B. Piatti, L. Hurni

ETH Zurich, Institute of Cartography, Zurich, Switzerland


It all starts with one simple question: Where is fiction set? The main focus of a “literary geography“ – a field yet to be established – are the manifold interactions between real and imaginary geography in various literary genres. Territorial and topographical aspects of literature have received renewed academic attention within the last decade, but so far no convincing definition of the field, no concise glossary, and no cartographic tools have been developed.

A future literary geography will be a way of re-writing the history of literature. The suggested end product – an interactive literary atlas – can be described as a spatially and no longer chronologically organized history of Europe’s literary heritage and ongoing production.

Each type of literary setting and the way it refers to reality needs to be mapped in an appropriate way – whether it is realistically sketched and therefore easy to localize, fuzzy-edged or even completely fictitious, to name just a few possibilities.  

In order to design such an atlas, new tools and techniques are required: firstly, a database offering a multitude of query options to manage texts and text-related data, secondly, cartographic solutions to visualize these collected data in terms of static, interactive, and animated maps, diagrams, three-dimensional spatial models etc.

These visualizations are by no means just simple illustrations, but powerful interpretative tools. By actually mapping fictional spaces and places a broad range of questions is going to be dealt with for the first time: Why are some landscapes overly covered by literature while others remain blank spots? Why are some areas of high interest to internationally acclaimed authors while others seem to have a certain appeal to regional writers only? What happens in times of war – does the space of literature shrink or widen? Are there any typical plots requiring imaginary settings rather than realistic ones?

What comes in sight is Europe’s (imaginary) space of literature, which has its own dimensions, functions according to its own rules, but which is nevertheless anchored in the “reality” of existing spaces and places.

Currently the Institute of Cartography, ETH Zurich, prepares a pilot version of the atlas, whose outlines the paper will present, along with one case study (the literary landscape of the alpine scenery between Lake Lucerne and Mount Gotthard, Switzerland).