The first history of graphical representations of time
Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline
by Anthony Grafton and Daniel Rosenberg
Princeton Architectural Press
2010, 272 pages, 8.7 x 10.7 x 1.1
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Cartographies of Time is literally groovy. As you hold it in your hands, the horizontal corrugations in the cover boards constantly and literally impress you with the subject of the book: the line as the most persistent device for representing notions of time. This gorgeous tome is the first history of graphical representations of time, from the 15th century to the present, as practiced in Europe and the United States. The book is brimming with beautiful photos with deep captions and even deeper expository text.
Just the words “time maps” and “cartographers and chronologists” conjure up a world of complex and ancient almanacs, calendars, charts, and timelines meticulously rendered by eccentric and monkish scriveners, and Cartographies of Time splendidly delivers on that promise. But this is not just a lovely coffee table artifact. Cartographies is scholarly-written while being eminently readable. It tells the stories behind the historians and chart-makers and the fascinating shapes and forms their lines have taken as those lines climb through trees, up ladders, along roads and the contours of the human body, and onto columns, grids, and scrolls – all in the service of meaningfully rendering time and its historical waypoints.
In the text we learn such things as how timelines and chronologies were tweaked to serve the shifting narratives of history. For example, in Christof Helwig’s 17th century chronology, the perhaps aptly named Historical Theater (Theatrum Historicum), the type size used to list the Holy Roman emperors is overshadowed by the type size of the decorative lettering for Charles V. as a form of political propaganda.
One of my favorite excerpts concerns Ben Franklin’s friend, Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg, and his Chronoghraphie Universelle, a 54’ long linear chronology on parchment. To display it, Barbeu-Dubourg invented a special “time machine,” a custom wooden box with scrolling metal cylinders and handles that the viewer could use to crank through history like some proto-microfiche machine.
The book even contains historical examples of visual art concerned with time, such as the art diagrams of Francis Picabia and other Dadaists, and Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping’s “Carte de Mundi,” which depicts fortune cookie-like strips of paper describing future disasters along an eviscerated globe that’s been peeled like an orange.
Visually conceptualizing the march of history is something that we humans have been doing since we started scratching on cave walls, sticks, and bone. Finally there’s a book that attempts to chart the course of this fundamental impulse, at least as its found expression in the European world from the Renaissance onward. – Gareth Branwyn