Fragment of a city plan labelled ‘Tuba’.

Picturing cities

What were early topographical views used for? Former British Library maps curator James Elliot explains the origins of town plans, ‘picture maps’ and bird’s eye views.

‘To some kind of men it is an extraordinary delight to study, to looke upon a geographicall map and to behold, as it were, all the remote Provinces, Towns, Citties of the world … what greater pleasure can there be then … To peruse those books of Citties, put out by Braunus and Hogenbergius.’


Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621


The modern user of the town plan or map is familiar with a clear and functional publication which conveys a range of information limited to the accurate representation of the spatial features of the urban landscape around them. These features, moreover, are symbolised and so reduced to a basic cartographic code which is designed to transmit in the most consistent and simple form possible, the topography of the surrounding streets, the whereabouts of the nearest hospital, the most direct route to the nearest railway station, and a variety of other soundly prosaic messages. The modern plan represents a strictly two-dimensional attempt to preserve the correct spatial relationships between streets and buildings by maintaining throughout a uniform scale.

To Robert Burton and his 17th century contemporaries, however, town plans evidently offered more, being a source of ‘extraordinary delight’. The reason for this was that by Burton’s time urban cartographers were often concerned not only with showing the street layout, but also with depicting the architectural splendours of the cities that they knew. Map-makers, indeed, frequently sacrificed the precision of a ground plan for the sake of more pictorial cartographic styles. These offered the flexibility necessary to convey not only all three dimensions of the urban form but also some of the imaginative and symbolic qualities of a work of art, rather than a scientific document dependent for its creation purely on survey and measurement.

One such style was the bird’s-eye view, in which the city was depicted from a high oblique angle similar in effect to that which might be obtained from a balloon or aeroplane. The bird’s-eye view enabled the cartographer to convey the vertical dimension of the buildings and architectural features of the city, while at the same time retaining a horizontal dimension, albeit one that relied on perspective instead of true scale. The plan and the bird’s-eye view could be combined to form the map-view or plan-view, in which the true ground plan was preserved, but which featured some or all of the buildings in elevation. By depicting a city in these ways, the cartographer’s intention was clearly to impress and inspire the reader with the grandeur, power and wealth his works displayed. Urban cartography thus possessed a quality which sought a fundamentally emotional response, one which reflected the pride, dignity and sense of importance the city-dweller felt for his community.

Fragment of a city plan labelled ‘Tuba’

Fragment of a city plan labelled ‘Tuba’.

A suburb of the city of Babylon is depicted on this clay fragment.

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It is clear that the oldest urban civilizations found some purpose in the cartographic representations of their settlements. The earliest depiction extant dates from c. 6200 BCE, and is in the form of a wall painting of Çatal Hüyük, central Turkey. The painting shows, in stylised form, the houses and main thoroughfare of the town, dominated in the background by a nearby volcano. The earliest ground plans, however, came from the sophisticated urban culture of Mesopotamia, and survive as fragments of clay tablets on which the plans were inscribed. One of these fragments, dating from the 6th century BCE, shows a place known as Tuba, a suburb of the city of Babylon. It demonstrates the typically Babylonian style of incising in straight strokes where possible, as the clay was usually too soft to permit curved lines.

Although no town plans are known from ancient Greece, the deliberately symmetrical form of cities such as Megalopolis (founded 371 BCE) indicates that urban surveying was a well-developed science. The Roman Empire, always an urbanising civilisation, required the skills of trained agrimensores (land surveyors), whose most impressive work survives in the form of 679 fragments of marble tablets, bearing part of a large plan of Rome. Known as the ‘Forma Urbis Romae’, it was executed in 203–11 CE on a scale of about twenty feet to the inch (1:240).

After the end of the Western empire in the 5th century CE, which brought the breakdown of urban life, the techniques of the agrimensores in producing the measured town plan became lost to Europe. In China, by contrast, an unbroken tradition of surveying and urban mapping continued from at least the 3rd century BCE to the time of the Yuan Dynasty (1280-1368), as attested by the survival of several town plans, including one of the city of Suchow carved on stone in 1229 CE.

The tradition of the measured survey established in Roman times re-emerged in Europe between the 9th and 12th centuries with the copying of the treatises of the agrimensores. They not only produced precisely-measured plans but also used unmeasured pictorial and diagrammatic maps of towns and their environs to illustrate their surveying texts, known collectively as the Corpus agrimensorum.

Copy of a Roman text on estate surveying

Copy of Corpus Agrimensorum

A twelfth-century copy of a text ascribed to Hyginus Gromaticus (fl. early 2nd century).

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One such example, a medieval copy of a work attributed originally to Hyginus Gromaticus (fl. early 2nd century), considers the problems of dividing up lands to form coloniae, or settlements for deserving military veterans. The text outlines the difficulties encountered when the surrounding topography was not suitable for the precisely measured grids upon which the coloniae, and the towns which formed their nuclei, were planned. When the Roman text was compiled in 350–400 CE, it was illustrated with crude copies of original working plans of about 50 CE. These were again copied, and further corrupted, in the 12th century in western Germany or France, and survive as unscaled ‘picture maps’ in which walls and buildings were drawn in profile on a simplified ground plan. These final copies were made at a time when renewed interest was being taken in surveying, possibly in connection with the creation of new towns to meet rapid population growth.

Depiction of Constantinople, from Christoforo Buondelmonte, ‘Liber Insularum’

Depiction of Constantinople copied from Christoforo Buondelmonte's ‘Liber Insularum Archipelago’.

This 1482 copy was made for the Abbot of St Bavon, Raphael de Marcatellis.

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The ‘books of islands’, or isolarii, originally compiled as navigational aids for Mediterranean sailors, were also illustrated by picture-maps. By 1420, when Cristoforo Buondelmonte’s ‘Liber Insularum Archipelago’ first appeared, these isolarii had evolved into sophisticated travel guides containing not only maps and plans but accounts of the history, legends and geography of the islands and harbours in the region. The ‘Liber Insularum Archipelago’ became one of the most popular books of the time and was frequently imitated, with copyists adding to the maps or interpreting them afresh. One of the finest surviving examples of Buondelmonte’s work is the 1482 Ghent version commissioned by Raphael de Marcatellis, Abbot of St Bavon. The illustrations may have been made by Jan van Kriekenborch of Ghent, who seems to have specialised in the production of manuscript maps. It was natural for Buondelmonte to have included Constantinople (Istanbul) since in the 1420s it was the most important city in the region and, until 1453, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. As with Matthew Paris’ London, the city is identified through the depiction of its major buildings, and an attempt has also been made to give an idea of the street pattern within its walls.

Itinerary from London to Beauvais

A linear map showing the route from London to Beauvais from Matthew Paris's Itinerary from London to the Holy Land.

Recognisable buildings, such as St Paul's Cathedral, are a feature of Matthew Paris' 14th-century Itinerary from London to the Holy Land.

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A much later example of the ‘picture-map’ style can be seen in a Persian manuscript plan of the Haram, or Holy Sanctuary of Mecca of the late 16th or early 17th century.

The Haram at Mecca with the Ka’bah in the centre

The Haram at Mecca with the Ka’bah in the centre

An illumination from a sixteenth century copy of Muḥyī Lārī's Futūḥ al-ḥaramayn.

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In contrast to the ‘picture-map’, plans of the cities of Jerusalem and Acre by the Genoese-born Pietro Vesconte display an awareness of proportion which predates the first scale plans of Renaissance Europe by almost 200 years. They were drawn in c.1320–25 to illustrate the ‘Liber Secretorum fidelium crucis’, a propaganda tract advocating a new crusade to recover the Holy Land, written by the Venetian diplomat and traveller Marino Sanudo Torsello. Both plans were based on the accounts of crusaders and pilgrims as well as on other material which now no longer survives.

Maps of Jerusalem and Acre

Maps of Jerusalem and Acre by Pietro Vesconte.

A plan from the 'Liber Secretorum fidelium crucis', c.1320-25.

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This is an edited version of a text first published in James Elliot, The City in Maps, British Library, 1987.

  • James Elliot
  • Former maps curator, British Library

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.