Salviati Planisphere World Map, 1525

Joanna Wanat’s contribution of the Salviati Planisphere shows how 15th and 16th-century Europeans’ creation of world maps, with large empty spaces inviting exploration of the ‘New World’, marked one possible start of the Anthropocene epoch and helps us to reflect on the global consequences of the ‘explore and conquer’ mentality.

Museum of the Anthropocene: Salviati Planisphere World Map, 1525

Showing the Salviati Planisphere, by Nuno Garcia de Toreno c 1525
Salviati Planisphere, by Nuno Garcia de Toreno c 1525 Photograph: Wikipedia

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Europeans began to create world maps with empty spaces. The Salviati Planisphere is one such map representing the emergence of connection between Old and New Worlds, which some argue marks the start of the Anthropocene epoch. As the unexplored areas are left blank to invite exploration, it helps us to reflect on the global consequences of the ‘explore and conquer’ mentality.

Empty spaces, present on the map, can enable capital accumulation, as designating resource-rich areas as ‘uninhabited’ or in need of management legitimizes displacement of native populations. Subjects are governed through ideas of administering, optimising, and subjection to precise control and regulation.

In this context maps are political tools used to survey, standardize and measure the natural world. They enabled Europeans to draw lines across the territories of native populations without sensing the reality of their political identity. The map allowed them to say “This is my property and this is how I divide it”. While the map is never the reality, in such ways it creates a different reality.

The Salviati Planisphere has elements of the empirical accuracy born of the navigators’ voyages of discovery: there is no imaginary illustration where there is no data available, and Europe is shrunk in relation to other parts of the globe. However, the map emphasizes the ‘otherness’ of the rest of the world by creating a divide between known and unknown while maintaining considerable accuracy on the coastline. We can see how a Spanish view of the world and the rules of measurement are mutually reinforcing in the same image.

The power of the mapmaker is not exercised over individuals but over the knowledge of the world available to people in general. It can be observed in the process of information selection, the way it is generalized, the set of rules for abstraction and sign symbols, the ways elements on the map are formed into hierarchies. It can also be seen in the power behind the cartographers. Monarchs, state institutions, the Church, corporations — all initiate programmes of mapping for their own needs.

Historically, cartography has been a strategy used for surveillance, regulation and control. However, through changes in access to technology and its decentralisation, cartography has been increasingly democratised. People are now able to participate in the cartographic processes, instead of being passive consumers of top-down mapping. An example of this is counter-mapping initiatives that facilitate previously unrepresented voices and correct inequalities. Counter-mapping can be seen as counter-power, where people gain the ability to challenge and resist existing power structures.

Maps are not external to struggles aiming to alter power relations — they can be used as tools to destabilise dominant representations. Thinking of maps as cultural texts can create space for considering alternative visions of what the world is and what it might be. They can help both in analysing the patterns and processes in the Anthropocene and in creating future scenarios.


The Salviati Planisphere World Map was contributed by Joanna Wanat: During her time at university, Joanna developed an interest in understanding how multiple forms of structural inequality overlap. As a result, she started exploring the role of communal spaces in correcting inequalities and their extraordinary impact on our personal and collective wellbeing. She has recently been supporting development of community-led schemes tackling fuel poverty issues. Joanna’s favourite part of the Museum of Anthropocene project was researching tools that challenge existing power structures.

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