Old, New, and Back Again: What’s in a Map?

by Allison Marino May 18, 2022

Note: This is the winning essay of the 2022 Central Texas Glasstire Art Writing Prize.

It took me a long time to start thinking about maps as art objects. While I was learning about maps in art history classes and looking at pictures of them in articles published by art historians, I was more focused on ideas around cartographic history, so my understanding of them was clouded. What were maps about, if not precision, scientific and mathematical accuracy, and objectivity? Art is the opposite — subjective, rife with interpretative possibilities. The last “subjective” interpretation I had of a map was from the passenger seat of my mom’s car during our road trip from Florida to Texas in the summer of 2020. My “creative interpretation” of Apple Maps is what had led us to where we were: an hour’s drive off of our intended highway route.

Slowly but surely — two seminar papers and an undergraduate thesis later, to be exact — I warmed to the idea that, for most of history, the functionality of maps was not foremost about getting people where they needed to go. The contemporary blinders that I wore limited my understanding of maps as complex works of art that served varied purposes to different people and cultures throughout history. They also shackled me to a Eurocentric mindset that saw topographic objectivity and mapping as inherently linked.

A 16th century, hand-drawn map of the town of Epazoyuca. The map is an aerial view, featuring a church-shaped building at the center, and other rectangular buildings surrounding it

Map of Epazoyuca, from the “Relación de Epazoyuca,” 1580

When it came time for me to choose a topic for my master’s thesis, I became fascinated by the body of maps included in the Relaciónes geográphicas, a group of texts produced in the late-sixteenth century in response to a survey distributed by the Spanish crown. In line with King Philip II’s campaign to map (and consequently solidify Spain’s influence over) its newly, violently acquired territories, his royal cosmographer, Juan López de Velasco, sent a 50-question survey across the Atlantic to Spanish officials in the so-called “New World.” Respondents were asked for information about the foundational history, natural history, and resources of the respective cities they inhabited. Their responses conveyed the sheer awe with which they viewed these Native cities, their peoples, and governments.

From an art lover’s perspective, the most striking part of most of these texts was the intricately detailed, hand-painted maps included therein. These maps, a vast majority of which were produced by Native artists, vary greatly in terms of style and information conveyed. Some, like the map from the Relación de Epazoyuca (c. 1580), show the city in relation to its bountiful local flora. Others, like an image of Cholula from the Relación of 1581, emphasize the dual presence of Native and Spanish spiritual customs in the city — churches stand alongside a massive temple complex near the top right, named on the map in Nahuatl: “Tlachihualtepetl.” 

A 16th century, hand-drawn map of the town of Cholula. The map is an aerial view, featuring detailed drawings of multiple churches, and crudely drawn versions of other buildings.

Map of Cholula, from the “Relación de Cholula,” 1581

Despite the distinct beauty individual to each and every last one of these maps, no image intrigued me quite like the approximately seven-inch circular map included in the Relación de Teozacoalco y Amoltepec (1580). Contained inside the delicately drawn boundaries of this circle are a plethora of symbols that stem from the Native pictorial tradition and represent the history and geography of the towns depicted. Teozacoalco, the cabecera (or the “head town”; the administrative center) of this specific Spanish region is represented to the left of the circle by the two larger buildings with crosses at their peaks — one, a church; the other, a cabildo, or meeting house for officials. Surrounding these buildings, the thirteen smaller churches represent Teozacoalco’s estancias (dependencies or estates). In maps produced in and of cities of New Spain, churches were the established symbols of townships. The “agreement” between the maps’ elite Native painters, patrons, and officials who approved their distribution was that, so long as churches were somehow incorporated, the painter could depict his city however he wished. 

Like many others, the painter of this map chose to show not only the natural landscape of his city — its mountains, rivers, trees and plants (like the flowers and cacti decorating its circular borders), but also its history and social relationships. Pairs of humans, drawn facing one another in vertical columns both inside the circle and proceeding towards the left of the page, represent the royal couples central to the mythology and genealogy of Teozacoalco’s foundation.

Inhabitants of different roles and social status walk Teozacoalco’s borders on the map. Animals, like snakes and birds, trod alongside them. This aspect of the map is my favorite. The painter conveys his appreciation of his environment by emphasizing the coexistence and mutually dependent relationships of humans, flora, and fauna. The map’s artist strives not only to depict his city, but also to celebrate the cyclical relationship that allows it to exist. What the earth provides for humans, humans respect, appreciate, and care for, and thus give back to the earth.

A 16th century map depicting the town of Teozacoalco. The map is circular and intricately drawn fearuring many small figures and lines.

Map of Teozacoalco from the “Relación de Teozacoalco y Amoltepec,” 1580

The prompt for this Art Writing Prize asked me to consider a work of art that I love, and why. It may come across a bit tongue-in-cheek that I decided to write about a work I discovered through my own academic research. There’s a bit more to it, however. When people ask me why I love art history, I tell them that, more than anything, I’m thankful for it. Studying the objects of so many different people, cultures, and periods has changed my entire worldview. I can’t read the news without thinking about how what I’m reading is so eerily similar to something that’s happened before. I must consider the central role that cultural politics and cultural heritage play in shaping rhetoric around current events. And now, I can’t look at a map without thinking about the ones that came before it. The functionality and appearance of these daily tools has changed so much over time — getting someone from point A to point B is only one of the many purposes maps have served throughout history.

And so, I write about the map of Teozacoalco not for brownie points, but because it’s representative of how, through art history, something as commonplace as Apple Maps has taken on new meaning for me. And of course, this essay merely scratches the surface of what the Teozacoalco map, and the sixty-eight other maps included in the Relaciónes geográphicas, offer. I implore you to keep exploring them, as they have so much to give.

The thick blue and red lines running across the map of Teozacoalco represent the rivers and trails that people traveled to form and sustain the city. If you take a closer look, you can see a trail of footprints* lining them. The alternating steps of man and horse, markers of the reciprocity between humans and the earth, are forever imprinted in the landscape by the map’s painter. Looking at the image, you might consider the footprints that you leave behind as you traverse the landscape of your daily life.

And, as you do, you might consider how they honor the ones that came before.


*The term “trail of footprints” comes from the title of Alex Hidalgo’s book, Trail of Footprints: A History of Indigenous Maps from Viceregal Mexico (Austin: The University of Texas Press, 2019).

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