The beauty of digitising the past at the Bodleian


The (superficial) beauty of The Infographic History of the World 1


The Infographic History of the World, by Valentina D’Efilippo and James Ball, is the product of a graphic designer (D’Efilippo) and a Guardian data journalist (Ball) – and others, both individuals and organisations, unmentioned on its cover. ‘History’, in the title, encompasses both natural history and human history; the book shares something, therefore, with the pre-modern notion of historia to which professional historians of history and early modern scholarship have become increasingly sensitised in recent years, but which is unfamiliar to most. Statements such as ‘there’s been a lot of history since the beginning of time’ will jar with academics; this non-professional usage of ‘history’ conflates the past (the thing of which there has been a lot) with the study of the past (the discipline of history) and its scholarly products (of which there have admittedly been quite a lot too).

The absence of professional historical insight shows itself in other ways as well. Thus, in breaking the history of the world into four periods, the authors designate 1900 as the beginning of the ‘modern period’, departing – I guess unintentionally – from the conventional periodisation used by academics. On the other hand, the authors are conscious of deviating from historical tradition in treating, in their first section, ‘history before humanity’ with a little ‘geology and astronomy too’. But their first infographic, ‘In the beginning’, is strikingly reminiscent, in its intended coverage, if not its precise content, with the opening pages of works like the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) and Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia (1544). There is, indeed, a very long tradition of histories of the world that start at the very beginning of everything and cover the structure of the cosmos as well as its origins… If such things seem odd to us now, it is partly because – via cosmography – this material ended up in atlases, where it can often still be found. Since they too are visually-rich, and not, as this section of the book is, monochromatic, the reader might be forgiven for being disappointed with its lack of originality as well as its muted aesthetic appeal. The latter is due to the decision to utilise an increasing number of colours and more ‘modern’ fonts and style as the book progresses, cleverly marking the march to ‘modernity’ in a visual way throughout the course of the volume. Alas, this cleverness comes at the expense of the early infographics’ visual impact and clarity. It also means that much of the text in the book is difficult to read.

The similarities with certain modern atlases extend into the second section, ‘Getting Civilised’, beginning as it does with infographics on the different species of the genus Homo, the constituents of the human body, and world population. Animal domestication, the evolution of forms of male and female clothing, the development of musical instruments, and the emergence of different forms of visual art are amongst the other topics treated here. The infographic conveying the latter is another good example of how a clever idea has been pursued at the expense of economical communication: a paint-by-numbers style outline of the Mona Lisa, representing time from bottom-left to top-right, is broken up into blocks representing innovations, coloured according to region of origin, and hatched, dotted, or otherwise marked to represent genre of art (painting and drawing, print-making, sculpture, etc). But only the millennium, century, or decade of the innovation is actually written in these blocks; to find out what development is being referred to, it is necessary to consult the key, which includes five miniature Mona Lisa outlines, each of which shows one of the categories of art and lists, underneath it, the artistic developments in question. In trying to make sense of it all, I found it easiest to read the lists and ignore the graphic material.

(to be continued)


The beauty of Taschen facsimiles

cover_va_book_of_miracles_int_1309231705_id_719659I really do not know how how Taschen manage it – or why, if they can, other publishers cannot. They seem to have the monopoly on the production of (relatively) affordable reproductions of visually-rich works of historic interest. The latest of these to have come to my attention is The Book of Miracles – a facsimile of a stunning mid-sixteenth-century illustrated manuscript produced in Augsburg and dealing with wondrous events in the creator’s ancient and medieval past, present, and – as suggested by the Book of Revelation – future. (In keeping with the widespread apocalypticism of the time, this last span of time was not expected to be very long).

Thanks to Facebook (by which, through colleagues, I was alerted to the publication of this volume), Amazon (where I added it, in hope rather than expectation, to my wish list), a ‘milestone’ birthday, and a pair of very generous friends, I am now the delighted owner of a copy of this Taschen reproduction. It has joined, in my library, several equally stunning volumes in facsimile: the Nuremberg Chronicle, Andreas Cellarius’s Harmonia Macrocosmica, and a number of volumes of the Blaeu Atlas Maior.

Thank you, Taschen. And in case you’re reading this, a facsimile of the 1550 Latin edition of Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia would make the perfect companion to these volumes…


The (prospective) beauty of Beautiful Science

I’m a professional historian of science with an interest in data visualisation and the author of this blog. Ergo, I shall at some point be visiting the British Library’s exhibition Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight (although quite when that will happen I have yet to work out). When I do, if I have anything to say about it, I shall say it here.

In the meantime, I just wanted to note that, while nosing around the website to see if there was an exhibition publication (there isn’t), I hit upon the section of their online shop with tie-in products. Here, I am pleased to note, appears not only David McCandless’s Information is Beautiful, but also Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton – and now available in paperback. This splendid book is an excellent riposte to anyone who might suppose that data visualisation is a twentieth-century innovation, and serves equally well to rebut the claim that visualisation and history can have nothing to do with one another. I shall try to say something about it in a future post as well.

The beauty of Wellcome Images

On 21 January 2014 the Wellcome Trust announced that it was releasing the thousands of images in the Wellcome Library’s online image library for personal and commercial use under a Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0. High-resolution images can now be freely downloaded from Wellcome Images for use on blogs like this and in other publications.

To celebrate this wonderful and generous initiative, I reproduce here a page from a late-medieval folded almanac displaying Homo signorum – the man of signs, or ‘zodiac man’.

L0010970 Folding AlmanacCredit: Wellcome Library, London. License: CC BY 4.0.