Ptolemy Comes to America: Cartographic Objectivity and European Imperial Ambition, 1500-1630



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This project connects the evolution of European cartography to the developing culture of objectivity in European knowledge-making communities. Just as the proto-scientists of the Renaissance revived the knowledge-making processes of ancient authors such as Aristotle, cartographers examined the work of second century Roman geographer Claudius Ptolemy, and especially his Geographia. The Geographia describes the process of creating a projection which relates physical space to its depiction on a map; it was Ptolemy’s treatise on the proper representation of space. Just as the knowledge-making community gradually reduced the authority of ancient authors, geographers largely abandoned Ptolemy after the sixteenth century. During the sixteenth century, when Ptolemy’s projection reigned supreme, European states scrambled to launch colonial projects. Editions of the Geographia began to contain maps of the so-called “New World”. These maps often contained depictions of indigenous Americans, which demonstrated imperialist European attitudes towards the people of the Americas and their land. However, the “neutral,” objective maps on which they were presented legitimized these depictions. Over the course of the sixteenth century, geography became bound up in the idea of objectivity. The mathematical, objective accuracy of maps legitimized their contents, and thus came to legitimize the colonial project itself. The Geographia was brought to Western Europe in about 1400. During the sixteenth century, editions of the Geographia proliferated across Europe as European knowledge makers began to change their approach towards the creation of knowledge, both spatial and otherwise. I evaluate five editions of the Geographia published from 1525 to 1599, with particular focus on their maps of the Americas. I analyze the structure of these maps, as well as the atlas paratext which surround them, and I connect these elements to the maps’ depictions of indigenous Americans. I consider changes in these components over the course of the sixteenth century. Finally, I attempt to answer the question of why Europeans tried to make their maps “neutral,” and its impact on the European understanding of their own relationship with the Americas.


Note that this thesis discusses and examines offensive portrayals of indigenous Americans.


cartography, mapmaking, maps, sixteenth century, Renaissance, science, imperialism, colonialism, objectivity, history