes, but these (of course) are only temporary and are not taken on voyages. In the Western tradition, physical artifacts become the repositories of knowledge, and they were constructed in durable media so that a single artifact might come to represent more than a single individual can know.” It is strange that Hutchins does not here mention that Micronesian navigators did in fact construct more durable representations of practice, charts that showed the position of islands and prevailing winds and currents. These charts were primarily used for teaching navigation, but they do represent a physical crystallization of navigation practices, practices which as Hutchins shows are calculation-intensive and founded upon generations of accumulated knowledge. In addition to serving as a repository of information—an aid to memory, in which knowledge about the world was stored—maps also serve an important computational function. “One can see the work that went into constructing a chart as part of every one of the computations that is performed on the chart in its lifetime. This computation is distributed in space and time. Those who make the chart and those who use it are not known to one another (perhaps they are not even contemporaries), yet they are joint participants in a computational event every time the chart is used.” The map extends the mind.


Megalomaniacs confuse the map and the territory and think they can dominate all of Paris just because they do, indeed, have all of Paris before their eyes. Paranoiacs confuse the territory and the map and think they are dominated, observed, watched, just because a blind person absent-mindedly looks at some obscure signs in a four-by-eight metre room in a secret place. Both take the cascade of transformations for information, and twice they miss that which is gained and that which is lost in the jump from trace to trace—the former on the way down, the latter on the way up.

Bruno Latour, Paris Invisible City 


Google Earth opens on the computer screen. Against a background of stars appears a cloudless blue and green orb, glowing slightly (you can toggle the clouds on, if you like, to add some white to the mix). The view spins around the small marble, zooming until the globe becomes the size of a grapefruit on the screen: perfectly hand-sized. We modern Atlases don’t need a physical globe to hold: virtual ones are much lighter. I type “Cambridge MA” into the search box and hit enter. With a dizzying and vertiginous swoop, I plunge from 10,000km above the earth’s surface, decelerating gently to hover 7.30km above Harvard Square, like the gut-turning fall in the 1986 sci-fi movie The Flight of the Navigator.

Zoom in further and it becomes clear that this isn’t simply a two-dimensional picture, an ordinary composite satellite image taken sometime in the summer from the look of the greenery, as it first appeared. Every building is modeled in three dimensions; each one is clad in a skin of photographs. Cambridge has become a toy city (see Google Earth’s breathtaking New York City for a real model metropolis), and there is something reminiscent of childhood when you see the familiar buildings arranged in miniature below. It brings to mind the lone aerial view of Salis Burgensis in Ortelius’ Theatrum. Descending further, and panning upwards, I’m now at street level, seeing Cambridge from an altitude of 2m. I walk through the deserted streets, down JFK, along the river; taking a detour, I float up to my room in Winthrop House and look out of my virtual window. The trees are missing, flattened against the ground, but there is something that feels deeply the same. It is an eerie and uncanny feeling to walk though this strange doppelganger city, down the center of an empty Mass Ave; in truth, you don’t “walk,” you either glide using direction arrows, or you click and drag yourself to the desired location, under a strangely ominous blue sky.

By toggling a particular layer in the Google Earth toolbar, certain locations will have a little boxed “W” floating over them; clicking on the one brings you to the Wikipedia article. Clicking on a floating blue square will bring you more information, created, again collectively, by the Google Earth community, a million-strong group of users who not only explore but also help build Google Earth by adding geotagged data. The variety and depth of information available through this cartographic interface is stunning: aside from the three-dimensional buildings and the ordinary transportation-related cartographic information, there are Wikipedia articles about all major landmarks, spherical panoramas, geotagged photos and videos from flikr and YouTube, traffic and weather reports, nearby sex offenders, flu outbreaks, dining and shopping information, live webcams, and even collections of antique maps of the same locations, among many, many others.

We use Google’s cartographic technologies to find the best restaurants nearby, to track the progress of an around-the-world sailing race, to plan vacations, to explore museums (go to the Prado in Madrid, click on a painting, and you fly into a 3D version of the building. You are presented with a version of Las Meninas so detailed that you can zoom in to see the individual threads of the canvas), and we even use them to figure out how to get from point A to point B. The collective memory of a million participants is marshaled to provide answers to almost any data query. Just as Mercator intended his atlas to encompass the history of world—divine, natural, and human—Google Earth aims at nothing less than giving a simulacrum of earth to the user. The Medieval and Renaissance maps served as a repository for memory, and would help the reader remember history, a history written either in boxed asides on the map itself or printed on an adjacent page; dotted around Paris are other cartographically inspired historical memorials. A network of exaggerated metal oars, labeled “Histoire de Paris” and bearing a paragraph of historical information, are stuck in the ground around the city like pushpins on a map, the better to paddle your way around the Île-de-France. Standing next to one of these signs, the technologically savvy Parisian might bring up the Wikipedia article using the Google Earth iPhone application and find ten times more information. Every piece of information about the world is potentially useful, and therefore deserves mapping. Every home study becomes one of Latour’s oligopticons (his term for the bureaucratic control centers that collect and display the vital signs of the city)—even more, the oligopticon becomes personally portable.


Paris is as flat as the palm of my hand. Folded perhaps, and folded again like an origami, but flat everywhere, without the distance between two circumstances ever being eliminated. Even today, any movement from A to B has to be paid in coin of the realm: by registered letter, escalator, elevator, telephone or radio link, petrol, diesel, elbow grease. Remove all these intermediaries and Paris unfolds like a map that could cover the surface of the Sahara; unfurl the City of Light and it’s as vast as Siberia.

Bruno Latour, Paris Invisible City


Latour’s imagery of Paris unfolding as a map over Sahara or Siberia immediately brings to mind Borges’ short story “On Exactitude in Science,” in which cartographers of a particular unknown empire construct ever-more perfect maps, first mapping a province onto the area of a city, then mapping the area of the empire on a whole province, until finally a map of the empire was constructed which was exactly the size of the empire itself. Each and every point in the territory was mapped to a corresponding point on the map. The map was deemed useless and it was discarded, its tatters and remnants remaining still in the deserts in the west of the empire. Once more let’s return to China, this time virtually. Type the coordinates “38.26568, 105.953865” into the search bar of Google Earth and watch Cambridge disappear beneath you. You descend into the northern interior of China. A set of red-roofed barracks, looking like blocks of plasticine, sit beside a portion of topography—at firsts all looks well, but look at the scale: those snow-capped mountains are a dozen feet wide, the lake is a hundred feet in diameter. This bizarre map was discovered by a Google Earth enthusiast while touring the world from his armchair; soon after, a photograph was released from the Chinese state press agency showing men in blue coveralls walking on this simulated topography, which was said to be a “tank training facility.” The map actually depicts a disputed portion of the Chinese-Indian boarder. But in his unfolding of Paris, Latour’s imagination has gone beyond either the Chinese military or Borges’ imperial cartographers: he has imagined a map of the city that dwarfs the city itself in size, a map of Paris that spreads over vast desert and deserted spaces in Africa or Asia. Latour is saying that a one-to-one mapping is not enough. We already have a one-to-one mapping right in front of us (we call it the city itself), but even this is clearly insufficient for making the city fully visible, it is insufficient for allowing us to completely know the city.

For Latour, virtual versions of Paris are simply mappings of the physical city. Distinguishing between the virtual and the real is not only impossible but also pointless, however, since each virtual city is also included in the physical city. The virtual network of history and memory resides within the volumes of the Bibliotheque National, on the oar-shaped signposts, in the minds of the residents. When unconstrained by physical parameters, the range of the possible seems infinite. The virtual earth in Google Earth aims at nothing less than the duplication of all potentially significant and representable data within its framework. Just as we have a memory of history, there is also a history to memory. The mnemotechnics of Cicero and Aquinas were seen as artificial tools for mapping thoughts. The Theatre of Camillo was a stage for the expansion of the human mind. Google Earth is a direct continuation of this tradition. It seeks to replicate the macrocosm precisely in the microcosm. It seeks to be a theatre of memory. It seeks to be the theatre of the world.