Benjamin VanWagoner

Ph.D. Candidate, Columbia University / Early Modern Drama

From Heather Wolfe's "An early modern color guide," The Collation

Ultramarine! There in the very first line, the first blue: ultramarine. As Wolfe notes, "a brilliant blue that comes from beyond the seas." Beyond, I wonder? I like this conception, of course; what kind of abstractions are necessary here to think 'beyond' the boundless deep?

And of course a whole host of other amazing colors, brought to my attention by the Folger Shakespeare Library's Heather Wolfe in this great blogpost at The Collation.

Folger MS V.a.447, leaf 47v

Folger MS V.a.447, leaf 47v

Atlas Robustness / Coastlines in the Mariner's Mirrour

The Mariner's Mirrour, an English translation of Lucas Janszoon Waghenaer's Spieghel der Zeevaerdt, was published in 1588 and was the standard nautical atlas for almost a hundred years--probably because, in a couple important ways, it was the first. The maps and charts were wholly original, an understandable rarity given the massive amount of time and energy involved. Copying must have been almost expected in the production of other maps, even much later ones. Take for instance John Seller's Mapp of the Region under and a bout the North Pole (1676) which was billed as 'New and Exact,' but was actually a copy of a copy of Dutchman Jan Jansson's 1620 map. Although the copying certainly implies all sorts of interesting things about authenticity and obsolescence, my point here is just that even real newness of data was uncommon. So less common still was Waghenaer's real innovation, something I've taken to calling robustness, and which none of his peers even attempted to achieve (or faked achieving!).

Here's an image of the page that made me think of it: this beautiful coastline of the south of England, with the Isle of Wight on the far left. 

What gets me about this page is the clarity with which certain crucial things can be seen and the difficulty of seeing several others. I mean this in a pretty uncomplicated way, one that's consistent between the jpg just above this text and the actual object/book as you look at the thing. The first thing you might notice are the colors around the title "The Sea Coastes...," which are marvelous, as are the ship and compass in the middle of the image, and the fish/monsters to either side. Note, though, how difficult the text of the title is to read from a distance, and how minute are the place-names and measures; the color which makes this chart look so grand is actually an impediment to legibility. None of this is a big problem, of course, with the textual object in front of you: you simply squint and look more closely. Yet I'd say that this text and those elements of the chart are not robust. That is, when submitted to forms of textual stress--a reader standing too far away, colors getting wet, or translation into a crappy .jpg--they fail to represent their information effectively. There are things that are robust, though, which do stand up to jpg translation and standing far away and even illiteracy: the shape of the land mass, and even better, the perspective coastlines.

On the top of this page, the perspective coastlines are simple and practically unmistakeable. There are no colors, the text isn't crucial; they're just textured lines. There's almost no way they could be misread or rendered unreadable apart from some a full-on mangling of the text. To me, this implies something about the priorities of the chart. Despite their smallness and their relatively subsidiary position, seemingly squeezed in at the top, these coastlines are that part of the image which most need to be functional and legible. Why?

Accurate depictions of coastlines, Waghenaer knew, would allow shipboard observers to effectively estimate their position relative to the land: it would allow them to determine what shore they were off, but more importantly, how far they were from shore and thus whether they were in any danger of running aground. And that's what really matters, of course, to a mariner in a tough spot. Is the ship in danger of striking rocks? In a storm, how far is it to shore? A glance at these shore outlines will, pretty reliably, convey precisely that information which most productive for avoiding the most urgent dangers of off-shore sailing. 

So this was Waghenaer's real contribution, to my mind: these charts made it possible to avoid as many hazards as possible under even the most inconvenient conditions--indeed, under the very conditions likely to make such knowledge necessary. Robust maritime cartography with practical hazard-avoidance in mind!