Art’s on the Map at the Chazen

Art’s on the Map at the Chazen
The “Nova et accuratissima totius terrarum orbis tabula from the Atlas Major, Sive Cosmographia” map from 1662

Think back on your high school notebooks or take a look at the notepad from your last work meeting: Are your margins clean or are they filled with little drawings and scrawled musings? If you’re a doodler, you’re not alone. In fact, as a new exhibition at the Chazen Museum of Art points out, the practice dates back to antiquity.

Marginalia in cARTography, which runs through May 18, focuses on maps from the thirteenth century to the 1960s that feature additional imagery and information in their margins.

The term “marginalia” hails from the early nineteenth century and refers to the scribbles and doodles readers have long added to the margins of books and manuscripts; more recently, it’s been used to describe the images incorporated into the margins of maps and other documents.

Drawn from thirteen libraries across the country, including UW–Madison’s Department of Special Collections and the Robinson Map Library, nearly fifty maps of various sizes make up the exhibition. Some hang in frames on the walls, while others reside in books set in cases.

It’s interesting to see how cartographers from earlier centuries depicted the world, and it’s fascinating to consider what the marginal imagery adds to the maps. As an exhibition introduction states: “Marginal images in cartography should be regarded not only as part of the map, but as elements that lend to a better understanding of the region mapped, of the cartographers, collaborators and patrons, of their aesthetic sense, and of the world in which they were made.”

The marginal drawings include symbols, scenes from the Bible, mythological figures, calendars and elements of science, astronomy, weather and the seasons. One map features cartouches with scenes of cities and people from around the world, while another offers vignettes related to the New World, with portraits of explorers, plans of cities and narrative scenes. 

A handful of maps late in the exhibition provide interesting takes on cartography. “The Man of Commerce” is a map of North America overlapped with the human body, showing the “resemblance between the arteries of commerce as represented by railroads, and the arterial system of man.”

And some of the most recent maps reveal a sense of humor. In “A New Yorker’s Idea of the United States of America,” the state of New York takes up most of the country. And “A True and Undistorted Map of the U.S.A. Made in Wisconsin” shows Wisconsin occupying the majority of the country and touting beer, cheese, Paul Bunyan, colleges and agriculture; the remainder of the country is filled with notes such as “Los Smogeles,” the Upper Peninsula referred to as “part of Wisconsin rented by Michigan,” the “World’s Most Superior Lake,” and it has Illinois practically touching the Gulf of Mexico.

Marginalia in cARTography runs through May 18 at the Chazen Museum of Art. For more information, visit