MapCarte 319/365: The Gallery of Maps by Ignazio Danti, 1550-1583

MapCarte319_vaticanWhat could be more carto-artistic than 40 painted map frescoes in a 120m gallery? The Vatican is home to The Gallery of Maps, a stunning set of large-scale paintings that showcase Italy through wonderfully rich and vibrant topographic maps. They were drawn by geographer Ignazio Danti as part of a Commission by Pope Gregory XIII in 1580. Others painted (literally by numbers) to fill in the detail.  It was simply designed as a way of decorating The Vatican. The 40 works took three years to complete and cover the whole of Italy as well as a range of panoramic views of major cities.

MapCarte319_vatican2The timing was ripe for maps to be considered an important element in scientific discovery as well as for decoration. The age of discovery had revealed new knowledge and scientific instrumentation such as the sextant, magnetic compass and telescope had improved accuracy of measurement. Mercator and Ortelius were making landmark world maps at around the same time. Pope Gregory XIII wanted The Vatican to join the cartographic revolution through this ambitious project.

MapCarte319_vatican3The maps are beautifully drawn and detailed. The large-scale paintings have a consistency that ensures they are seen as a set. The rich greens and blues for land and water create a beautiful palette that gives the hall a richness of colour. Terrain is well presented with detailed shading and the maps are full of ornate flourishes such as waves in the sea, cities, tents, boats and sea creatures. While many of these elements are totally out of scale compared to the backdrop map, they show a range of important scenes and the design supports the scale, size and purpose of the project as a gallery through which you walk en route to the Sistine Chapel.

MapCarte 177/365: Tracking the Economic Disaster by Daniel Mason, 2011


Innovation in cartography can come from anywhere. This is a prismatic choropleth map but wait…it’s made from wood. Created by Daniel Mason at Cal Poly, Pomona, the map displays each state’s unemployment rate (shown by elevation) and population density (shown by wood type).

What mason has done is worked with two very simple visual variables….lightness and height. He uses lightness of the wood stain to give us that typical choropleth look from light to dark. He then adds in height to encode a second variable and because this map is a gallery installation people are able to view from multiple angles to get the effect.

MapCarte177_wood_legendThe map is laser cut but the legend detail is presented in the same exacting way. It brings a sense of accuracy and precision to what might otherwise be seen simply as an artistic piece.

A wonderfully different approach to making a map…not something that you can put in your pocket and go hill walking with but it’s a gallery piece and works very well in this use context.