On Bertuch-Time to Revise and Resubmit

Do you ever find yourself having to walk back a previous statement? I previously credited Thomson and Lizars with the first comparative map, only to discover an earlier work by Bertuch. Well, it’s happened again; I discovered that Bertuch’s works contain an even earlier comparative. But that’s how research goes and it’d be boring without surprise findings!

The Moon from Bertuch's Bilderbuch. Note the comparative features at the bottom, showing mountains of Earth, the moon, and Venus. (Photo: own work)
The Moon from Bertuch’s Bilderbuch. Note the comparative features at the bottom, showing mountains of Earth, the moon, and Venus. (Photo: own work)

In about 1810 Bertuch published his Bilderbuch, kids’ books heavily illustrated with pictures of the world, nature, geography, and so forth. He included one of the first vista style comparatives, and a gorgeous one in color at that. Even earlier he published a graph style comparative, making that both the first comparative view known and meaning that the graph style of comparative emerged decades earlier than previously thought! Why, having established the graph style, did Bertuch switch to the vista style?

The Style
The graph style of mountain comparative, that is where small mountain glyphs corresponding in size on the page to the relative height of the peak represented, took off in the 1820s. Previously thought to have been developed then, that idea is torpedoed by the discovery of this piece by Bertuch as it is c1800. The merit of the graph style is in its forcing the reader to draw comparisons between the peaks. With the vista style, where peaks are arranged in a fictional landscape, the reader can mistake it for just a lovely scene; not so with in the graph format.

Why then would Bertuch abandon this format and adopt the vista style in his subsequent comparative? It’s likely due to Goethe’s influence, who in turn was influenced by Humboldt. Humboldt had published his “proto comparative” in 1805 documenting his exploration of Mt Chimborazo, spurring Goethe to draft a vista style comparative. (Goethe showed his comparative to Humboldt, who snubbed him on it.)

The Mountains
Bertuch showed eight terrestrial mountains, and eight on both the Moon and Venus. Chimborazo, tallest mountain as measured from the center of the earth, is a good benchmark against which to evaluate the mountains of the Moon and Venus (both with tallest peaks reported to be higher than Chimborazo). The peaks protruding from the Venusian atmosphere are erroneous. Venus is fairly flat; those perceived mountains were artifacts of the observing technology of the day and they’re nonexistent had been confirmed by recent radar surveys of Venus.

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© Peter Roehrich, 2016

Bertuch’s Old and New World Heights

In a previous post I credited Thompson and Lizars with creating the first comparative, and theirs was the first to appear in an atlas. My research has since turned up another mountains chart, Die Höhen der alten und neuen Welt (translated as: The Heights of the Old and New World) c1810 by Bertuch, predating Thompson and Lizars by a handful of years.

Possibly the first comparative view of the early style, showing mountains of the old and new worlds.(Own work)
Hohen der Alten by Bertuch, c1810. Possibly the first comparative view of the early style, showing mountains of the old and new worlds.(Own work)

With one foot firmly in art, it’s whimsical in its depictions of climbers on Chimborazo and Mont Blanc, and a crocodile in the water at the bottom of the chart (making it suitable for children and indeed it appeared in a children’s book). Further, its old color, still vivid makes it all the more charming. Its other foot is firmly in the world of early comparatives; heights appear on the sides of the chart, towns appear amid the mountains, and faint horizontal lines show snow lines.

Humboldt seeded the comparative genre by publishing Geography of Plants which illustrated a mountain in profile annotated with information describing points along the slope. The next step in the progression is a bit murky. There was a nexus between Humboldt (scientist and explorer), Goethe (scientist, among other things), and Bertuch (publisher) all working in early 19th century Germany. After reading Humboldt’s writings, Goethe prepared a manuscript with an exhibit inspired by Humboldt’s work comparing the vegetation at altitudes of the old and new world mountains. Goethe sent his manuscript to Humboldt, who apparently snubbing him, did not respond. Subsequently, whether Goethe sent his manuscript or Bertuch learned of it through other channels, Bertuch became aware of Goethe’s illustration and chose to include it in his Bilderbuch, a children’s book. Interestingly, for unknown reasons, Bertuch did not receive the illustration itself and was compelled to recreate it based on text descriptions.

That this comparative appeared in a children’s book, but subsequent comparatives appeared in atlases is remarkable and hints at one of the exquisite qualities of these pieces. To be sure, this view is a simple, fictionalized landscape, making it suitable for a children’s book but, it is also packs a mighty data punch. While the elevation annotations on the sides of the view may have been of little interest to the children looking at the book, it was an excellent way to bring to life what could otherwise be dry statistics, and make them approachable to the emerging middle class atlas buyers (who may have been of lower reading levels). This powerful combination gave the atlas publishers cause to include them in their works.

© Peter Roehrich, 2016


Stamp celebrating diplomatic relations between Nepal and Japan.
Stamp celebrating diplomatic relations between Nepal and Japan.

In 1957 Japan and Nepal established diplomatic relations. In 1997 Nepal issued a stamp to commemorate the event. The stamp is pleasing, showing Mts Everest (center), Manaslu (right), and Fuji (left); the flags of both countries, and Nepal and the postage in Nepali and English.

I’m a sucker for anything comparative, and this stamp is reminiscent of early comparative maps, in their pastoral style, but is it a true comparative? Unfortunately it does not meet my definition. True, it does compare topographic features arranged according to their known size, in this case in a pyramid sort, rather than their geographic positioning on the planet. Further, it does a good job of including an additional variable, in this case the snowcapped peak of Mt Fuji is clearly visible, while the lower part of the mountain is shown as rocky. This point is an important one in that it distinguishes comparatives from color coded column charts in that it makes abundantly clear that snow covers only part of the mountain. Further, Mt Fuji is in suitable scale vis-a-vis Mt Everest; Mt Fuji appears to be about half the height of Mt Everest on the stamp, a decent approximation considering that Mt Fuji is shown in the foreground versus Mt Everest; Mt Fuji, at 3,776m, is less than half the height of Mt Everest, at 8,848m. The scaling breaks down, however, when Mts Everest and Manaslu are compared: the peak of Manaslu is nearly 10% lower in elevation compared to Everest. Is this also a matter of the perspective of the image? Again, Mt Manaslu is in the foreground of Everest.

The Everest/Manaslu scaling question may be attributable to another factor besides perspective. Perhaps we can look at other maps for an explanation. Mapmakers have long centered their maps on their home location (think of maps with Europe in the center). The choice of centricity is reasonable–understanding geography is often easier when considered in one’s local context. Put another way, it can be easier to understand where you are when I understand where I am. This is the innocuous explanation. On the other hand, mapping represents power: it documents and reinforces sovereignty and control, national strength, and preeminence. Centering a map conveys importance of the centered subject. Perhaps the stamp is composed so that Manaslu appears slightly larger than it is–or featured at all–relative to Everest and Fuji, to reinforce the notion that Nepal is first in mountains. This is a fitting explanation in the context of the stamp’s commemoration of diplomatic relations, where Nepal is dwarfed by the economy and international presence of Japan.

While it’s scaling calls into question whether it’s a true comparative, the stamp is without doubt a lovely work of art.

© Peter Roehrich 2015