THE HISTORY OF CARTOGRAPHY in the early modern period has been tied in particular ways to the emergence of both imperialism and modernity. At the center of this argument lie the gridded scale maps that Europeans learned to make in the wake of their rediscovery of Ptolemy's Geography. These new maps supported the emergence of abstract space as a centerpiece of a new spatiality - a spatiality that in turn supported, in both theory and practice, the reterritorialization of the extra-European world for European ends. My paper interrogates this argument by examining Spanish attempts to map the Americas during the years 1492 to 1580. It identifies a cartographic culture steeped in late medieval figures of space, one that suggests continuity rather than rupture between the Middle Ages and the origins of European imperialism.
Many Spanish mapmakers were engaged with some of the most sophisticated problems posed by the new, Ptolemaic cartography.These specialists, however, represented only a small minority of Spanish mapmakers. Although the abstract spatiality that informed their practice proved to be the emerging cultural trend, this spatiality was not hegemonic in early modern Spanish culture as a whole. Both philological and cartographic evidence drawn from outside the circle of specialists suggests that an alternative spatiality was also at play, one that was rooted in the itineraries of travel rather than the planar extensions of geometry.This linear spatiality had its roots in late medieval travel narrative and so-called way-finding maps. It is this spatiality that is most common in Spanish attempts to figure the wider world.
This argument should not be understood as an essay in Hispanic particularity. Spain functions as a test-case here, and no claim is made that its linear spatiality is unique to Hispanic culture. What may be unique to Spain is the persistence of this spatiality beyond the year 1580, when the cartographic revolution took root much more deeply in northern than in southern Europe. Nonetheless, its near-ubiquity in the first ninety years of Spanish Americana suggests that the association we have made among abstract spatiality, modernity, and imperialism has been misplaced. Although it may be genuine, it must be understood as an attempt to rationalize empire after the fact, not as a cultural prop of an original imperial impulse.