Published: 05.10.07
Institute of Cartography

The geography of literature

A research group at ETH Zurich’s Institute of Cartography is developing a literary atlas of Europe. The first maps will be presented at an Experts’ Conference taking place from 4 to 7 October 2007 at the University of Göttingen.

Gabrielle Attinger
The map excerpt shows a setting from “Albin Indergand” (1901), a historical Alpine novel written by Ernst Zahn. Three of the features typical of literary scenes of action are visualised here in an animated map: settings without an exact demarcation (brown), a transformed place name (Anderhalden instead of Wassen, orange) and settings that cannot be located precisely (yellow, moving. Click on the image for animation).
The map excerpt shows a setting from “Albin Indergand” (1901), a historical Alpine novel written by Ernst Zahn. Three of the features typical of literary scenes of action are visualised here in an animated map: settings without an exact demarcation (brown), a transformed place name (Anderhalden instead of Wassen, orange) and settings that cannot be located precisely (yellow, moving. Click on the image for animation). (large view)

The project combines Geography and Literary Studies, and sheds an entirely new light on landscapes, towns and fictional stories, yielding the Atlas of European Literature which is being created at ETH Zurich’s Institute of Cartography. The instigator is the literary scientist Barbara Piatti. She wrote her doctoral thesis on the possibility of locating literary settings by cartography. The interdisciplinary project’s aim is to write the history of literature from the viewpoint of the setting, i.e. the location of the action. However, literature can create new places, transform real locations or merge them with others. Existing towns can be altered or completely fictional regions can be created. Thus the literary atlas must display an enormous bandwidth of alternatives. According to Piatti, this claim is what distinguishes the project from previous literary geography that merely identified the location of the literature but made no distinction between the various levels of authenticity.

To ETH Zurich via the atlas of Switzerland

She said a literary geographic tradition already existed in the early 20th century. The tradition died out, however, and was not revived until the nineteen nineties. The impetus for this originated from the US: Franco Moretti published an atlas of the European novel in 1999.

“That was my starting point,” says Barbara Piatti. “I described my own ideas on this subject in my doctoral thesis and also made small maps to accompany them. However, I soon noticed that I would not progress further without help from a cartographer.” The digital “Atlas of Switzerland” the most modern cartographic work on the market, led her to ETH Zurich Professor Lorenz Hurni. She asked him if he was interested in collaboration. He was, and immediately invited other experts to collaborate in the project, including William Cartwright, Professor of Cartography at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and since August President of the International Cartographic Association.

Cartography with movement

Barbara Piatti had already used the Lake of Lucerne and Gotthard region as a model region in her doctoral thesis. This region appears particularly often in literature. Piatti found more than 150 works of literature by authors from all parts of the world that are wholly or partly set in this area. The centres of gravity in this internationally moulded literary landscape are Lucerne, the Lake of Uri and the Gotthard region. The region has an even denser literary population if journeys through it are drawn in. The plan is for the atlas of literature to display these movements of the characters through the territory as well. William Cartwright explains that “This required the development of custom software to translate the movements into a computer animation.” He specialises in multi-media applications in cartography and joined the project for three months as a visiting professor at ETH Zurich.

Cartwright, together with Barbara Piatti, Hansruedi Bär, who undertook the software programming, and Anne-Kathrin Reuschel, developed the spatial presentation of the literary setting for the interactive maps. The symbolism for settings without precise boundaries was a particular challenge. “The highest possible precision is aimed at in cartography – therefore vague positionings are almost a contradiction of cartography itself,” is how Cartwright puts it.

Political boundaries represented another obstacle. They change continuously, so they must appear at the right place in the chosen period of time. This is all the more important because many literary actions take place in border regions. The researchers are still working out how many of the historical frontiers can be depicted on the maps.

On the interactive maps it should also be possible to follow up projected places, i.e. the wishes of characters in literature to be somewhere different to where they are at the time – dreamt-of places, yearned-for places and places remembered. They will be shown in different colours.

A data base for the whole of Europe

The maps are not trivial illustrations, they are tools for researchers. The information on the maps derives from a data base to which questions of any kind can be addressed. The appropriate map for a topic is then generated automatically. For example a distinction can be made between the origins of the individual authors, thus recognising typically English or typically Swiss settings. Alternatively the period of time can be entered, thereby discovering the fictional geography of a particular epoch. For the Gotthard region, for example, this shows that the area was densely populated in a literary sense until World War I, after which literary players in this region more or less die out.

Thematic indicators reveal that Tell has turned the Rütli meadow and Küssnacht into dead zones: obviously it is impossible to locate another story there because they have too much symbolic baggage. The maps also show which localities for the action are interchangeable and which are not.

The atlas will enable literary historians to take up complex themes and to use the corresponding maps as a starting point for their interpretations. For example it will allow questions such as why there is dense writing about some regions while others remain blank in literary meta-space, or whether there are regions dealt with in literature that have exhausted their potential.

Literary history sans frontières

The long-term future outlook of the Atlas is a new concept of comparative European literary history that does not stop at linguistic or political borders. The vision is for the Atlas of Literature to make the literary heritage of the whole of Europe accessible and communicable.

So far the literature atlas has illustrated three model regions. In addition to the Gotthard region, Barbara Piatti also chose the city of Prague as a highly complex metropolis with an eventful history but still manageable in terms of area, and Schleswig-Holstein, a level area between water and land, and a historic frontier region.

The project is currently on display at a specialist conference in Göttingen. Those responsible for the project plan to write a scientific paper for a symposium on the subject of “Art and Cartography” in Vienna in February 2008.

The interdisciplinary collaboration will continue for at least two more years. The plan is that the data base with the three model regions will then be opened to other researchers. If the system functions well, it will then be possible to cartograph other regions.

The project is being funded by the GEBERT RÜF FOUNDATION, Basel, for its entire three-year duration.

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