Maps, Semiotics, and History

Matthew Edney

Back in the 1980s, a pre-Simpsons Matt Groening did a series of his Life Is Hell comic strip called “School is Hell.” The last installment was about graduate school (where I then was). Its last panel featured a small piece of advice: “How to put off finishing your thesis? Read another book! (Repeat as necessary).” So, knowing that Cartography: The Ideal and Its History needs to come out in a timely manner, I have avoided reading any new literature that would likely urge me to add further material and commentary. But as soon as I had returned the copyedits, I picked up a recent article that a colleague had just warned me about. And, sure enough, the article demands a response for its wholesale abuse of both map history and semiotics.

Emanuela Casti’s “Bedolina: Map or Tridimensional Model?” appeared in the first issue of Cartographica for 2018. The title indicates that the topic is one of the petroglyphs inscribed into the rocks halfway up the sides of Valcamonica, in northern Italy, that have been identified as maps (see, e.g., Delano Smith 1982, 13–15; 1987, 78–79). I was astonished that 7.5 of the article’s 16 pages of narrative dealt with mapping since the fourth century CE, most in the last 500 years. Why? What could mapping by complex and literate societies have in common with maps hewn by Bronze Age people living in the mountain valleys some 3,000 years ago?

As I read and reread the article and struggled to make sense of it, my response has become something of a rant. But please do read through to the end: Casti’s own third-act “reveal” gives her plot as amazing a twist as anything thought up by M. Night Shyamalan. (Yes: the psychiatrist is himself a ghost!)

Note: I refer to Casti (2018) as “the article” and cite specific pages in {..} just to not overwhelm my text.

Reading the article

The article suffers from a difficult translation and the proliferation of an idiosyncratic terminology. It articulates its argument poorly. In all, a certain creativity and flexibility is necessary to get through it, together with three realizations.

First, much of the article rehearses themes and repeats passages, some without acknowledgment, from Reflexive Cartography (Casti 2015). [n1] The book established a complex terminology that is repeated in the article. Yet the book at least had a glossary (the cutely named “glossary/compass”) to explain the terms and to guide the reader. The article offers no such assistance and is most emphatically not a stand-alone work.

Second, the article pivots on Casti’s complaint that the largest petroglyph from Valcamonica (Bedolina rock 1) has only ever been studied from the standpoint of what she calls the “topographical metric.” This approach, she maintains, has necessarily limited and distorted previous analyses, if only because it requires the inappropriate reconfiguration of the petroglyph as a flat surface. Casti seeks a more open and less restrictive interpretation. But to make this complaint, Casti first has to explain just what she means by the topographical metric and to indicate why it is inadequate to the task of interpreting Bedolina rock 1. And for this, she must rehash the history of mapping and the nature of maps. Thus the need for the otherwise irrelevant almost-50% of the article.

Third, Casti’s conceptualization of the nature of maps, of their functions, and their histories is forced into a bipartite structure in which two cartographic systems are set in opposition to each other. There is some room for exchange or overlap between the two, especially in terms of her vision of map history, but for the most part Casti maintains a strict division. This conceptualization needs some explanation . . .

A binary and oppositional conceptualization of maps

Casti has “elaborated the theory of cartographic semiosis” over many years {30} (see Casti 2000, 2005, 2007, 2015). In her previous work (esp. Casti 2000) she followed academic cartographers (e.g., MacEachren 1995) and adhered to Charles Saunders Peirce’s triadic sign model. But in the article, she also praises Roland Barthes’ work as “essential” {32n28} and relies extensively on the work of Michel de Certeau. Both of those scholars were indebted to Ferdinand de Saussure’s dyadic sign model (Barthes 1972, 1973; de Certeau 1984). Casti is clearly well versed in the theories and debates of semioticians.

It was therefore jaw dropping, to say the least, to encounter a statement that makes absolutely no sense:

Symbols are reduced to signs . . . {22}

How can a symbol be reduced to a sign? A symbol is a sign.

Let me explain. Peirce defined three primary categories of sign according to the particular relationship between two of the three parts of the sign: the sign vehicle (the graphic mark, vocal utterance, etc.) and the (real world) referent. (Peirce offered other categorizations of signs based on the other pairings of the three parts, but this classification is the most commonly used.) Thus:

icon: the sign vehicle resembles, imitates, or is otherwise similar to the referent;

index: the sign vehicle refers to the referent indirectly, by pointing to it, in the manner of an index finger or of smoke indicating the presence of fire; and

symbol: the relationship of sign vehicle to referent is conventional, which is to say it is arbitrary and must be learned, in the manner of human communication (language, etc.).

These are perhaps the most basic terms in semiotics, other than that “sign” itself is an indivisible element of signification (Nöth 1990). Peirceans use these terms precisely. Saussurians avoid them: when analysis focuses on linguistic signs, all signs are arbitrary and are therefore “symbols” in Peirce’s terms; “iconity” is imputed and not innate, as it is for Peirce; “indexicality” is a useful but imprecise relationship between signs. [n2]

Casti seems to willfully ignore the truly basic points that “sign” is an utterly generic concept and that “symbol” is a particular type of sign.

Casti instead uses “symbol” in a colloquial and art/philosophical sense. Hers is the “symbol” of “symbolic landscapes” and of “symbolism” in art. Such usage is predicated on establishing at least two levels of meaning, the figurative or real and the emblematic or symbolic. (That is the artistic meaning of figurative, meaning a form that is recognizable as something, rather than its literary meaning of being non-literal or metaphorical.) Erwin Panofsky used the Renaissance codification of symbolic meanings to construe three levels of artistic meaning: the conventional (or figurative; e.g., a spherical object in a frame is a globe); the allegorical (the codified significance of a conventional figure; e.g., a globe signifies worldliness, vanity, or death); and the iconological (the world view constructed by an assemblage of allegorical or iconographic elements). Other art scholars—famously caricatured in the character of Robert Langdon in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003)—are less structured, but all perceive a difference between real things and implied meanings. Casti follows suit.

For Casti, symbols constitute one of two cartographic “communication systems,” that of analog communication. They are analogic because they consider “objects as they are in reality, understood as a continuum” {16}. Moreover, symbols contribute to one of two “essential functions” of maps, that of conceptualization. Maps conceptualize the world because “they tell us how it ‘works’” {17}.

By contrast, Casti uses “sign” to refer specifically to a graphic mark on a map whose meaning has been precisely codified and, preferably, explained in a legend. (“Through the legend, every sign acquires a univocal and self-contained meaning” {22}). Signs constitute the other cartographic communication system, that of digital communication; they are digital because they “differentiate the qualities of the object (an object differs from another because it is located at a given point or because it is endowed with features that set it apart from others)” {16}. (Within the terminology of academic cartography, signs are products of the classification and symbolization (ahem) phases of generalization.) Signs contribute to the other essential function of maps, that of description. Description “aims at rendering features perceived through a first-hand experience of the real world” {17}.

To be clear, Casti does not directly say, “symbols = analog = conceptualization” or “signs = digital = description.” But as she works through her ideas about the nature of maps, and especially as she explains the topographical metric, one set of terms piles up in one conceptual heap, the other in a second.

Casti expanded upon the implications of the distinction she draws between symbols and signs in the rest of the sentence that began with that jarring act of reduction:

Symbols are reduced to signs and communication is limited to a surface level, which narrows the scope for an understanding of the world capable of appreciating the many facets of the whole, typical instead of symbols. {22}

The context for this statement is the development or formation of the topographic metric for maps. For Casti, this metric includes only signs that are so semiotically limited (“reduced”) that they restrict (“narrow”) the scope of interpretation of the map to only the “surficial” meaning of the physical landscape itself. The metric thus denies and precludes the reader’s interpretation of “deeper” meanings {22} about the “many facets of the whole” world, both physical and cultural. Such deeper meanings are only communicable with uncodified symbols that conceptualize a “worldview only partially modeled on canons of real-world mimesis” {17}.

Casti explained some of the mechanisms of modern maps made on the topographical metric {20–22}. Such maps are “representations of the territory,” and by “representation” Casti understands “mimesis.” They are, she says, the “archetypical mode of cartography.” And here I agree with Casti, in that the ideal of cartography has generated a certain understanding of “the map” that I have come to think of as the “normative map,” although I argue that the normative map is a simulacrum (an image of something that does not exist) and not a valid descriptor of the actual character of all modern maps.

By contrast, other cartographic metrics produce not mimetic representations but “symbolic mediations” that are unrestricted in their interpretations. They depict the “symbolic essence of the world” and understand the “world to be a symbolic gesture”; they are complete and full {16, 22}. At least in the article, Casti is unclear about how symbols actually function. At best, Casti implies that if signs are actively encoded (and codified in legends) then symbols must be organic in their formation; symbols have “values” that are “not tied exclusively to the material sphere” {23}.

Just to really confuse things, Casti further states that “cartographic representation” across all the different metrics is a unique form of semiosis because it entails “isomorphism” (i.e., similarity of structure/order with the world) which is maintained by two “overlapping structures.” One structure is the “‘map base’ . . . governed by a geometric code” (whether or not Euclidean), the other is the “symbolic” structure comprising “the set of codes—numerical, figurative, lexical, or chromatic—used to specify” map features. So, all maps depend on the codes established between marks on the map and things in the real world, just that topographical metrics restrict those codes to a limited range of meaning {23}. Indeed, it is foundational to Casti’s model of cartographic semiosis that every map has two layers—“the layer of the map base and the symbolic layer”—that can be “pulled apart” and analyzed separately to reveal “the two phases of spatialization and figuration” {26}.

Casti thus creates an opposition between, on the one hand, the figurative realm of spatial fact and, on the other, the symbolic realm of deeper and more authentic cultural meanings. As we will see, some metrics are mixed, but the topographical metric is concerned solely with the figurative realm/layer: the figurative realm becomes mimetic representation and the symbolic realm atrophies into insignificance.

Casti does not say outright that maps made on the topographical metric are “bad,” but she certainly buys into the “maps-are-bad” critique (Brückner 2008, 30). She uses terms that carry shades of negativity and inferiority when referring to “topographic maps based on Cartesian logic”: they are “neither the only possible maps nor the best”; their signs possess only “univocal meaning”; they are “abstracted” and “incomplete” {esp. 17, 22}. And she concludes her discussion of the inherently conceptualizing cartographic metrics by noting how they all came to a sad end at the hands of modern science:

All this evokes, in contrast, the devastating semiotic effect topographic metrics have had on territory, in virtually effacing the transmission of its social meaning. {20}

Once upon a time there were all these wonderful maps that permitted rich, deep, social and cultural interpretation of territory, but the development of topographic metrics “devastated” that richness by removing the possibility of any such interpretation (“effacing the transmission of . . . meaning”).

So, let’s turn to Casti’s map history.

An historical narrative of mapping

Casti’s symbol/sign duality is the basis of a grand narrative of map history, although this narrative requires Casti to permit a degree of intersection between the functions of description and conceptualization, and between the analog and digital communication systems. Her narrative rests upon the various cartographic “metrics” that she establishes on the principle that, historically, each society has a dominant spatiality:

The history of cartography shows that several different metrics were developed over time. And these metrics, which shaped cartographic representation, are in fact declinations of a given concept of spatiality. They derive from different concepts of space in different cultures . . . {17}

She proceeds to outline six different metrics and spatialities as revealed by the historical record {17–20}:

1) the “ecumenical space of Greece, when the world was identified with inhabited territory.” This metric is not further explained.

2) the “creationist space embraced in the Middle Ages, when the world was conceived in terms of a divine plan.” This metric is exemplified by the thirteenth-century Ebstorf world map, with its vignettes of Christ’s head, hands, and feet. [n3] In addition, Fra Mauro’s ca. 1450 world map, south-oriented and with a Mediterranean derived from medieval sea charts, represents a transitional moment as it blended the medieval, creationist metric with the presentation of information from travellers and mariners; Fra Mauro himself sought an empirical statement. Casti accordingly states that Fra Mauro’s map is simultaneously part of the areal metric.

3) the “reticular space typical of the Roman period, which privileged distance based on the system of roads devised for imperial control.” This metric is exemplified by the Peutinger map, the twelfth-century scroll of Roman origin that famously shows the topological network (the reticule) of most of the roads of the Roman empire in a topographically distorted image.

3) the “hodological notion, attested by nautical maps and based on the actual plotting of linear space along sea routes.” (Hodology is the study of pathways.) This metric is exemplified by a sixteenth-century chart of the Atlantic basin by Battista Agnese (see Huntington HM 27, fol. 5v–6r), with an apparent emphasis on the routes along coastlines.

5) the “areal view of space in the Renaissance, as dominion over territory sanctioned by seignories was coupled with extensive territorial surveys”; and

6) “topographic space, developed around the time of the Enlightenment, as exact measurements became the standard for confirming the boundaries of national states.”

Note that both the Peutinger map and Agnese's chart are grounded in experience and knowledge and as such also intersect with an areal metric.

Casti skips over any examples from the Renaissance of any strictly areal metric and plunges directly into the discussion of the modern topographical metric, the apparent creation of Enlightenment. Note that in this section she does not reproduce any exemplar maps.

(tangential rant) The failure to reproduce any maps is unfortunately a common strategy among scholars who seek to characterize the nature of “the map.” Without specifying the maps under discussion—whether road maps, analytic maps, territorial maps, hydrographic maps, world maps, etc.—these scholars exploit preexistent concepts of “the map.” Regardless of how maps manifest great variation in form and function, they are implicitly all the same; any map can serve to characterize maps, so no map needs to be specified. The lack of specificity enforces the reader’s collusion: “we all know what maps are,” proclaims scholars, even as they are defining them, “so we don’t need to be specific or show what we mean.” The hegemony of the normative map is perpetuated; the ideal of cartography is sustained.

For Casti, the topographical metric is a combination of “Cartesian logic” and “Euclidean geometry”; it abstracts the world through measurement and semiotic codification, all “divorced from any social interpretation.” Driven by modern statist concerns—the state having become a “territorial actor”—the topographic metric is all about reproducing the physical world in parvo and limiting the potential interpretation of maps to strictly surficial meanings. The semiotic violence perpetrated by the topographical mode continues with its “annihilation of the third dimension and flattening of the earth” {21}. Somehow this statist perspective also generates “a national consciousness” but the discussion is so brief as to be impenetrable, at least in the essay. It would seem that Casti’s tangent re nationalism is the mechanism by which she can combine what for me are quite distinct mapping modes within the big umbrella of the topographical metric: smaller-scale regional mapping and larger-scale topographical surveys.

Flaws . . .

Casti’s account of early and modern maps constitutes a seductive narrative of declension: humans made rich, polyvocal maps that operated at both surficial and deeper levels of meaning. Then, over time, those maps grew increasingly factual, their signs functioning only to differentiate one location from another, addressing only the map’s isomorphic relationship to the world, and lacking any capacity for symbolic interpretation. Casti’s narrative emulates those in a number of works by geographers and philosophers who take the ideal of cartography at face value. I think here of David Harvey, for example, who asserted that the modern endeavor of cartography comprises a single process that ever since the Renaissance has “treated” space “as the dead, the fixed, the undialectical, the immobile” (Harvey 1989, 204). (I am still amused that the maps Harvey reproduced to exemplify the more authentic “sensuous” maps of older periods were actually from the later Renaissance.) Casti’s location of modern cartography’s origin in the Enlightenment draws on the historical myth of the Enlightenment Project that sought to disenchant the world by disenchanting the technologies of knowledge production (Horkheimer and Adorno 1972). In her article, Casti drew extensively on Michel de Certeau’s Practice of Everyday Life and especially on his arguments that the only authentic means to experience and understand a city is to walk through it, to resurrect the itinerary mode that he asserted had been swamped and dispelled by Renaissance maps (de Certeau 1984, 120).

Like these other arguments, Casti’s relies on an unthinking equivalency between the geometry of the map and the supposed “spatiality” of a society. Casti’s different metrics are not derived from a careful analysis of the different ways in which people have thought in different societies about space and spatial complexity, but stem from an opportunistic selection of images that she claims characterize how the originating society thought about spatial relationships. Each metric is hegemonic.

The empirical record, however, is full of variety and variation. Many societies have made different kinds of maps to show the same thing. For example, the Greeks mapped the oikumene (ecumene) both in the circular periodos ges consumed by the general populace and in the maps structured by latitude and longitude produced by astrologers and philosophers like Claudius Ptolemy. Furthermore, each society made different maps in quite different styles reflecting markedly different spatial conceptions, all at the same time. The Roman reticular Peutinger map thus contrasts strongly with planimetric city maps and planimetric cadastral plans.

Casti can only acknowledge these variations as indicating transitions between periods/metrics. The most recent transition, in process today, shifts us from the topographical metric to the postmodern and necessarily fragmented understanding of the modern urban environment (as per Harvey 1989 and de Certeau 1984):

For de Certeau experiencing a city forces the subject to abandon topographical space, to deny the exclusive assertion of its material status to go ‘beyond,’ to recover the cultural dimension of territory. {20}

Such arguments represent a drastic simplification of how people think, and have thought, about space and spatial complexity, a simplification that is grounded in a fundamental misconception about the difference between cognitive and social conceptions of space. This is the individualistic preconception, one of the many preconceptions engendered by the ideal of cartography: specifically, maps are presumed to be direct replications of the mind of the map maker. Forget the fact that, from a semiotic perspective, the externalized map is necessarily a social construct—because semiosis is ineluctably social, as each assemblage of signs is created by one person to be read by another—whereas the internal, cognitive map is a neurobiological construct. The failure to appreciate this difference is the core of the misidentification of the wall mural from neolithic Çatalhüyök to be a map. The failure is also the cause of easily made and apparently persuasive arguments that paint the history of cartography both in overly broad strokes and as a declension from some pre-scientific past when maps were authentic creations of the human mind to the present when science has ordered and sterilized the modern mind.

But then, I find it very difficult to take seriously any map history that blithely rehearses the tired old canard—a truly zombie myth—that the medieval church insisted that the world was flat: “the Venetian planisphere is the work of a monk [Fra Mauro] who must follow the dictates of the Church, according to which all theories concerning the spherical shape of the Earth were to be rejected as heretical” {17}. This is absolute and complete rot. Casti cited David Woodward’s (1987b) essay on medieval world maps from volume one of The History of Cartography with respect to the Ebstorf map {31n9}, but she clearly hasn’t read the huge quantity of evidence marshaled in that essay about the widespread medieval acceptance of the earth’s sphericity (see also Edson 1997, 2007 on medieval mappaemundi, Russell 1991 and Garwood 2007 re the history of the myth of the medieval flat earth, and Cattaneo 2011 re Fra Mauro, Ptolemy, and the study of geography in fifteenth-century Venice).

Casti’s historical narrative is a tremendous oversimplification that relies for its effect on readers’ sharing the hegemonic precepts of the ideal of cartography. Many of its details are wrong. (The Ebstorf map was in fact destroyed during WW2, not just damaged as Casti states; the image reproduced in the article, and in the earlier book, is a color drawing made after the war based on rather poor monochrome photographs taken before the war. Triangulation became widespread not in the later seventeenth century, as claimed, but only after 1800. Agnese’s map is not actually a map of the world, as it was labeled. And so on.) There is much greater variation in the historical record than Casti lets on. Fundamentally, all maps are open to “symbolic interpretation.” And Casti provides no mechanism for the changes between metrics, other than changing cognitive spatial structures (not a thing) and the rise of some monolithic Science (also not a thing).

I doubt Casti cares about these flaws. Her historical narrative is not intended to actually serve as history; it is not intended as an explanation or characterization of how and why people made maps in the past. Casti does not engage with the maps she does reproduce, even to the point of failing to credit their sources; they are of interest to her only to the extent that they demonstrate different “spatialities.” Like those other scholars who have advanced cartographic narratives of cultural declension, hers is strictly a rhetorical device, one specifically intended to sustain and justify an overwrought theory of “cartographic semiosis.”

To the extent that I am able to understand Casti’s theory, I find it to be thoroughly wrong-headed. Casti’s conception of maps and mapping seems to have ossified in about 1980. In 1978, Jürgen Schulz had pioneered the application of Panofsky’s iconology to a map, in his interpretation of Jacopo de’ Barbari’s incredible 1500 view of Venice in six sheets (Schulz 1978; see also Howard 1997; Romanelli, Biadene, and Tonini 1999). To validate this first iconological analysis of any cartographic work, Schulz needed to establish that Jacopo’s view was as much an iconological work as any work of art. And to do that, Schulz had to explain at length that early modern maps fell into two categories:

One consists of maps and plans of a narrowly cartographic content, the function of which must have been simply to report geographical and topographical facts. The other comprises maps and views with an ideal content, material that must have had a didactic intent. Drawings of the second group sometimes make use of data drawn from those of the first, and vice versa, so that cartographically the two groups are interrelated, but in function the differ clearly. (Schulz 1978, 442)

At this very early stage in questioning the normative map, Schulz distinguished between “narrowly cartographic” works, such as sea charts, planimetric urban plans, or regional maps, which were all concerned with spatial facts, and didactic or idealized maps that were more about communicating values and beliefs. Jacopo’s view of Venice was one of the latter and was therefore amenable to iconological interpretation. Sound familiar?

But very soon thereafter, in his own first forays into cultural interpretation, Brian Harley seized upon Schulz’s work and, in adapting the idea of iconology, argued that all maps, even the “narrowly cartographic” ones, were amenable to an iconological analysis (Blakemore and Harley 1980, 76–86; Harley 1983, 1985; see Edney 2005, 72–78). As map scholars turned to map interpretation, they have largely discarded iconology per se and have instead posited that maps have a single mechanism of semiosis (not Casti’s two, one for signs, the other for symbols). Denis Wood and John Fels’ (1986) early and influential reading of a modern road map established this fundamental point. It is now central to the arguments of critical cartographers that the meaning of any map is constructed by the reader (Dodge, Kitchin, Perkins 2009).

Casti remains committed to outmoded conceptions of “maps” as stand alone and self-contained works whose meanings are determined in large part by their creators, such that their semiotic structure limits how they are interpreted (see Casti 2000, 10). In the article, she continually refers to maps, regardless of metric, as being “autonomous.” In this respect, there is absolutely no room in analysis for the contexts of map production and consumption:

Among these theories, cartographic semiosis, designed to investigate the constructive and communicative working of maps, has shown that the basic purposes of a map remain essentially the same, quite independent of the context in which the map was produced. {15}

This quote is either a really trite statement grandly expressed (all maps can have two functions, description and conceptualization) or an incredibly narrow intellectual proposition. Casti elsewhere denied that analysis of maps as objects has relevance to their interpretation. In Reflexive Cartography she stated with respect to the “object-based perspective” on maps and map history, a perspective concerned with the material context of production, that

World-famous researchers, united by a common stock of special skills in the history of cartography, operated in this area without in fact contributing, except in a few isolated cases, to a critical assessment of maps.

Their studies were thus “marginal” to Casti’s own (Casti 2015, 10, 10n13). She further noted,

I believe cartographic features such as watermarking [sic] and heraldry, which were recovered and deemed relevant to cartographic interpretation, should in fact be referred to the competence of experts in the arts and archival systems. (Casti 2015, 12n20)

Neither comment is explained or justified with examples. I read these negative commentaries as being directly targeted at David Woodward, who engaged in detailed studies of the production of maps in sixteenth-century Italy, including several about paper watermarks (Woodward 1987a, 1990, 1996, 2001). Such studies were crucial for his reconstruction of the conditions of the Italian map trade and the manner in which those conditions constrained and enabled cartographic representation (Woodward 2007). The interpretative analysis of early maps in fact demands such foundational information. [n4]

Not that Casti seems really interested in interpreting early maps, beyond using them to demonstrate the validity of her model of semiosis. Her goal is not to pursue historical enquiries but to sustain the supposed exceptionalism of cartography as defined by the normative map. Casti proclaims that maps work differently from other semiotic systems; they are special. This position is the inevitable outgrowth of the misguided notion that maps possess a distinct and unique “cartographic language.” This conviction is misguided for many reasons, not least the fact that mapping uses multiple strategies—gestures, words, physical installations, rituals, numbers, graphics—according to the conventions of their parent spatial discourses. Maps are not bounded by their frame but conceptually integrate with other kinds of texts within the same discourses. Maps are not self-contained and static things that fix space but open and dynamic elements of wider circuits of communication. The paradox of Casti’s model of semiosis is that she argues for the representation in maps of authentic, deep meaning about how the world works, but seeks to do so through a static and unliving medium.

An accumulation of flaws: Bedolina rock 1

Finally . . .

Line drawing of Bedolina rock 1, with earlier and later figures removed; see Delano Smith (1982, fig. 1b)

Line drawing of Bedolina rock 1, with earlier and later figures removed; see Delano Smith (1982, fig. 1b)

What strikes me about Casti’s analysis of Bedolina rock 1 is that it rests on assertions derived from her grand model of cartographic semiosis and its underlying foundation of the history of cartography. Because modern society is pervaded by the topographical metric, we are generally

led to neglect the existence of a double communicative level, of signs—symbols that can be read beyond their strict isomorphism with material reality and depending on iconic goals that could differ between the single maps. {23}

More particularly, the petroglyph has been interpreted entirely through the lens of the topographic metric. Therefore, Casti states, “all the hypotheses advanced so far lack hard evidence or solid arguments: the Bedolina map has yet to be thoroughly deciphered” {26}.

Given that the topographic metric is a function of modernity and modern science, it cannot be relevant to something created 3,000 years or more ago. The petroglyph must therefore have had a symbolic function. Casti’s task is therefore to establish that symbolism:

My assumption along these lines is that this engraving is a map that represents the Camuni territory within a cosmogonic view. {23, original emphasis}

Casti seeks to interpret the petroglyph as a “cosmogonic view” by imposing lessons about the nature of maps derived from the non-topographical metric maps she has discussed, by distinguishing the two layers in the petroglyph that her model requires: the figurative and the symbolic. The figurative, isomorphic base of “spatialization” is formed from the rock, whose surface undulates in three dimensions and thereby, Casti argues, establishes the map’s isomorphism. She then describes the elements of the petroglyph, its lines and enclosures. All well and good: the idea of reading the petroglyph in three dimensions is indeed a new insight and, dare I say, a new contextualization for reading it.

But as Casti works to reveal the petroglyph’s symbolic meaning, she makes a startling admission that two previous studies (Delano Smith 1987; Casey 2002) had in fact held out the possibility that the petroglyph might have symbolic as well as figurative meanings {26}. She thus undermined her own justification for undertaking her study, that no one previously had examined the petroglyph except through the lens of the topographic metric.

Casti then revealed her intellectual pièce de resistance, and in the process demolished both her own overwrought terminology and her flawed conception of the nature and history of maps and mapping. In referencing a “winding course” carved on the petroglyph that looks like a path with a hairpin bend as it ascends a steep hill face, she tried to explain how the carved line is not just part of the three-dimensional layer of figuration, it also belongs to the second semiotic phase of creating the symbolic layer:

For, despite its iconic simplicity, the line can be read both as a sign and as a symbol, if it is connected to the two levels of reading: denotative and connotative. At the first level [figuration], the line undoubtedly refers to practices concerning orientation and mobility. At the second level [symbolism], it could convey either symbolic meanings coming from socially constructed values, or performative meanings that refer to empirically verifiable truths.[note 54] {27, original emphasis}

In note 54, Casti returned to demonstration mode by once again referencing modern maps that she admits are irrelevant to a prehistoric petroglyph:

More specifically, in the field of cartography lines refer to descriptive–functional meanings at the level of denotation (the path of a river, a road, a sea route). At the connotative level, they recall either symbolic meanings (an ascension line in medieval cosmographies, for example) or performative meanings (a boundary in the sense of a threshold, be it territorial, political, sacral, or other). And of course lines [rely] on additional codes to guide readers (colour, for instance: blue for rivers, black for routes, and brown for paths). All this entails a cartographic dimension that would not apply to rock engravings. {33n54}

Talk about conceptual whiplash!! Here we are—almost at the end of an article dedicated to demonstrating that maps possess two layers of meaning (surficial figuration and deeper symbolism), which meanings are expressed through different degrees/ways of encoding signs as opposed to symbols, which meanings contribute to two distinct communicative functions of description and conceptualization, which are historically present or absent in different metrics that manifest different conceptions of space, one of which (the topographical) is entirely lacking in symbolism, all in order to distinguish mapping from any other semiotic system—and Casti explodes it all by admitting not only that one graphic element on a map can denote (figuratively) and connote (symbolically) at the same time but also that such symbolization goes on even in modern maps supposedly based on the topographical metric.

Wow. Just, wow. I’m stunned.

Why not just use the Barthean model of denotation and connotation from the start? It is simple in principle but sustains highly complex interpretations. It is the foundation of most sociocultural map interpretation since Harley. It is tried and tested. It works.

For Barthes, there are only signs (and they are all dyadic: signifier/signified). Meaning is interpreted by the reader, according to discursive context and conventional codes (mapping processes). Maps are not autonomous, self-contained things. “Cartographic language” is not exceptional, but one more semiotic system that integrates with others. There is no single spatiality in any given culture that defines some “metric.” There is no grand historical declension as maps grew culturally sparse and empty of personal significance in the face of the rise of modern science.

Casti’s sudden resort to an entirely different and contradictory semiotic system reveals that her entire model of cartographic semiosis is fundamentally flawed. Rather than investigating how maps work, Casti effectively admits that she has created a complex system specifically to justify and validate the ideal of cartography. Her scholarly process has not been to work from empirical evidence about map signification but to deduce a semiotic model from the ideal’s hegemonic belief system. The process of deduction has required her to mangle basic semiotic concepts so thoroughly that we cannot explain away the resultant intellectual mess on poor translation. Casti’s entire intellectual structure collapses.

It should be no surprise that when Casti does actually try to interpret a map, she cannot reach any conclusion. It is not that she proposes two or three interpretations for Bedolina rock 1, which she cannot then choose between. No, she cannot attempt any interpretation at all for the petroglyph’s putative cosmogonic view. She ends up repeatedly emphasizing the three-dimensional figuration of the petroglyph and is indeed quite unable to articulate any further symbolic meaning. She concludes that the petroglyph should be called a “relief model” and not a “map” {30}, an artificial constraint on “map” that again demonstrates the incapacity of her model of semiosis. And she concludes:

Whatever the message it was meant to convey, the Bedolina map/relief model tells us that its engravers thought it crucial and indispensable for it to be rooted in the morphology of the valley and its landscape. {30}

I suffered through sixteen pages of academese for this? An utterly inconclusive interpretation (“whatever the message it was meant to convey”) and a commentary on the physical nature of the petroglyph that could have been explained in a few pages and without the huge, flawed, so-called historical analysis.

Unlike Casti’s model, Barthean map interpretation requires placing maps into their appropriate contexts, to consider similarities and differences with other maps produced within the same spatial discourses (or interrelated threads of such discourse). To suggest how map signs might connote requires knowledge of their context and that is what is missing for prehistoric cultures; it is what makes the identification, let alone study, of prehistoric maps so difficult. Is the petroglyph a map at all?

9 June and 18 August 2018: minor updates to correct language and ensure all quotes are properly indented.

Jensen Ackles doing his stuff.

Jensen Ackles doing his stuff.


[n1] Casti does broadly cite Reflexive Cartography {30n2}, and in a further note {31n22} refers the reader to a range of pages from the book in support of one portion of the article {20–22, derived from Casti 2015, 33–83}. However, at least two passages of the article are very close and unacknowledged copies of sections of the book: the paragraph starting “The term ‘cartography’ …” {16 = Casti 2015, 8}; and the section on the history of “cartographic metrics” {17–20 = Casti 2015, 213–20}. The article’s material concerning the petroglyphs does represent an advance on the book’s treatment.

[n2] Thus, Turnbull’s (1993) “indexicality” is different from Wood and Fels’ (2010).

[n3] The journal has horribly squashed the reproduction of the Ebstorf map, turning the circle into a squashed oval. The author should have objected to the page proofs.

[n4] Full disclosure: David Woodward was my graduate advisor.


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