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Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art
Peter Barber and Tom Harper, published by The British Library, 2010
ISBN 978-07123-5093-8, £17.95 paperback

For those who love maps, symbols and sacred diagrams, this is an inspiring book packed full of the most extraordinary treasures. The lavish colour printing, which extends over 176 pages, is entirely justified, for the authors are demonstrating the now-forgotten role of the map as high-profile public art. Until 1800 dazzling examples were produced as fresco, tapestry or canvas, after which the status of the map declines rapidly to become the mere folding prop of the pedant, be it of the schoolroom, barracks or tourist trail. I found it an invigorating experience to be plunged back to the days where Mappa Mundi were displayed with pride in English Cathedrals and maps were fit gifts for Kings, Popes and Emperors. So much so that, within an hour of opening my copy of Magnificent Maps I was out on the street flagging down a taxi to take me directly to Euston Road.

Here for the first time I came face to face with a fragment of the Ur map of our culture, which is that extraordinary house by house, column by column map of ancient Rome, cut into marble with the details inked in red. The whole vast extent of the Imperial capital was on permanent show, mounted on one of the walls of the Temple of Peace in 200 AD. The vellum maps of the late medieval period follow a different tradition, that of the portable Mediterranean sea chart, fusing a practical knowledge of coast, headlands and anchorages with all the elegance of a gilded manuscript. They also tangibly flicker with the shared knowledge of the three faiths, of the Jewish, Moorish and Christian merchant-captains of Majorca and Catalonia. But most astonishing of all are the maps created in the first innovative decades of the printing press. The meticulous birdís-eye views of the streets and docks of Venice in 1500, Seville in the time of Philip II and Augsburg (caught mid-siege) in the reign of the Emperor Charles V are like a species of time travel. They join my personal pantheon, to be placed beside Hollarís London and Melchior Lorkís Istanbul whilst Jacques Callotís testimony to the thrill and horror of war as depicted in his masterwork, the Siege of Breda, is in an extraordinary obsessive class of its own.

You can see these unique treasures for yourself, in the exhibition hall of the British Library between 30 April and 19 September 2010. Admittance free, no Royal Academy length queues or crowds.

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