A new show opening this week at the Chazen Museum of Art focuses on the historical equivalent of doodling in the margins.
"Marginalia in cARTography," on display at the Chazen starting Friday and running through May 18, showcases detailed historical maps of the world and the heavens from the thirteenth century through the 1960s. The focus, intriguingly, is not the central information in the maps themselves but the characters and comments on the edges.
Scribbles and comments on the sides of books, manuscripts and maps are called "marginalia." In this case, they're often drawings of people, animals and other illustrations, from gods and goddesses to famous buildings.
"When you're reading a book you're really into, you might write your own notes in the margins," said Kirstin Pires, the new editor at the Chazen Museum of Art. "People have been doing this since forever.
"With maps they were a little more methodical, and you could update errors too. A map was a singular, drawn, handwritten piece — any corrections would be made in the margin, instead of a new piece being made."
Guest curator Sandra Sáenz-López Pérez, an art historian from Spain, brought the collection together. She received a fellowship from the History of Cartography Project, and will come to Madison on Thursday for a lecture and opening reception featuring music by The Kat Trio.
It's tempting to compare one's own dog-eared copy of a beloved novel to the works in this show, but the comparison isn't as immediately clear. Marginalia on these maps look more like carefully illuminated manuscripts than doodles in a textbook.
According to the (unpublished) catalogue for the show, "Throughout history, art and cartography have walked hand in hand: artistic motifs were used to represent geographical elements, cities, the different people who lived in the world, and so forth.
"... As in medieval illuminated manuscripts, marginal images in cartography should be regarded not only as part of the map, but as elements that lead to a better understanding of the region mapped, of the cartographers and their collaborators, of their aesthetic sense, and of the world in which they were made."
Of some 50 maps in the show, about half are from Wisconsin: 11 are owned by the Wisconsin Historical Society; nine are from the Department of Special Collections; two are from the Robinson Map Library; and one is from the University of Wisconsin Cartography Lab.
The maps, which vary in size from tiny, intimate prints to four feet wide by four and a half feet long, draw in viewers with their detail. It's like getting a glimpse into how people viewed the world, and in some cases, what they didn't know.
"They're very colorful," Pires said. "Some of them are hand-illuminated, much like a devotional piece."
Some map-makers apparently thought Americans were cannibals, or attempted to create a giraffe or lion with nothing more than a description.
"A lot of the marginalia try to add some other thoughts, or more information about the place being mapped," Pires said. "They're fascinating, you can get lost in them. They remind me of Hieronymus Bosch, with the level of detail ... you're not sure if the humor is intentional."
As to what allows a map to cross over from tool to artwork, Pires pointed to both the maps' age and handmade qualities.
"A lot of things we (now) think of as art started out as craft," she said. "Illuminated manuscripts or devotional church items started out as functional things for people who didn't read, so they could follow along in the story.
"There's a whole world of people who are interested in this," Pires added about the maps. "They're beautiful, when you see them in person ... you can really lose yourself in these things. It's really incredible."