Antoine Lafreri's Atlases: Collecting, Conserving, and Representing Geographical Knowledge

Antoine Lafreri's Atlases: Collecting, Conserving, and Representing Geographical Knowledge

Jean-Marc Besse

In the history of cartography, the object “atlas” has always encountered difficulty in being accepted as a genuine scientific form. Indeed, until recently, history of cartography was characterized by a “naturalistic” epistemology, oblivious to the material conditions of production of knowledge as well as to the visual instruments of science: priority was given to maps, considered to be a direct representation of reality, over and above map collections. Atlases were often dismembered; add to that the classic distinction between images and books in national libraries, which hampered the identification of hybrid objects, such as Lafreri’s atlases. This project revolved around the cartographic collections (“composite atlases” or IATO atlas/Italian Assembled to Order) composed by the publisher Antonio Lafreri (1512–1577) and his heirs. The collections served as an observation site from which to investigate the atlas, understood as a specific form of archiving, conserving, and presenting geographical knowledge.

With the composite atlas as central object of analysis, the project explored the modalities of geographical representations in the visual cultures of Europe in nascent modernity. Indeed, cartographic collections are among the key sites where European culture fabricated its image of the world, or the image of its world. It further set out to initiate a historical reflection on the mechanisms of production of objectivity in geography. The atlas was a locus where objectivity was being manufactured, as is apparent in the elaboration of procedures of normalization and standardization of representation.

This research project, located at the crossroads of several historical enquiries—history of cartography, history of the book, history of engravings, and history of the graphic forms of presenting scientific objects—appraised the emergence, in early modernity, of a specific site of constitution of scientific objectivity: the atlas, considered as a way of both organizing and archiving knowledge, and paper spaces that are also, inseparably, work spaces.