How to Read Renaissance Maps (7 Tips)

Despite their seemingly factual nature, Renaissance maps are considered significant art objects. How can we best read them to understand more about this period?

Apr 22, 2024By Daniella Romano, MA Contemporary Art Criticism, BA History & History of Art

how read renaissance map tips


Maps are often assumed to be factual images of a place, used mostly for navigation. Though this is somewhat true, during the Renaissance cartographers had another goal in mind: satisfying the demands of their patrons.


As a result, maps became art objects that projected their patrons’ aspirations, ranging from territorial ambitions to mercantile strength, and military goals. To understand these aims, we need to break down their symbolism, as we would with any other work of art. Here are seven things to look out for when deciphering Renaissance maps.


1. Establish the Dominating Feature

london city map
Londinium Feracissmi Angliae Regni Metropolis, by Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg, 1572, Source: Daniel Crouch Rare Books


What occupies the most space? It could be the sprawl of a city, endless empty fields, or swathes of ocean. This hints at the patron’s primary motivation. For example, in Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg’s 1572 map of London, the River Thames falls in the center of the image with its size exaggerated, and filled with ships. This suggests that the patron sought to emphasize London’s trading superiority. The royal barge sits in the center of the Thames, further alluding to the power of the crown. Consider what dominates your chosen map and bear this in mind before examining its details.


2. Examine the Natural Elements

virginia county renaissance map
Americae pars, nunc Virginia dixta primum Anglis, by Theodore de Bry, 1590 Source: Library of Virginia Education


Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

Even a city map often retains natural elements. Forests and fields can teach us a lot about the purpose of a map. In many cases, they emphasize the power of the map’s patron. The Renaissance was the age of exploration. Maps were often utilized to show previously unknown lands. Therefore your chosen map could depict land already dominated and owned, or land sought to be gained.


Take the Americae pars map of Virginia from 1590, the first settlement of the British in America. The lack of urban space and emphasis placed on trees and empty space suggests that the patron of this map was driven by a colonial ambition to dominate the land. It could yield potential resources for trade or space for settlement.


Water is also a significant element, with both bays and rivers lying in the center of the map. They act as signposts to arriving colonists showing suitable locations to land. The place names labeled show the territories of local Native American tribes, which could either be tapped for trade or avoided due to hostility. Make a note of these natural features and question issues around land ownership and natural potential — are there any resources that could be traded or exploited, for example?


3. Look for a Coat of Arms

virginia county renaissance map
Americae pars, nunc Virginia dixta primum Anglis, by Theodore de Bry, 1590 Source: Library of Virginia Education


Almost all Renaissance maps will include a coat of arms, which will often suggest who claims the land depicted. They were popular images during this period, displayed in many aristocratic activities, such as tournaments. In a similar way to how place names inserted onto a map assert colonial dominance of new lands, the presence of a coat of arms signifies ownership.


There is a diverse array of coats of arms displayed on Renaissance maps and the most common ones can be attributed to monarchs. For example Queen Elizabeth I’s coat of arms includes a crown and lions, symbols of the English crown’s power.


The symbolism behind coats of arms is varied and numerous, bear in mind who they are attributed to when analyzing your map. They reveal the identity of the claimant of the land shown, and thus whose favor the map’s cartographer or patron is trying to gain.


4. Note Any Text Panels

london agas renaissance map
The Agas Map, 1561, Source: Map of London


It may seem obvious, but the text included in maps can teach us much about their meaning. Renaissance maps often feature banners which overlay the map and describe its contents. Although, of course, there is the possibility of language limitations, look out for those with writing that you can interpret.


The Agas Map of London includes a large text panel describing the antiquity of the city — “This ancient and famous city, was first founded by Brute the Trojan…” This emphasis on the city’s lineage stresses that it is a place of national pride. We can deduce that the patron of this map sought to demonstrate its legitimacy as a capital city.


There are, as mentioned, also place names, which guide us to the geographical location which the map depicts while showing land ownership. Consider why these place names in particular are included—was the cartographer trying to guide our gaze towards specific sites? How could these sites serve the needs of the patron?


Don’t overlook the obvious and consider what the text in your map is suggesting. It can assist in further analysis of the map, playing a key role in understanding the goals of the patron.


5. Don’t Trust the Scale

mercator world renaissance map
World Map, from Mercator Atlas, 1595, Source: St John’s College, Cambridge


It is a common misconception that all maps are drawn to the correct scale. We are taught to see the truth in their representations of landmass and location. Though during the Renaissance there were great advancements in cartographic techniques, and maps became more accurate than ever before, they were still ultimately created to highlight the power of the patron. It should also be noted that maps were often made not for navigation, but to be displayed in the homes of the wealthy.


The Mercator Map world map was ahead of its time in terms of geographical accuracy, and its layout has influenced the maps that we see today. Yet, it is not without its problems. Firstly, the landmass of many countries is incorrect. Asia, for example, is much bigger than the map shows. Furthermore, this map exaggerates the scale of the West and diminishes that of other continents, advocating a Western-centric view of the world that scholars are still striving to unpick.


Where is the cartographer of your map from? Which locations does the map place at its center and in focus? Assess the positioning and scale of landmasses and natural features to discover the underlying motivations of its maker.


6. Check for People, Animals, and Mystical Creatures

florence city map
Veduta della Catena (Chain Map), by Francesco Roselli, 1407, Source: Google Art & Culture


Your chosen map may include some characters that can assist with its reading. People  depicted in maps may be specific individuals related to the cartographer or patron, or locals from the area. Animals relate to the natural resources presented in the map, and, due to the popularity of hunting among the aristocracy, could often be potential game. Mythical creatures are also frequently present in cartography, their renderings based on the tales of sailors’ encounters on their travels.


A detail from the Chain Map of Florence, for example, shows a fishing scene in the River Arno, allowing us to visualize what daily life looked like for some in the city. In Baptista Boazio’s Ireland, we see some sort of sea monster patrolling the waters. This appears to be a warped image of a whale, instead given a beastly head.


ireland country renaissance map
Ireland, by Baptista Boazio, 1599, Source: Library of Congress


Keep an eye on the details for signs of life around your map which go beyond a navigational purpose. They could hint at its use as a decorative object, as well as provide insight into the perceptions of the sailors, explorers, and local people that inspired the patron.


7. Inspect Any Ships 

venice city renaissance map
Map of Venice, by Jacopo d’Barbari, 1500, Source: The British Library


By the Renaissance, ships had become a popular symbol among cartographers. To the map reader, they are evidence of ideas of how the self was understood at this time of global exploration. They are symbols of power, both in terms of the skill required for naval travel, and for proficiency in ship making and international trade.


In Jacopo d’Barbari’s Map of Venice, the ships take on an unprecedented scale, towering above buildings. Their sheer numbers and grand size emphasize the role of Venice as a naval power. Intimidating rivals and fostering alliances, these ships would have played a central role in projecting Venice’s global authority at the time.


Take note of the amount of ships present in your map, and compare them to their surroundings. Do they dominate the scene? Why is their presence significant? Consider the importance of sailing during the Renaissance Period.


world map 1550
World Map, by Pierre Desceliers, 1550, Source: The British Library


Renaissance maps can teach us much about place and identity during this era. When broken down into their various elements, apparently complex maps become easier to decipher and their role as symbols of power is more evident.


Begin by taking in the map as a whole, considering its dominating features and the role of nature within it. Next, check any inserts such as coats of arms or textual elements. Finally examine the details—the presence of people, animals, and sea creatures as well as ships, and put yourself in the place of the patron or cartographer. It is highly likely your map has an interesting tale to tell all of its own—we hope you enjoy the journey as you discover how to decipher it!

Author Image

By Daniella RomanoMA Contemporary Art Criticism, BA History & History of ArtDaniella is an art historian and writer from London, UK. She holds an MA in Critical and Curatorial Studies of Contemporary Art from National Taipei University of Education and a BA in History and History of Art from the University of Nottingham. Her research interests include cartography and East Asian art, as well as the role of colonial narratives present in contemporary art. She also runs her own website, Artographic.