In the hilarious “Tropic Thunder” – about a group of preening male movie stars making a disastrous film about the Vietnam War on location – there’s a scene in which Robert Downey Jr.’s method actor (think Russell Crowe crossed with Daniel Day-Lewis) tries to teach Ben Stiller’s action hero (Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, take your pick) how to read a map.
The letters go one way and the numbers the other, Downey’s lofty Kirk Lazarus informs Stiller’s posturing Tugg Speedman. But Tugg is having none of it and it’s not long before the team is lost in the land of drug lords, who mistake the actors for actual DEA agents.
Ah, maps, can’t live with ’em sometimes. But certainly can’t live without ’em either.
“Maps are of historical importance,” says Graham Arader of the Arader Galleries in Manhattan, the go-to place for antique maps, globes and atlases as well as Audubon prints and other artworks and artifacts. “Often they show us significant information for the very first time.”
They also, he adds, “tell us the wonderful story of the development of our country.”
And of the world. Generally, the oldest maps were preserved on Babylonian clay tablets. The Greeks and Romans contributed the idea that the world was spherical (thanks, Aristotle) as well as an influential geography book (ditto, Ptolemy). But let’s not get all Western-centric here. The Chinese and Indians were busy mapping the stars, while Arab scholars translated the work of Greek geographers and updated atlases.
Medieval maps – made of vellum or sheepskin – tended to a Christian world view, with Jerusalem at the center and east at the top where north would be. It’s not until the Renaissance, Arader says, that you come into the golden age of mapping, with global exploration and the invention of printing – first with carved wooden blocks and then engraved copper plates – dovetailing to produce works that were exquisitely detailed navigation charts. (Globes also made their appearance at this time.) Among the noteworthy works from this period, Arader says, is a Ptolemaic map by Martin Waldseemüller (1513) that followed Christopher Columbus across the Atlantic and was the first to use the name America for the New World. It’s worth $50,000 to $60,000.
So important were maps to the Renaissance and the Baroque periods that they took on increasing significance in the works of the Dutch Old Masters. Just as every line, shape and color has meaning on a map, so the objects in painting – and in Dutch painting in particular – are symbolic. The maps, globes and windows that appear in the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, Pieter de Hooch and Gabriel Metsu “spoke to a life of ambition, order and to empire,” says Peter C. Sutton, executive director of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich and an authority on the northern Baroque. “It had to do with the pride of a new nation and a far-flung colonial empire.”
Many of the names we still locate on maps, places far (Cape Horn) and near (Tappan Zee), come from the Dutch.
Even in the golden age, maps, Arader says, were about “trial and error.” Cartographers who were taking measurements and drawing freehand, would also sometimes deliberately include mistakes as a way of copyrighting their work. Mistakes accidental and otherwise, such as California appearing as an island, make a map more valuable, Arader says.
Today, advances in technology such as GPS and Google Earth enable cartographers to create maps of astonishing accuracy and immediacy. These advances have no bearing on the market for antique maps, Arader says. What is driving – and depressing – it, he adds, is the state of the economy, despite Wall Street’s waltz with Dow 15,000.
The time to buy is now. A 17th-century map can be had for as little as $300, he says.
Or you might choose to spend instead on the many calendar, wallet and luggage reproductions.
“I think they’re great,” Arader says. “I love them.”
As well we all might, for maps don’t only tell us where we’re going.
They remind us where we’ve been. For more, visit aradergalleries.com.