The Google Earth of Renaissance Venice

Despite all the romantic hype about getting lost in Venice without a map, there is one map every visitor to this city should seek out as I do whenever I visit the Museo Correr: Jacopo de’ Barbari’s bird’s-eye View of Venice. The historic map that covers an entire wall in the museum is impressive not only due to its large dimensions, but also because of the meticulous attention to detail that unfolds over the map’s six original woodcut blocks.

The mural-size print was unprecedented in scale when it was first published in 1500. Every building, canal and open square is documented here. One imagines De’ Barbari and his assistants climbing up the city’s 103 bell towers in order to survey the dense urban landscape below. The map drew on the work of many surveyors and it took three years to produce but it is clear that De’ Barbari created it mainly through the power of his intellect and imagination.

The map is immensely detailed and gives historians a glimpse into what Venice looked like at the turn of the 16th century. We can distinguish almost every house, making the map a valuable document to study the architecture of the city at the peak of its power. The map also shows us where canals were that don’t exist anymore and how Venice’s population was distributed throughout the city’s 118 islands. And finally, the map also tells us how Venice has changed in the past 500 years, unlike most other cities of its age, size and importance.

Since Venice was built on water, traditional techniques of measurement would not have been used to capture distances and dimensions. Instead, De’ Barbari must have used trigonometry and then applied foreshortening to generate his oblique perspective. These are techniques not adopted by cartographers for many years to come. In fact, the very first aerial photograph was taken by French photographer and balloonist Gaspard-FĂ©lix Tournacho in 1858 over Paris. De’ Barbari’s presentation of all this historical information makes this the Google Earth of its day!

The map is also an important milestone in the history of printmaking. It was printed in sections from six carved wooden blocks, with each part being so large that the individual sheets of paper were the largest ever produced in Europe at the time. When published, the map was very expensive and most copies could only be displayed on walls. This means that only a dozen copies of the original edition are known to survive and, luckily, one of them remains on public view at the Correr.