Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Bellin's Buenos Aires (1760)

Cambridge, January 8, 2013

As it turns out, our great encyclop├ędiste cartographer Jacques-Nicolas Bellin also made a map of Buenos Aires.  Is there a city of which Bellin didn't make a map of?!  Who knows, maybe he's a character out of a story by Calvino or Borges that drew a map of every city.

In any case, Bellin's is a rather unusual map of Buenos Aires.  Although one can certainly recognize the grid, here the geometry is not taken as an underlying principle, let's say as an abstract construct, but just as a fact on the ground: where the grid is materialized it appears in the drawing, otherwise it's simply not there.  We get a much more irregular image of the city.  Yet, when it comes to "La Grande Place" Bellin can't seem to help himself.  We know that the plaza was, still is, a rectangle made up of two square blocks.  And we've seen it drawn in all sort of dimensions, two and even three blocks wide.  But Bellin makes it a tad smaller than two blocks wide (he ingeniously disguises the irregularity at the corner of the cathedral) so it turns into a perfect square... as any good Frenchman would know a proper "Grand Place" should be.

Most interestingly, the map is oriented with the river at the top.  That mean that east is up.  I've seen maps of Buenos Aires oriented with east down (the earlier ones) and with north up.  But this is the only map of Buenos Aires I know of oriented that way.  Why would he do that?  I don't know, but I suspect there is a whole history of the orientation of maps.

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