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Book Review


Whitfield, Peter. Cities of the World. A History in Maps. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005). 208 pp, $39.95.


     First of all: this is a very attractive book. Some would describe it as a "coffee-table companion." It illustrates the development of cities by using works of art such as panoramic paintings and historical maps. Secondly: it is not an in-depth analysis of urban history and does not have a narrative text. Instead, sixty-two cities are presented alphabetically, and the author allows only 2-6 pages for each city. This means that the book is not suitable as a textbook. A 15-page illustrated introduction to "the city in history" over the last 5,500 years may well serve as an aid for long-term world history classes, but high-school and college teachers will primarily benefit by using the book as a supplement that gives "life" to narrative texts.

     Which cities are presented? The immediate answer must be that the book has a Western bias. Forty-four of the cities are located in Europe and North America while populous countries such as China and India are represented with only three cities (Beijing, Goa and Dehli). Cape Town is the only city included south of the Saharan desert. Cuzco, Brasilia, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, Santo Domingo, and the vanished city of Teotihuacan represent Latin America while Sydney is the only Australian city described . One consequence of this Western bias is that teachers of Western civilization courses will find Cities of the World more useful than those who teach world history courses from a global perspective.

     The 150 illustrations in the book reveal hilltop fortifications, ships, ancient harbours, green parks, meandering rivers, monumental buildings, and surrounding landscapes--often from a panoramic perspective illustrating the topographical setting of the city. My favourites are Ignazio Danti's view of Venice from ca 1550, Peter Gordon's famous image of Savannah from 1734, and a hand-drawn view of Goa from 1646. Even more interesting, the illustrations often reveal how the map makers or the artists themselves viewed the city. The Jerusalem of the crusaders is, for example, depicted as a Medieval European city. Accompanying the illustrations, Whitfield traces the historical significance of each city in a short text in which he comments in some cases on what he calls the "spirit" of city life.

     Personally, I intend to use the illustrations in the book as examples of historical sources for my students. The paintings and drawings are often colourful and beautiful pieces of art and may inspire students to imagine city life in ways impossible if they only read written accounts. However, it must be added that Whitfield's selection of images mainly focuses on the more desirable aspects of urban life. Portraying Manchester, Whitfield comments on John Heywood's pictorial map from 1886: "The towering architecture of the public buildings rises proudly out of an apparently empty plain; the houses where the common people lived and the factories where they worked have been mysteriously wiped off the map for fear of spoiling the view" (p. 112). Obvious questions are: Why didn't Whitfield pick paintings and maps illustrating the darker sides of city life? Why don't we find any sewers or decaying houses falling to pieces? Why don't we find any traces of overpopulation, crime, disease, or pollution?

     Despite these reservations, Cities of the World is a welcome addition for teachers of world history. The text is well-informed and easy to read, but it does not provide major, new insights into the historiography of urban studies (a short bibliography refers to Lewis Mumford's Cities in History from 1961 and Arnold Toynbee's Cities of Destiny from 1967 as major sources of inspiration). But Peter Whitfield and University of California Press deserve praise for bringing both known and unknown urban maps, drawings, and paintings out of the archives (a large majority from The British Library) and into an aesthetic book full of picturesque urban images.



Andreas Aase
Agder University College
Kristiansand, Norway


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