The Great Wall Map Revealed
By Richard Oram
Until recently, one of the largest objects in the Ransom Center collections has also been one of the least visible. Joan Blaeu’s Nova totius terrarum orbis tabula (1648) is part of the Kraus map collection. Blaeu (1596–1673) was a member of a celebrated family of Dutch cartographers and is best known for his 11-volume Great Atlas. The Ransom Center has a hand-colored set of this monumental work (but that is a matter for a future blog post.)
Blaeu’s great wall map (GWM) is one of the largest ever published, measuring 2995 x 2043 mm, nearly 10 x 7 feet from edge to edge. Another copy was incorporated into an enormous atlas, often cited as the largest atlas in the world, made for Charles II but still the map had to be cropped to fit. Presumably the atlas did not accompany the king on road trips.
For the past 40 years, the GWM has been tucked away in a large wall case on the Ransom Center’s top floor. When we began to think about displaying the map as a focal point for a 2005 exhibition, we discovered that the GWM was simply too large to make a trip downstairs without being damaged, leading me to wonder how it had ever reached its seventh floor location in the first place.
Understandably, only a handful of people other than staff have ever viewed the GWM. A few years ago, we made digital images of the map for a scholar, section by section. These images were then assembled to make a medium-resolution composite image, which was later used when our Kraus map website went live in the spring of 2012. Yet, it was impossible to read the text in Latin and French at the bottom of the GWM, a guide for the use of the map aimed at “geography lovers.” Nor was it possible to appreciate fully the wealth of graphic detail—for example, the fleets sailing in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans—that is so characteristic of baroque map-making.
This past fall, Ransom Center photographer Pete Smith took up photographing the map as a personal challenge. He first needed our stacks maintenance unit to remove a range of shelving in order to get far enough away from the map so that he could shoot high-quality images. After two days of work, he had 120 high-resolution images, from which 30 were selected for use.
This was only the beginning. Anybody who has used Photoshop can appreciate how difficult it is to stitch together this many digital images by hand. Fortunately, specialized software was available to create a composite image of the huge map. Processing took a fast computer an hour. Although the final product is a behemoth file of 1.5 gigabytes, the web servers handle it with amazing efficiency.
We often say that viewing a digital surrogate is no substitute for interacting with the original, and it is undeniable that one cannot comprehend the sheer scale of the GWM by looking at it online. On the other hand, it is almost impossible to study the original map in any detail, even if one has access to the stacks. Digitization made essentially invisible object accessible to anyone with a computer.