Guglielmi, Marina and Giulio Iacoli (eds) 2013 Piani sul mondo. Le mappe nell’immaginazione letteraria, reviewed by Tania Rossetto

Marina Guglielmi and Giulio Iacoli (eds), Piani sul mondo. Le mappe nell’immaginazione letteraria, Quodlibet, Macerata, 2013, 208 pages, illustrations, € 18,70, ISBN 9788874624799.

We are currently experiencing a period of robust revival of literary geography and of literary cartography in particular. Piani sul mondo (Plans on the World), as well as the conference which preceded the publication of this collection (‘Cartographica mente. Le mappe nell’immaginazione letteraria’ [‘Map-mindedly: maps in the literary imagination’], University of Cagliari, 10 May 2012), have somehow been stimulated by the current re-emergence of the so-called cartography of  literature (i.e. the concrete mapping of literary settings or literary phenomena). This approach was championed by Italian literary scholar Franco Moretti in the late 1990s, with his seminal book Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900, and is now embracing the digital transition in cartography while increasingly expanding internationally. In Italy, the occurrence of this phenomenon has been confirmed by the editorial enterprise of the Atlante della letteratura italiana (Atlas of Italian Literature) published by Einaudi in three volumes (2010-2012), and edited by Sergio Luzzatto and Gabriele Pedullà.

Surprisingly, however, none of the essays in Piani sul mondo can be properly addressed as a piece of cartography of literature. The subtitle Le mappe nell’immaginazione letteraria (Maps in the Literary Imagination) informs the reader that this book is rather about maps that emerge from literary texts. Consequently, it possesses a greater affinity with another seminal intervention on literary cartography, namely, Muehrcke and Muehrcke’s ‘Maps in literature’ (1974). This article was popularised among Italian scholars after the inclusion of its Italian translation within the book Fatto e finzione. Geografia e letteratura (Fact and Fiction: Geography and Literature, Lando 1993), which was practically the first Italian collection of literary geography. Therefore, Piani sul mondo appears to present itself as a complement (or even an objection) to the expanding technical, analytical practice of mapping literature. In truth, the editors acknowledge the return of a reliance on the cartography of literature (page 11), but they have chosen to ‘draft’ a taxonomy of literary cartography, concentrating on maps in literature (pages 15-16).

This taxonomy introduces an initial distinction between two main ‘types’, and secondary distinctions between ‘forms’ and ‘functions’. In literature, maps can be found as: (1) explicit maps, or maps in praesentia, and (2) implicit maps, or maps in absentia. Explicit maps can be found in the form of (a) the description/involvement of a map (a cartographic object) as an integral part of the narration, or (b) the material inclusion of a graphical map within the literary text, and this has a double function, that is, narrative and spatial. Implicit maps emerge through (c) allusion, that is, when an author’s deliberate intention to stimulate the spatial cognition of the reader is recognisable, and can carry an individual or social function.

Working within this range, the introduction, as well as the collection of essays, appears to oscillate between two poles: that of a critical, political cartography on the one hand, and that of an emotional, intimate cartography on the other.

The two opening quotations in the Introduction to Piani sul mondo well summarise the tension inherent in the entire collection of essays edited by two Italian specialists in comparative literature: Marina Guglielmi, from the University of Cagliari, and Giulio Iacoli, from the University of Parma. The first quotation is taken from Benjamin’s Berlin Chronicle and is about articulating the life (bios) space on a map. This takes the form of a system of coloured signs related to biographical landmarks of a “lived Berlin”, which is superimposed on a grey basemap. The second quotation is Brian Harley’s famous statement that, “Each map is a manifesto for a set of beliefs about the world”. Here, one may also see at work the tensions in current debates: cognitive cartography vs. critical cartography, phenomenological approaches vs. culturalist approaches to maps and mapping, open exploration of dynamic emergent mapping practices vs. strict criticism of firm cartographic discourses, map-philia vs. map-phobia (see, for instance, Bruno, 2002: 207-208). In fact, the literary field has recently been acknowledged as an additional useful area from which to extract more broad contributions to map theory (Caquard, 2014; Rossetto, 2014).

As for the first, ‘political’, pole of this oscillation, Piani sul mondo demonstrates that, from the modern age to imperialism, and from the postcolonial to the postmodern realm, cartographic motifs often appear within literary texts as imbued with power or, conversely, as animated by a counter-power drive (i.e. contesting,  deconstructing or decolonising maps). Significantly, a common point of reference for the essays animated by this approach is the theorisation carried out by Italian geographer Franco Farinelli with regard to “cartographic reason” and the conjunct, violent co-development of mapping and modernity.

In ‘Picture et scripture. Ipotesi su poesia e cartografia fra Medioevo e Rinascimento’ (‘Pictures and texts: poetry and cartography between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance’, pages 29-48), Italianist Toni Veneri traces a very well-documented review of the gradual separation of the verbal from the iconic which occurred with the beginning of the modern age; a separation of the imago mundi from the representation of space, of the narrative from the descriptive, of story from geography, of literary works from maps. The gradual transition from the medieval mapa duplex, that is, a hybrid promiscuity of iconic and verbal material (picture et scripture), to the modern separation between metric visualisation of space and textual comments, which occurred with Ptolemaic cartography, is faithfully reported by Veneri through the display of a nuanced series of eight examples drawn from fourteenth and fifteenth century Italian prose, poetry and treatises.

In ‘Mappe egemoniche: dinamiche geografiche in Gramsci’ (‘Hegemonic maps: geographical dynamycs in Gramsci’, pages 89-106), comparatist Mauro Pala proposes a reading of Gramsci’s Quaderni del carcere (The Prison Notebooks) based on the idea of the writer as cartographer. While he tries to demonstrate the existence of a cartographic method within Gramsci’s way of revealing facts, Pala also maintains that Gramsci’s ultimate aim was to show, with a counter-hegemonic intent, the discursive nature of cartography. Aligning Gramsci’s critique of the power and inaccessibility of maps with those of Brian Harley and Michel De Certeau, Pala sees in the Italian thinker a will to constantly re-examine the map from different perspectives (including those of the subalterns), and to involve the reader in the unstable, dynamic, intersubjective process of its continuous remaking.

In ‘Le carte parlano chiaro. Strategie di interferenza testo-mappa nella letteratura contemporanea’ (‘Maps speak clearly: map-text interference strategies in contemporary literature’, pages 127-149), comparatist Giulio Iacoli concentrates on the material inclusion of graphic maps within literary texts during the transition from late modernity to postmodernity. After acknowledging (by building considerably on Harley) the crucial role of cartography as a topos of both postcolonial and postmodern literature, Iacoli delineates the way in which maps included in literary works have recently come to bear a ‘deconstructive’, rather than a ‘documentary/explicative’, intent, as was the case in much of nineteeth- and twentieth-century literature (a transition that is not so neat, however, as Iacoli well exemplifies). By analyzing some Italian postmodern novels, Iacoli carefully differentiates the multiple ways in which those ‘skeptical maps’ reflect a fragmented reality, showing a sense of distrust in the documentary capability of maps through the adoption of an ironic-critical register. Iacoli’s attempt at classifying maps in literary texts, as well as his call for the inclusion of cartography in ‘literature and visual culture’ studies emerge as particularly innovative.

‘Perché nessuno ama i cartografi? Le mappe disorientanti della narrativa postmoderna’ (‘Why does no one love cartographers? The disorienting maps of postmodern literature’, pages 167-180), by English Literature scholar Silvia Albertazzi, draws inspiration from the dystopian short story Do you love me? by Peter Carey (1978), in which the cast of cartographers dominating an imaginary village is increasingly prone to disappearance and disapproval. Albertazzi states that the narrative journeys arranged by postmodern writers coeval with Carey do not need maps and cartographers, but rather require the readers themselves to embark on their own effort to uncover a logic and trace a map of that which is narrated. Maps are useless in penetrating a world that exists more in written words than in reality. The figure of the ‘liquid atlas’ is then evoked by Albertazzi as the only possible form of cartography to navigate the (inter)textual places of a fragmented, disconnected and disorientating world. The lack of confidence in the presumed solidity and reliability of cartography, as Albertazzi most interestingly explains, using various examples, often turns into open critique within a postcolonial narrative, when the map is clearly read as an abuse of power.

As for the second, ‘emotional’, pole of the aforementioned oscillation, some essays in the collection tend to make room for a different, non-politicised and non-social declination of the cartographic motif, which includes sensorial, sentimental and biographical perspectives on the experience of maps and mapping.

In ‘Travelling without moving: mappe e geografia tra Xavier de Maistre e Kant’ (‘Travelling without moving: maps and geography between Xavier de Maistre and Kant’, pages 110-125), Marcello Tanca (a philosophical scholar, specialised in geography) recalls the critical reviews of Moretti’s Atlante made by some Italian geographers at the time of its release. Some of these reviews accused Moretti of doing a ‘geometry’ (based on the location within an isotropic space) rather than a ‘geography’ (based also on the qualitative appreciation of places) of literature (Cerreti, 1998). Engaging the concept of armchair tourism through de Maistre’s Voyage autour de ma chambre and several (especially pedagogical) works by Kant (who notoriously never moved from Königsberg), Tanca maintains that the voluntary immobile travels evoked by these authors infringe and transcend geometry by opening imaginative patterns in the first case, and by attributing intentional, subjective meaning to neutral spatial locations through prearranged knowledge in the second.

‘Mappe per l’aldilà nell’opera di Gesualdo Bufalino’ (‘Maps of the afterlife in Gesualdo Bufalino’s work’) by Italianist Giovanna Caltagirone, concerns implicit maps. The fact that the essay’s style appears more evocative than analytic well reflects the ways in which cartography emerges within the works of Bufalino, the Italian writer to which this essay is devoted. Mental spatial projections, as Caltagirone writes, flow from “the ambiguity of words”. Words are surrogates of maps, words breathe life into these abstract entities.

In ‘Mappe mentali, cartografie personali, autobiografie’ (‘Mind maps, personal cartographies, autobiographies’) comparatist Marina Guglielmi introduces the notion of “transitional maps”, which I believe is one of the most original approaches in this book. Intersecting  cartography, psychoanalysis and literature, with the aim of recovering a Subject excluded from the impersonal ethos of cartography, Guglielmi draws on psychoanalyst Donald W. Winnicott’s theory of “transitional space” and “transitional object”. She proposes that maps are bridges between interior and external worlds. In particular, Guglielmi defines “transitional maps” those implicit maps that are described, or alluded to, within literary texts; transitional maps are also conceived as narrated mental maps. A further interesting point is the treatment of the peculiar connection between (concrete or mental) maps and the autobiographical genre. In fact, Guglielmi views a “cartographic mode” in the way in which autobiographical texts tend to recap personal existential paths. She analyses different “autobiographic (paternal and maternal) maps” within works by Kafka and Italian writer Lalla Romano.

Perhaps it is not accidental that the only essay that contemplates the perspective of the geography of literature is authored by the only ‘pure’ geographer involved in this collection. Papotti’s ‘Il libro e la mappa. Prospettive di incontro tra cartografia e letteratura’ (‘The book and the map: perspectives for an encounter between cartography and literature’) is the piece that best fits one of the general aims of this collection, that is, orienting the reader within the multifaceted field of literary cartography. The essay is divided into four sections that explore the elective affinities between literature and cartography: 1. “cartography as literature”, which concerns not only the textual content and narrative forms included within maps, but also the narrative potential inherent in cartography and map objects; 2. “literature as cartography”, which investigates the ways in which writing resembles mapping in orientating people, visualising spaces and symbolically representing places; 3. “cartography of literature”, which investigates not only cartographic techniques for analysing literature, but also adopts a cartographic lexicon in metaphorical ways to support literary criticism; 4. “cartography in literature”, which contemplates the study of the occurrence of maps in a literal (graphical maps included within texts) or textual sense (maps verbally evoked). This last is, in Papotti’s view, a story that largely still remains to be written (for a collection of maps in literature see, for example, the Italian website

Responding to a generalised need to systematise the varied research area of literary cartography (also see, for instance, the French collection edited by Maleval, Picker and Gabaude, 2012), Piani su mondo, partly adheres to that “taxonomic furor” into which the editors (page 19) do not want to collapse. Nonetheless, the entire collection provides the reader  with a far more vibrant sense of the unpredictable ways in which maps burst into the literary imagination. It is precisely in this direction that this collection, primarily composed by literary scholars, has much to suggest to map theorists, and more to geographers in general, at a time in which maps are everywhere.

Tania Rossetto, Università degli Studi di Padova, Dipartimento di Scienze Storiche, Geografiche e del’Antichità, Sezione di Geografia, via del Santo 26, Padova 35123, Italy.


Bruno G 2002 Atlas of Emotion. Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film. New York: Verso.

Caquard S 2015 Cartography III. A post-representational perspective on cognitive cartography. Progress in Human Geography 39(2): 225-235.

Cerreti C 1998 In margine a un libro di Franco Moretti. Lo spazio geografico e la letteratura. Bollettino della Società Geografica Italiana 3 141-48.

Lando F (ed) 1993 Fatto e finzione. Geografia e letteraura. Milano: ETAS Libri.

Maleval V, M Picker, and F Gabaude (eds) 2012 Géographie poétique et cartographie littéraire. Limoges, Pulim.

Muehrcke P and J Muehrcke 1974 Maps in literature. The Geographical Review 64 317-38.

Rossetto T 2014 Theorizing maps with literature. Progress in Human Geography 38 513-30.

2 thoughts on “Guglielmi, Marina and Giulio Iacoli (eds) 2013 Piani sul mondo. Le mappe nell’immaginazione letteraria, reviewed by Tania Rossetto

  1. […] Guglielmi, Marina and Giulio Iacoli (eds) 2013 Piani sul mondo. Le mappe nell’immaginazione letter… […]

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