Art Review

At the BPL, maps of things otherwise unseen

Athanasius Kircher’s “Mundus Subterraneus,” c. 1665.
Norman B. Leventhal Map Center
Athanasius Kircher’s “Mundus Subterraneus,” c. 1665.

Generally, maps take things we can see — a road, a beach, a flight path — and help us view them in different, more graspable ways.

“Beneath Our Feet: Mapping the World Below” reminds us that maps are also capable of taking things we can’t see and help us view them in different, more graspable ways. Such things can take the form of subway routes, geological strata, or water and sewage lines. Maps showing each figure in “Beneath Our Feet,” which runs through Feb. 25 at the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

Any good map offers utility, clarity, and density of information. Many of the maps in “Beneath Our Feet” also offer beauty. You’d expect that of centuries-old atlases. The earliest item in the show is a view of the Earth from Athanasius Kircher’s “Mundus Subterraneus,” published c. 1665. Yet there are also wonders to be savored in maps from such less-exotic sources as the National Geographic Society, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Park Service, and the US Geological Survey.


An early geological map, William Maclure’s “Carte des Etats-Unis de L’Amérique-Nord,” from 1811, includes a ribbony red swath that roughly coincides with the Appalachians. What lies beneath that particular ground emerges as glorious, sinuous scarlet.

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Another geological map, of Indiana, shows stone quarries as well as areas with oil and natural gas deposits. It dates from the 1890s. What makes this map notable to those of us who are neither Hoosiers nor affiliated with any extraction industry is the quite-alluring way it uses an array of colors to convey information. Creating art was surely far from the mind of its maker, S.S. Gorby, but a work of art he created.

Norman B. Leventhal Map Center
S.S. Gorby’s “Geological map of Indiana, showing location of stone quarries and natural gas and oil areas,” c. 1890.

Like the Gorby map, many items in the show focus on mining and oil exploration. Others show archeological deposits. They reveal buried treasure. One of the most impressive is by Samuel Harries Daddow and bears the unprepossessing title “Map of the Anthracite Coalfields of Pennsylvania.” Pools of gray, blue, and rose float on a buff background. They’re lovely to look at, but the thrust is no nonsense. Dickens’s Mr. Gradgrind — “Stick to Facts, sir!” — would have approved.

The great virtue of a map is how it abstracts reality to make that reality more understandable. Abstractness is also a limitation, though. When three dimensions become two, a lot gets left out. Several displays nicely compensate for that by juxtaposing a map with physical objects relating to its subject.

Accompanying Edward Hitchcock’s “Geological Map of Massachusetts,” from 1832, are several mineral samples: beryl, from Worcester County; rhodonite, from Hampshire County; and, from Hampden County, babingtonite (the official mineral of the Commonwealth, thank you very much). Accompanying John Bonner’s “The Town of Boston in New England,” c. 1730, are a trio of archeological artifacts: a pointed stone, a set of fishweir stakes, and an arrowhead.


Like those two maps, many others stick close to home. An 1853 US Coast Survey chart shows soundings and underwater features for the future site of the lighthouse on Minot’s Ledge, near Boston Harbor. That map’s great delicacy contrasts with the straightforwardness of an 1895 rendering for the Boston Transit Commission of the city’s proposed subway line. Jump ahead a century, and we get two Big Dig diagrams from 1991.

Closest to home is a blueprint page of foundations for the BPL’s Dartmouth Street entrance. It’s credited to “McKim, Meade and White, Architects.” Might that be a different firm from McKim, Mead and White? That’s a question for architectural historians — or perhaps proofreaders.

BENEATH OUR FEET: Mapping the World Below

At Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library, Copley Square, through Feb. 25. 617-859-2387,

Mark Feeney can be reached at