Ayesha Ramachandran, The Worldmakers: Global Imagining in Early Modern Europe

Ayesha Ramachandran, The Worldmakers: Global Imagining in Early Modern Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2015) 312 pp. $45.00 Hb. ISBN: 9780226288796

In The Worldmakers Ayesha Ramachandran takes readers into many worlds, both of her own making and those imagined by the eponymous 'worldmakers', a motley if erudite ensemble cast of mapmakers, anatomists, essayists, poets, and philosophers who lived in different parts of Europe some 300 years ago. Not all these Renaissance men (and yes, they were all men) necessarily knew or communicated with one another, but Ramachandran argues that each created his signature work – the world of his imagination – fuelled by a common desire to see and comprehend the world in its entirety, 'to organize and capture its variety in a single and harmonious frame' (4).  And although one might well counter that such a motive dates back to antiquity, she argues that the world-making efforts of the sixteenth and seventeenth century European intellectuals represent an epistemic break from those that came before and laid the foundations for the emergence of modernity (6).

Ramachandran lays out her argument and buttresses it through a series of five case histories sandwiched between a brief introduction and even shorter conclusion. As in all good sandwiches, the bread is fine but the really good stuff is in the middle. In the first chapter we encounter Mercator’s Atlas, published in 1595, which was the first time that this term was used in a title for what is now considered an entire category of books. Ramachandran suggests that the Atlas represented something new because of Mercator’s self-conscious goal of marrying images and understandings of the known world (maps) with a philosophical or metaphysical vision of the totality of the world. The complete title of the Atlas – which she has translated as Cosmographical Meditations on the Making of the World and the Image of the Made [World] – gives weight to her thesis, which is further strengthened by her artful analysis of the iconography of the frontispiece of its 1595 edition (22). But Ramachandran goes much further with her analysis and surveys the entire body of Mercator’s work, situating it in the context of other mapping projects of it time and showing us exactly why she believes that the Atlas was different and more ambitious. Among other things, it 'is the only map book in the sixteenth century to claim it is about the making of the world' rather than simply representing it, which gave agency to human labour rather than divine whim as the cause for revelations about the world. Especially intriguing to me as a historian of science are the connections she draws – or rather claims that Mercator drew implicitly – between his project and that of De humani corporis fabrica [On the fabric of the human body] published in 1543 by the anatomist Andreas Vesalius. Both works sought to break free from classical authorities – Ptolemy and Galen – through dint of knowledge won through hands-on experience and to synthesize this knowledge to create a unified vision of their respective worlds (30-33).

From Mercator’s ambitions to catalogue and unify the cosmos, Chapter Two turns to yet another genre-defining work from the same period, Michel de Montaigne’s famed Essais written in the solitary splendour of his library tower in Dordogne, France. Although Montaigne offered these ruminations as interrogations of the self, the world within, Ramachandran points out that the 'Monde [world] is a keyword for the Essais' wherein 'self-making hinges on world-making and vice versa' (69-70). Through a detailed analysis of both the structure of the work as well of individual essays, especially his fascinating exposition on cannibals, she adds yet another piece to her intricate argument. Epic poetry – the Portuguese language Os Lusíadas by Luís Vaz de Camões and Edmund Spenser’s fantasy romance The Fairie Queene – is the object of scrutiny in Chapter Three, where Ramachandran brings in the classical figure of Prometheus (featured in both works) and disciplinary perspectives of the politics of empire into her world-making argument. In Chapter Four she moves ahead in time to a discussion of the French philosopher René Descartes, his Le monde being placed against the backdrop of the scientific revolution and Galileo. Unique among Descartes’ works in that it it mixes fiction with philosophy, Le monde, says Ramachandran, drew its author 'outside the realm of philosophy as traditionally understood and placed him in the heterogenous company of worldmakers' (181). This chapter is certainly one I can see myself returning to time and again for its deep insights about a foundational period in my discipline. The closing chapter takes us back to England, to Milton, who, stunned by what he considered to be a fractured universe in light of the claims of such figures as Isaac Newton, created in response the stunning world of Paradise Lost.

As might be expected of a work of such scope, The Worldmakers is not an easy read; it requires many readings to fully appreciate the riches it has to offer. To return to the sandwich analogy for a second, a single bite may feel like too much, more than one can comfortably chew. But with each layer offering a completely different dimension of flavour and texture, one really does need to read all the parts lest they miss certain elements altogether. The chapter on Mercator’s Atlas for instance, contains fourteen images, with the content and iconography of each analysed in meticulous detail to add to various aspects of the book’s meta-argument. But there is not a single image in any of the four successive substantive chapters. Not for lack of opportunity though. In fact, I believe that had Ramachandran chosen to, she could have credibly supported her central thesis simply by including a analysis of the frontispieces of every one of the major world-making cases discussed in the book, as she did at the outset of the first. Rather than reinforce her argument with repetition, however, she chose the more arduous but far more convincing route, solidifying her position by considering its many different angles. One grouse I had while reading the book was that the author quoted passages from different works without always providing translations, troublesome for those of us who have little or no knowledge of not only such Renaissance staples as Latin or French, but also the less common Portuguese. But the language issue is only a nuisance not an insurmountable barrier, resolved easily enough with an online translation tool by your side when reading. It is a minor price to pay for a gloriously eye-opening and intellectually engaging tour into the cosmos of her world-makers.

Neeraja Sankaran, Independent Scholar, Bangalore