In Italy, Creating Worlds Takes Precision, Yes, and Politics
IMPRUNETA, Italy — It has been said that wars are a way of teaching geography. And maps are caught up in the strife.
“The problems of cartography are the same that exist in diplomatic relations,” said Stefano Strata, a co-director of Nova Rico, a company that has been making custom globes for 50 years in this small town near Florence better known for its terra cotta.
For mapmakers like Nova Rico, geographic disputes are commonplace. For a Turkish customer, Cyprus is shown split in two, a division that Greek Cypriots do not recognize. On one globe, Chile is given parts of Antarctica that on another globe go to Argentina. And in much of the Arab world, Israel is nonexistent.
The world of globes is quite small, and Nova Rico is one of the biggest and best-known companies in the business. It is also the only globe maker remaining in Italy.
When working on a commission, Mr. Strata and his business partner, Riccardo Donati, receive precise instructions, sometimes from government officials. In the 1980s, President Saddam Hussein of Iraq commissioned Nova Rico to draft a globe with all the Arab countries colored orange and the rest of the world yellow. Iraqi military advisers came to Impruneta to monitor production.
“It was clearly a political globe,” Mr. Strata said.
Sometimes, the problem is in the name. Mr. Donati recalled an Iranian diplomat who threatened to boycott a globe that called the gulf between Saudi Arabia and Iran the Arabian Gulf, instead of the Persian Gulf.
Mr. Donati noted, “Most people now just say the gulf.”
Most of Nova Rico’s globes — the company produces more than a million a year — go to the European market and are of a standard type. Even when nations do disappear, the geography is precise. “No one ever asked us to make their country bigger,” Mr. Donati said.
Vladimiro Valerio, an expert in the history of cartography on the architecture faculty at the University of Venice, called mapmaking a blend of science and art. “Maps aren’t faithful portraits of reality but subjective constructions,” he said. “Maps reflect the design for which they are to be used. They reflect who commissioned it.”
In sum, he said, “cartographers don’t lie, but they take a position.”
Maps have existed for millennia, ever since humans began to track where the hunting was good or which pass was safe to cross. Then man “began to modify the parameters of the map as his needs changed,” giving birth to urban maps, itineraries and nautical maps, Mr. Valerio wrote in a brief introduction to cartography for a Florentine museum.
“All maps are good, but they are all different,” he said. “And in this difference, you get a glimpse of our past and present.”
Three centuries ago, said James R. Akerman of the Newberry Library in Chicago, “political boundaries were not as defined on maps in many instances, as they are now, and were often more fluid in practice, so cartographers did not give them the same level of attention that they do now.”
But changes like the breakup of the Soviet Union and the fragmentation of Yugoslavia have kept Nova Rico and other mapmakers in motion. “From the end of World War II to 1989 nothing changed, and we thought things would stay the same for another 100 years,” Mr. Donati said. “Luckily we are small and flexible, so things didn’t go so badly.”
The computer age has also revolutionized cartography, as have programs like Google Earth. But cartography lovers contend that there is nothing like an atlas or a globe.
“Part of the attraction is having them as objects, for their appeal or pleasure or as a signal of status,” said Mr. Akerman, who is director of the Hermon Dunlap Smith Center for the History of Cartography, which is part of the Newberry Library.
The Internet, he said, will never replace the act of poring over a map to plan a trip.
“Navigation is about more than going from one point to the next,” he said. “It’s about fulfilling one’s aspirations.”