Review of Worldly Consumers: The Demand for Maps in Renaissance Italy

Review of Worldly Consumers: The Demand for Maps in Renaissance Italy

By Genevieve Carlton.

University of Chicago Press, 2015.

237 pages, 15 maps, 2 plans, 3 charts, and other illustrations. $45.00, hardcover.

ISBN: 978-0-2262-5531-6

Reviewed by: Aimée C. Quinn, Central Washington University

Designing Better Maps: A Guide for GIS Users, 2nd Edition

Exploring maps through the lens of domestic inventories of Venetian and Florentine households, Genevieve Carlton reveals the “self-fashioning” (Greenblatt 205, 3) of Italian households during the early modern period. The context for this revelation is rather remarkable: public identity was carefully crafted and cultivated through the impact of household items. From the vantage points of the printmaker, the seller, and the buyer, the reader is guided though a fascinating quest to discover what a map is while realizing the artistic breadth of the Italian household. Carlton’s tools are household inventories, the personalities of the printmakers of the time, and the maps themselves. It is rather an unusual toolkit for a quest, yet with it the reader is led on a sensational voyage. In her 227-page narrative, including sixty-five pages of notes, index, and bibliography, Carleton carefully explains that the examination of household inventories shows how the Italian consumer’s appetites grew to appreciate the map as a distinct art form.

Laid out in six chapters, the book has three over-arching themes: history of printing and map-making; household consumption of goods in the early modern era; and maps as art. Chapter 1, “Capturing the World on Paper: The Visual Tradition and Mapmaking,” reviews the history of printing and map-making. This chapter is more than just a cartographic history, however. This chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book by introducing the reader to the world of maps before the printing press was invented.

Chapter 2, “The Commerce of Cartography: Printing, Price, and Francesco Rosselli,” introduces the reader to Carleton’s work in studying 3,351 inventories which provide a “snapshot of the possessions in the Renaissance home.” Her analysis makes a most compelling argument for the use of household inventories as an investigative tool to demonstrate how consumer appetite grew for cartographic resources as much as for other art forms. These inventories are more than just primary sources: she uses them to paint a portrait of the Renaissance consumer to whom “[the] study of the world was seen as something delightful, a worthy and enjoyable pursuit” (123). Suddenly, maps became de rigueur: found in private homes, public spaces, and books. It seemed if one were a member of society, you owned maps in the plural, ornately decorated with many details.

Building on the previous chapter, Chapter 3, “A Buyer’s Market: Map Ownership in Venice and Florence, 1460–1630” reveals the consumer appetite for beautiful objects, including maps, as novelty items and the economics involved in this newfound awareness of self-fashioning. The world was relatively unknown and maps were rare at the beginning of the early modern era. This chapter further discusses the newness of printing and consumerism and their effects on society.

Chapter 4 is entitled “A World Unknown to the Ancients: the Demand for Cartographic Novelty.” Given that printing was a fairly new phenomenon and maps were primarily still crafted by hand by skilled artists, most maps were original pieces. They opened up the imagination by telling stories of far-off places, allowing viewers place themselves into the story. In this chapter, Carleton discusses how maps were created as much for entertainment as for any other purpose such as geographic accuracy or political gain. Yet as the market for maps grew, an appetite developed for more accurate maps, especially those of a geo-political nature including trade routes. As the significance of Florence and Venice as centers of trade increased, both nobles and the common person grew accustomed to knowing more about the world around them. Residents became accustomed to seeing people from different cultures and places, and therefore wanted sources describing those faraway lands.

The chapter also includes a discussion of the importance of the great Ptolemy, in a section entitled “Questioning Classical Wisdom.” This section examines how the discovery of new lands questioned the classical authorities, especially Ptolemy’s work. While the maps have been the focus up to this point in the book, the second half of the book focuses more on the theory of cartography. As more and more expeditions challenge the classical truths, many scholars from this period begin to look to cartographers to solve geo-political debates.

The final two chapters reveal the educational and societal impacts maps had as a result of their increased availability. Entitled “The Power of Knowledge: Education and Curiosity in Cartographic Prints” and “Making Impression: The Display of Maps in Sixteenth-Century Italian Homes” respectively, we learn that the household inventories that Carleton has studied frequently list the location of maps, “revealing the meaning owners attached to their specific maps” (144). These chapters further the discussion of how maps became tools in political conversation and diplomatic deliberation.

There are two things missing from this book: color illustrations and examples of the actual inventories. In fact, more illustrations overall would be a nice complement to the fascinating text. It is unfortunate that either the author or the editor did not make the choice to include these items as they would enrich the text. Aside from that, I highly recommend this book to any library or reader interested in the early modern period, particularly in Italy or cartography. Carlton weaves a fascinating story.


Greenblatt, Stephen. 2005. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


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