Order of Multitudes

How have atlases been used in art and science?

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

The term “atlas” usually describes a book of maps or charts, or a book of scientific diagrams. The most common examples are world atlases, road atlases, and anatomical atlases. As collections of drawings or visualizations, atlases typically depict a particular object from a variety of perspectives. Usually identified with scientific illustration practices, atlases have also inspired and been inspired by a variety of art forms. For example, Mercator’s 1595 Atlas drew on artists’ renderings of people, animals, and places in its elaborate cartouches, while in the 1960s, the artist Gerhard Richter began to assemble an art installation called Atlas, a collection of photographs, newspaper cuttings and sketches.

The word atlas was first used to describe a distinctive kind of book—a book of maps—by the cartographer Gerhard Mercator in 1595: his Atlas sive cosmographicae meditationes (Atlas or Cosmographic Meditations) defined the genre of the map-book for over a century. In the Atlas, Mercator offers an explanation for why he chose the word: it is named for the ancient Greek demi-god Atlas who supposedly had complete knowledge of the cosmos (in other versions of the tale, Atlas is the figure who must hold up the world).

“Atlas” has thus come to mean a book that offers a complete knowledge of something, usually through visual depiction. Today, atlases are most commonly used as a way to gather geographical or medical knowledge, but in both cases, the visual aesthetics of the atlas are deeply influenced by artistic conventions, especially conventions around balancing detailed depiction with more abstracted representation. Data visualization practices have also made possible new kinds of visual representations that are often collected into atlases—see for instance The Atlas of Economic Complexity and Katy Börner’s Atlas book series.


Ayesha Ramachandran

Associate Professor of Comparative Literature, Yale University

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Ayesha Ramachandran

Ayesha Ramachandran is an Assistant Professor of Comparative literature at Yale University. She works primarily with the English, French, and Italian literary traditions; however, her interests have extended to Portuguese, Spanish, Neo-Latin, Persian and early modern South Asian materials. Her work examines early modern maps, the history of science and technology, empires, and the rich visual archive of illustrated books. Her first book, The Worldmakers: Global Imagining in Early Modern Europe (University of Chicago Press, 2015), charts transnational encounters and the early mechanisms of globalization from the late fifteenth to the early eighteenth centuries. It was awarded the MLA’s Scaglione prize in Comparative Literary Studies (2017), the Milton Society of America’s Shawcross Prize for the best book chapter on Milton (2016), and the Sixteenth Century Studies Association’s Founder Prize for the best first book manuscript (2015). Her current book project, Lyric Thinking: Humanism, Selfhood, Modernity, argues for the central importance of lyric form and language in shaping new intellectual possibilities for the self. Moving from Petrarch to Descartes, while also considering their afterlives in modernist writing, it draws together scholarship on theories of mind, cognition and meditation.

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