Metropolis: mapping the city

Metropolis: mapping the city by Jeremy Black. Bloomsbury, London, 2015. ISBN 9-781844-862207. HB, 224, illus, STG £30.00.
Professor Jeremy Black is well known as a historian of wide interests and prolific output, whose interests and eminently readable publications embrace, amongst much else, maps. Metropolis is a book intended for the general reader: map historians and collectors are unlikely to find anything new here. What readers do get is context: almost a potted history of the rise of larger cities. It is also a book where the accent is more on the 217 illustrations than on the text: the extended captions can indeed be read as an alternative narrative.
Metropolis is commendably wide-ranging both geographically and temporally, from the Nippur terracotta fragment of c.1250 BCE to digitally generated birds-eye views of possible future cityscapes. Any bias towards the western and developed worlds – Africa is unrepresented – is perhaps indicative of what is available for illustration. Some of the maps, such as Jacopo De Barbari’s plan-view of Venice of 1500, are well-known ‘set pieces’, but there are many others where, even if the city is familiar, the map is not. There are a few instances where the subject of the mapping is familiar but an unusual version is displayed, for example the extract from Charles Booth’s ‘Descriptive Map of London Poverty, 1889’, which is from the manuscript compilation at over four times the scale of the familiar published version.
There are an introduction and six chapters, each complemented by a ‘case study’: ‘The Renaissance city: 1450-1600’; ‘New horizons, new worlds: 1600-1700’; ‘An imperial age: 1700-1800’; ‘Hotbeds of innovation 1800-1900’; ‘A global era’; and ‘From print to pixel: into the future’. These understate the geographical range, and ‘metropolis’ embraces far more than capital cities. However, this breadth of approach is rather detracted from by the lack of any references or bibliography: just a list of sources for the illustrations, which are really of no help to the general reader who wishes to penetrate further. It might also have been useful to point out somewhere that all the earlier printed maps are hand-coloured, and that other copies may not be quite so visually luscious.
A book such as this must stand or fall by its illustrations and general design. The quality of reproduction is generally excellent, and it is worth having a lens to hand to study fine details. It is not always possible to extract much more from some of the really large wall-maps, but it is certainly worthwhile for John Rocque’s London of 1746. Against this must be set two big disadvantages: there is no indication of the original sizes or scales of these maps – the vastness of De Barbari’s Venice, for example, is not obvious – and few of the numerous double-page spreads are free from loss of information in the gutter. This last is a common and long-standing problem, but is one that publishers and their designers need to get to grips with: now that scanning enables mass-production of images of unprecedented clarity, it is surely fitting that we should have the whole image, rather than two images that do not join properly. As it is, the gutter-loss in the 1869 map of Baltimore is far more distracting than is the sectioning of the original.
All in all, Metropolis is recommended as an excellent selection of city-maps that is worth having as a picture-source. The pity is that, with a little more attention to gutters, it could have been so much better.

Richard Oliver, Exeter