Subjective Atlas of Hungary


No less than three people recommended the Subjective Atlas of Hungary to me before I finally got over to Irok Boltja to buy a copy, but oh how I enjoyed the colorful, jam-packed volume once I did. Familiar in theme, and at times with the artist of the work, this was a breezy trip through a many sided Hungary.


Part of a series of Subjective Atlases, the different images by 50 artists:

“express the way cultural identity is always in motion, influenced from many sides, and multicultural by definition.

As Lajos Parti Nagy puts it in his introduction: “Whoever encounters this strange and self-evident book, can learn strange and self-evident things about Hungary.”

For me, as my 10 months here is ending and I leave tomorrow for a few more adventures before heading back to the U.S., it’s really interesting to find how much more meaningful many of the works, and their inside jokes and references are, after my time here. My subjective atlas of Hungary has changed significantly.

But now, time to pack for the Balkans.


Details in 16th c. Map Illustration

Details of old maps are perhaps more interesting than the thing being mapped. Originally luxurious and imaginative, map surveys were sponsored by wealthy nobles, for whom they were a sign of prestige. The blank spaces were made as visually appealing as possible with fantastic sea creatures spouting across oceans and such rumored things. In the 1585 map of Iceland below, creatures surround the island. Check out the polar bears, who seem to be in a tight situation.

Details from other 16th c. maps below shows the same elaborate and fantastic decorative work in blank spaces, much as illuminated manuscripts’ margins were filled with detailed miniature scenes. However, these maps were not drawn by hand but used new printings techniques. Details like this show how the Renaissance straddled a time of belief and tradition and one of discovery and science.

Limits of My World: Words and Maps

“Hemispheriu,” 1593
“The limits of my language are the limits of my world” runs a paraphrase of Wittgenstein, and never has this seemed more true than when I came across a collection of fantastic old maps as I was in the midst of reading The Secret Life of Words, a history of the English language. I’m on the Powwow chapter, and guess what? The English language is adapting to the discovery of the New World.
“Universale,” 1546
As further reaches of the new world were explored, a much more detailed coastline appears, even while the interior remained blank (or filled with fanciful pictures of native people and animals).

“The North part of America Conteyning Newfoundland, new England, Virginia, Florida, new Spaine, and Nova Francia,” 1625

The Western coastline protrayed (more or less) correctly in the first two maps has changed strangely here–California is an island! A misinformed Spanish letter came into the hands of the Dutch, and Dutch and English cartographers subsequently replicated this mistake for a hundred plus years. At this point the Spanish were settling all along the California coast so it seems astounding such a mistake was maitained for so long. It also suggests the large amount of imagination mapmakers of the time used to fill in blank areas. The cartographer was imagining a coastline that fit in with the scant information he had.

Right above Virginia you can see “James Citie,” or Jamestown, which became the first permanent settlement of the English in 1607. After 1607, English settlers were adapting to their new enviornment and dealing with the natives of “New India.” As horizons expanded geographically, English appropriated new words to describe it. Here are some words that entered the English language in the 16th and 17th c. as England began to explore and colonize the new world:

to smoke

I don’t know if you can read the place names listed, but this detail includes Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard. English maps gradually filled the blank spaces with names we recognize even today. The Native Americans’ presence in the English language was simularly reduced, to a handful of words and geographical names. Considering maps and words as signs of how the English concieved of the New World suggests a place of vast possibilities and exotic plants and animals with origins more in the imagination than in reality.

Detail of map header, labelling it “The North part of America.”