WHAT DOES HISTORY LOOK LIKE? How do you map time? In this exhibition, historians Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton–drawing from their celebrated book, Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline– explore the emergence of modern visions of history through graphic representation. Rarely viewed books, manuscripts, charts, and other ingenious devices– drawn primarily from the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections of the Princeton University Library–illustrate a history of visual innovation that stretches from the manuscripts of late medieval Europe through the rise of modern print technologies.
Cartographies of Time focuses on the mutually influential developments of historical thought and graphics, highlighting the emergence of the timeline as both a graphic and an imaginative tool. The works exhibited follow a kind of timeline of their own, beginning with a medieval scroll listing the kings of France and England. Such genealogical scrolls emphasized the continuity of families, sometimes from the creation of the world. But, as the exhibition demonstrates, by the beginning of the sixteenth century, chronologists were experimenting with new and rediscovered graphic forms.
Among early European forms, the tabular grid– a reinterpretation of the model promoted by the Roman Christian theologian Eusebius–was preeminent. Early modern chronologists also borrowed from theological allegory, as in the illustration to Lorenz Faust’s An Anatomy of Daniel’s Statue (1585), where the rulers of four monarchies are inscribed within the image of the biblical king of Babylon. [Illustrated at right.] In addition, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century chronologists relied on the work of astronomers to provide reliable dating; striking chronological graphics–such as those in the magnificent Astronomicum Caesareum (1540) by Petrus Apianus– integrate astronomical and historical data.
By the eighteenth century, chronologists thought it logical that time, like space, could be measured and mapped in an intuitive visual format, and a powerful new visual vocabulary for history emerged, emphasizing an analogy between historical time and the measured line. In the 1750s and 1760 scholars published timelines rigorously measured to scale.
But while these new linear timelines quickly became ubiquitous, and their productions were often strikingly beautiful, historians continued to experiment with novel systems of reference and mnemonics. Stunning examples include a hand-colored chart designed by the Austrian chronologist Frederich Strass (1804), depicting world history as a series of flowing rivers, and one devised by the American educator Emma Willard in 1846, representing historical time as a Greek temple.
Still, this diversity only made clearer the visual force of the measured, linear timeline, which had become embedded in European and American historical consciousness. In the twentieth century it became usual to speak of “timelines” in reference to historical events themselves, not only their graphic representations. The timeline had become a tool of imagination as well as of information graphics.