Visualising geographical imagination. A method for spatial big data analysis in the context of the early modern Catholic world
My research focuses on the visualisation of space in the 16th and 17th centuries, including physical geography as a mixture of reality and imagination, and human geography as textual and visual descriptions of cultural, social and political issues. Working within the Research Group Governance of the Universal Church, I examine the geographical imagination within the early modern documents of the Holy See. The Holy See was a truly global institution that acted in religious and political spaces and created a specific picture of the world with different ‘layers’. At the same time, it was not a homogeneous body. The combination of these factors poses special challenges for research using data analysis.
Regarding the link between geography and geographical imagination, I raise several key research questions. Firstly, in general, how was territory considered in the pre-modern period? This question must also take into consideration that much of the data available to us now is inevitably biased, in that it can only be verified to a limited degree. Secondly, and more specifically, how did the ‘mental map’ thus generated create and change the image of the world, including the projections and stereotypes caused by the aforementioned biased data? To answer these questions, I concentrate in particular on the cultural and political concepts – such as Indiarum, Mauri, heretics etc – that appeared in the geographical descriptions and juridical documents produced by the Holy See and local ecclesiastical actors.
Regarding primary sources, I focus on the Positiones, ie dossiers and reports from dioceses around the then known world. They contain a wide range of information about geographical, legal and political spaces, as well as data on authors and their needs and legal status. My research primarily investigates 17th-century data; however, it also includes particular cases from other periods.
The core aim of the research is to develop a method and related tools for facilitating and improving the visualisation of geographical imagination and layers of social, cultural and political contexts in a historical perspective. These tools could compensate for the fact that GIS and modern geo-spatial instruments are useless in this context, since the dataset is biased or incorrect, as explained above – and because we cannot use modern geographical projections for the past. The results of this work, such as instruments, methods, libraries and programming language packages, could also be used for other research in different contexts and periods.