What is “Horror Vacui” in Cartography?

Caitlin Dempsey


If you’ve ever looked at a map created in the 1500s and 1600s, you might notice that many cartographers have filled every space with some kind of detail.

Even in the vast spaces of ocean or in distant lands that weren’t yet fully understood, mapmakers made sure to fill every crevice with patterns, map monsters, mythical creatures, and emblems.

What is Horror Vacui?

Cartographers during this time seem to be specially afflicted with what some art historians called “Horror Vacui”.

The term stems from the Latin meaning “fear of empty space”. Horror vacui is also known as kenophobia from the Greek for “feature of the empty”.

Free weekly newsletter

Fill out your e-mail address to receive our newsletter!

1562 map of the Western Hemisphere.
This 1562 map of the Western Hemisphere by Diego Gutiérrez leaves no space unadorned. Map: Americae sive qvartae orbis partis nova et exactissima descriptio, 1562, Library of Congress.

Cartographic historian, Chet Van Duzer, has given several talks over the years about why cartographers felt compelled to avoid blank spaces on their maps. Rationals offered have ranged from obscuring a lack of knowledge about a geographic area to creating embellishments to heighten the value of a cartographers work.

So far, Van Duzer has been only able to locate one contemporary acknowledgment of this practice on a 1592 map of the world on which Dutch cartographer Petrus Plancius noted that he had placed a carefully researched celestial map of the southern sky in order to fill up empty space in the Southern Hemisphere.

Scanned map of the counties of England, 1579: Royal MS 18 D III, f. 6r. British Library.
No space is left blank in this scanned map of the counties of England, 1579: Royal MS 18 D III, f. 6r. British Library.

You can watch the full talk by Chet Van Duzer to the New York Map Society in 2017 on Horror Vacui here:

YouTube video

[Via Map Room Blog]

Read next: Here Be Dragons: The Facts and Fictions of Mapmakers


Photo of author
About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.