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Through January 27, 2008

The Field Museum, Chicago

By JOEL HENNING; The Wall Street Journal


Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, has in her Royal Collection, several early 16th-century maps created by Leonardo da Vinci that are now on display at Chicago's Field Museum in an epic exhibition, "Maps: Finding Our Place in the World" (through Jan. 27).

Leonardo, on his map of Northern Italy, was the first to use color to indicate altitude changes. His map of the Arno River illustrates his plan (never implemented) to construct canals to regulate its flow. His delicate sketch of Imola, Italy, hints at his more popular artistic achievements.

Da Vinci revolutionized cartography when he became the first to use color to indicate changes in elevation in his map of Northern Italy. But Leonardo's relatively diminutive examples of the mapmaker's craft are almost overcome by ancient, awesome and fanciful examples of cartography going back to a clay tablet inscribed with the city plan of Nippur in what is now Iraq, dating from about 1500 B.C.

Curated by James Akerman and Robert Karrow, historians of cartography at Chicago's Newberry Library, this array of 130-odd maps created for wildly different purposes is divided into themes, ranging from "Finding Our Way" to "Mapping the World," "Visualizing Nature and Society" and "Mapping the Imaginary."

Harry Beck's revolutionary and iconic redesign of the London Tube map in 1933, abandoning scale and geographic accuracy to deliver functionality, is represented with a massive original print. It provides an interesting counterpoint to an 1837 map of the upper Mississippi and Missouri Rivers showing the migration of the Ioway tribe, sketched by a headman at a treaty conference in Washington.

Through February 16

Newberry Library, Chicago


In the exhibition's section devoted to maps that help us understand what the world is all about, we see two huge wooden globes made in 1688 by Vincenzo Coronelli for Louis XIV's palace at Versailles -- one depicting the Earth (with California as an island), and the other artfully representing the constellations. Together, they illustrate the Renaissance drive to understand the world and the cosmos: diverse, exotic, challenging, but not beyond our comprehension.

The first towering figure in the history of mapping the world was Claudius Ptolemy, a second-century Alexandrian Greek mathematician, geographer, astronomer and astrologer who developed the latitude and longitude coordinate tables that enabled mapmakers to project the spherical Earth on flat planes. Some of his writings survive and are on view, though none of his maps. But his work was used to make maps for the next millennium, and several dating from the Middle Ages are at the Field.

Maps in the Newberry exhibition demonstrate that Ptolemy's geography arguably may have been responsible for Native Americans being known as Indians. He exaggerated the width of the Eurasian continent, which helped to persuade Columbus to sail west to find a simpler, faster way to India. Had Columbus known that Ptolemy had the formulas right but the distances grossly wrong, he might never have set out on his momentous voyage.

The second cartographic giant was the Flemish Gerard Mercator. The Field exhibition includes his 1569 map of the world, which remains the essential projection for getting from one point to another in sea, air and space navigation. It became the standard map projection because of its ability to represent lines of constant true bearing as straight line segments. For example, nearby you can have a look at Charles Lindbergh's New York-to-Paris flight chart with his handwritten notations (1927), which relied on Mercator's projections.

Leonardo's topographical map of Northern Italy is set in the exhibition's section on nature and society, which includes other kinds of maps that help us comprehend what we can't see, including Jane Addams's 1895 map of several Chicago blocks color-coded for ethnicity and income, the Englishman John Snow's scary 1855 map showing the deaths from cholera in a London neighborhood, and Florence Nightingale's "Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East" (1857).

Frank Baum's map of Oz, Robert Louis Stevenson's of Treasure Island, Sir Thomas More's of Utopia, A.A. Milne's of Hundred Acre Wood, William Faulkner's of Yoknapatawpha County and various depictions of hell are in the exhibition's imaginary section. These maps segue nicely into the exhibition's concluding section, which features previously unimaginable things we can do today with maps on the Internet, in our cars, and on our cellphones. These are in no small way due to the almost unbelievable GPS system, whose technology is explained here with the help of Navteq Corp. One of the leading cybermap makers, Navteq is the sponsor of this dazzling collection of the best that man has done to help us figure out where in the world we are, and to find our way home.

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