In the age of Google Maps and global positioning systems, printed maps already seem like a quaint relic of a forgotten past. But not so long ago, they were invaluable tools. Scholars and students relied on them to provide insight into lands they had never seen. Sailors and travelers staked their lives on their accuracy. But most used them simply to get about.
Few people on the planet know more about the history and importance of maps than Giovanni De Agostini Jr., a map-maker, publisher and direct descendant of the famous Italian cartographer, Giovanni De Agostini.
Giovanni Jr. made a visit to Jakarta recently to open “The 150th Anniversary of Italian Unity and the De Agostinis’ Cartography” exhibition at the Galeri Nasional Indonesia on Friday.
The show, which runs through Sunday, features 24 reproductions of maps and three original atlases produced by Giovanni Sr., his son, Frederico de Agostini, and his grandson, the visiting Giovanni Jr.
Giovanni Sr. was a pioneer of modern cartography. Born in 1863 in Pollone, Italy, Agostini studied cartography at the University of Turin before leaving the country to apprentice under masters in Berlin, Leipzig and Gotha in Germany.
During that time, Italy relied heavily on maps made in Germany.
In 1901, Giovanni Sr. returned to Rome and founded his own publishing company, the De Agostini Geographic Institute (IGDA). He was one of the first in his profession to use lithographic stones to print maps and atlases in Italy. Thanks to his skills and innovations, Italy no longer had to rely on foreign charts.
Giovanni Sr.’s most famous works were his 1904 “Calendario Atlante” (Atlas Calendar) and the 1922 “Grande Atlante de Geografico” (“Complete Geographical Atlas”).
A love for mapmaking seems to run in the family for the De Agostinis.
Giovanni Sr.’s brother, Alberto Maria De Agostini, was a missionary of the Don Bosco order. In 1910, when he was assigned to Patagonia, South America, he became enchanted with the region’s riches, both natural and cultural.
During his 40 years of service on the continent, Alberto scaled mountain peaks and explored the seas in his search for knowledge. At the end of his life, he left a rich legacy of over 60 books written in Italian, German and Spanish. He had also helped Giovanni Sr. draw and edit detailed maps of South America.
Alberto’s 1933 documentary film, “Terre Magellaniche” (“Magellan Land”), one of the first documentaries ever made in South America, is also featured in the exhibition.
Giovanni Sr.’s eldest son, Frederico, joined the family company in 1927. Working alongside his father, Frederico developed new cartographic printing techniques by replacing lithographic stones with Astralon plastic supports. This new technology drastically reduced the amount of manpower required to produce maps.
“It used to take my grandfather approximately four to six months with a team of 20 people to make one map,” Giovanni Jr. said. “With [my father’s] new technology, it took about the same time, but with only six people.”
Frederico produced wall maps, atlases and encyclopedias. His most famous work, published in 1971, is “Imago Mundi” (“Image of the World”), an encyclopedia in 14 volumes containing information about the geography, climate, flora and fauna of many parts of the world.
Giovanni Jr. said he was inspired by his father, great uncle and grandfather.
“I myself am like a cocktail of all of them,” Giovanni Jr., 66, said of his forebears. “I’m a little bit of everything — explorer, geographer and cartographer.”
Giovanni Jr. joined the family business when he was 19 years old. But his interests in cartography developed long before that.
“When I was six, my father made me sit on his lap to look at the globe,” he said. “Together, we saw the countries of the world being depicted as part of one spherical object. He also showed me the maps he was drawing with his team. It was simply fascinating.”
Giovanni Jr. further simplified cartographic production. He introduced the technique of creating maps by using photosensitive plastic sheets (to replace the Astralon) and photo-typesetting, so that they no longer had to write the names of places by hand.
“Now it only takes two to three months, using a team of two or three people, to produce one of our maps,” he said.
His most famous works include “Map of the Moon” (“Studi Geocartografici”) published in 1967, “Historical Atlas of Islam” (1988) and “Road Map of Italy” (2008, a 1:1 millionth scale representation of the country’s road network).
Now over 100 years old, the De Agostini Geographic Institute has branched out from cartography to book publishing, television production and gaming services. But mapmaking is what the Italian company is built on and will always be known for.
“I’m so proud to have the master of cartography here with us now,’’ said Roberto Palmieri, the Italian ambassador to Indonesia. “His and his family’s works genuinely represent the unification of Italy.’’
The unification of Italy was a series of events that produced a united Italian peninsula under the Kingdom of Italy on March 17, 1861.
Featured in the exhibition is the 1943 “Imago Italiae” (Image of Italy), an atlas containing 19 geopictorial maps of Italy’s different regions.
As Giovanni Sr.’s final masterpiece, the full-color atlas beautifully portrays the natural beauty, monuments and cultural attractions of each region.
“It’s a rare view,’’ said Giovanna Jatropelli, director of the Italian Culture Institute of Jakarta (IICJ). “They’re historical pieces that mark the changes in Italy. But beyond that, they’re historical witnesses that will last into the future.”
“The exhibition shows a good level of collaboration between grandfather, uncle, father and son,” said Sukendra Martha, the main researcher for the National Coordinating Agency for Surveys and Mapping (BKSPN).
“And it’s not only about Italy,” he added. “We can also see the whole world, including Indonesia, represented in these maps.”
Among the 24 panels on display at the National Gallery are Giovanni Jr.’s “Atlas of Islamic History in Indonesia” (1980) his father’s “Physiographic Map of Indonesia” and “Pictorial Map of Indonesia,” both produced in 1960.
“It’s interesting to see how Indonesia was represented in the old maps,” said Nurul Khakim, chairman of the Center for Maritime Resources and Technology Studies (PSSTK) at Gadjah Mada University (UGM) in Yogyakarta.
“We can see the old names and places and realize how much they have changed now,” he added.
In the maps created by Frederico De Agostini in 1960, the cities of Bogor and Jakarta are labeled with their Dutch names, Buitenzorg and Batavia.
Frederico’s 1960 “Pictorial Map of Indonesia” drew lots of attention at the exhibition opening due to its portrayal of traditional houses, costumes and monuments from every part of Indonesia.
The pictorial map also displays Indonesia’s coat of arms, the Garuda Pancasila, and the Indonesian flag.
“I had an idea of Indonesia before coming here,’’ Giovanni Jr. said. “But it’s completely different from what I’m seeing now. It’s a country that has been progressing really well.’’
Despite the many maps that the De Agostinis have made of Indonesia, Giovanni Jr. is the first family member to actually set foot in the country. His father’s maps were created using data gathered by land surveyors, researchers and photographers.
“We’ve only been here for three days now,’’ said Minori De Agostini, Giovanni Jr.’s wife, at the exhibition opening. “And we’re already in love with the Indonesian people and the food.’’
“The food can be a bit spicy, but it’s OK,’’ Giovanni Jr. said with a smile.
The committed map-maker is now in the process of putting together a book about the life and work of his grandfather, with the help of his wife. The book aims to tell the history of modern cartography.
“The old cartography is finished,” Giovanni Sr. said, adding that new technologies still needed to learn from the knowledge of the past.
For example, he said maps generated from digital satellite images were not always correctly interpreted due to the different software used to create them.
“Today, most maps are produced by graphic artists, not by cartographers. That’s the problem,” he said.
Nurul from UGM agreed that today’s map-makers needed to learn from the past.
“In my opinion, modern technology and old cartographic techniques should walk hand-in-hand,” he said. “Satellites may capture rough images of large objects. Yet, for pin-point accuracy, we still have to rely on the old techniques.
“Without cartographers, these modern technologies are useless.”