Describing Ukraine: Cartography and Travelogues

Photo: Enrico Fontalan

General Introduction

Often in the face of serious, sometimes dramatic and conflictual, changes in world politics, art historians have resorted to a model that underlines historical ties and continuities. For instance, Rudolf Witkower (1901–1971) and Fritz Saxl (1890–1948), two German emigrants, chose to draw attention to the evolution of relations between Great Britain and Southern Europe over several millennia when the National Socialists triggered the Second World War with their attack on Poland on September 1, 1939. Their expansive exhibition, titled „English Art and the Mediterranean“ (cf. Saxl/Wittkower 1948), which showed at the Warburg Institute in London starting December 2, 1941, featured more than 500 reproductions of artworks and monuments on 65 picture panels to illustrate the evolution of an intercultural relationship between the two regions over 5000 years.

The exhibition Describing Ukraine: Cartography and Travelogues cannot compete with this historical model in terms of its expanse, but the impetus for its production is no different. The Bibliotheca Hertziana responded decisively to the Russian attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022, by joining the international #ScienceForUkraine initiative, as a part of which it published a call for doctoral and postdoctoral fellowships in the field of art history in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus, directed at researchers who were seen to be endangered. Shortly thereafter, in a signal of solidarity with a besieged nation and its people, work began on Describing Ukraine. The result is an exhibition showcasing more than 30 books in ten distinct sections, to highlight the evolution of Western European perspectives on Ukraine over the past 2000 years. The maps and travel reports that are being made available to the public in Rome as well as online as digital copies are part of the holdings of the Bibliotheca Hertziana.

The challenge confronting such an exhibition is that its subject can hardly be satisfactorily defined. Already in 1995 Mark von Hagen stressed that the extreme heterogeneity of the country’s legacy makes Ukraine a complex subject as a field of historical research, in that it hardly fits the classical linear scheme of the evolution of a nation-state (cf. Hagen 1995). The nation-state paradigm does not do justice to its evolution as a sovereign entity and misguidedly renders it as a 20th-century construct of Stalin’s violent policy of expansion that unified practically all of today’s Ukrainian regions into a single Soviet state in 1922. However, the featured exhibition forefronts sources from the holdings of Bibliotheca Hertziana to complicate, if not defy, this simplistic narrative. As we sought to navigate through the continuities and discontinuities of Ukrainian history, we rummaged through these sources for insights into the centuries of processes that have shaped Ukraine’s cultural, political, and social identity.

Long before the Soviet Union was established, the territory of today’s Ukraine was part of various states and home to various peoples (cf. Kappeler 2022, pp. 7–23): Former Graeco-Roman colonies on the Black Sea and the steppe cultures of the Scythians and Tatars were subject to annexations by Poland-Lithuania and the Russian and Habsburg Empires. The term ‘Ukraina’, usually translated as ‘borderland’, first appeared in the 12th- and 13th-century chronicles, to designate the outskirts of the so-called Kyiv Empire (Kyivan Rus‘). Since the 16th century, Ukrainians and Poles have often referred to the area on the Middle Dnipro as Ukraine. In the course of the 17th century, however, this area was associated with the hetmanate of the Zaporozhian Cossacks and the designation ‘Ukraine’ was extended to include both the people and the language. To that extent, Ukraine competed with the collective term Rus‘ (Rusyn, Lat. Rutheni) until the 20th century. Furthermore, as Guillaume le Vasseur de Beauplan’s (1595–1673) Description d’Ukraine from 1651 (ed. 1660) indicates, this term was being used abroad at this time. In the 19th century, the popularity of the designation grew significantly as part of the Ukrainian national movement in the Russian Empire. The ethnonym was used again when the nation-states of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (1917–1920) and the West Ukrainian People’s Republic (1918–1919) were founded during the First World War, as also to designate the subsequent Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

What ‘Ukrainian’ means can therefore only be discerned through an understanding of the changes to which this concept has been subjected or the changes it has undergone throughout history, well into the 20th century. The books on display at the Bibliotheca Hertziana capture various stages in the long and complex Ukrainian history in ways that open up discussions and allow conclusions to be drawn about how Ukraine was perceived in Western Europe. In this context, a comparison of travel reports and maps has proven to be particularly informative: written reports provide information about the impressions that explorers, missionaries, researchers, and diplomats had about the region of Ukraine from the antiquity to the 20th century. They are often characterized by a mixture of truth and fiction, authentic or objective observations and familiar stereotypes. Early, classically educated visitors, such as William of Rubruck or Sigmund von Herberstein, traveled to their destinations with comprehensive knowledge of the regions and either subtly incorporated that into their descriptions or critically compared their information with their experiences.

The reciprocal relationship between cartographic material and travel reports cannot be overlooked nor underestimated: on the one hand, most of the maps in the exhibition resulted from extensive expeditions undertaken through the territory of today’s Ukraine; on the other hand, such maps made travels and expeditions possible in the first place and even influenced their course. Unlike written sources, maps do not invite speculation. Given their claim to scientificity in creating the most precise possible construction of the surface image of imperfectly known areas, maps compel their makers to express their opinion with certainty and make keen decisions. Through their constant recourse to older topographical knowledge enshrined in texts or plans, they establish an iconographic subgenre within the visual culture of Ukraine, the development of which can be traced within the framework of this exhibition. [TT/OO]