The helicopter shot over Manhattan at night, the glittering canyons of light, we've seen it a hundred times. In fact the chopper shot has been around for five hundred years. Aerial views of the city were commonplace very early; take a street plan, tilt it, add pop-up buildings and (quite remarkable since we are pre-flight by about 600 years) we have the urban aerial view; (a bit primitive, it is true, with some conflict in the reconciliation of two dimensions and three.) In his 1572 volume of city views of Europe, Africa and Asia, Georg Braun says: "Perspective to some extent fulfil's man's age-old dream of being able to fly….In these drawings it is used to reveal the city from angles ranging between 30 degrees and 60 degrees above the horizontal". When we did get into the air two hundred years after Braun's wistful 'age old dream' aerial topography came true. The photographer Nadar was to float above the face of Paris in the 1840s. Balloon topographers took to the skies of London.
But how do you deal with all that data once you are up there? Landscape art had developed ways to encapsulate the countryside in single images. (In the eighteenth century the standard picturesque view consisted of foreground, framing trees, horizons). Could there be any such simplification of the city? The sheer extent and detail of the city makes it harder to represent. How do you fit something so big into a frame?
The travel poster, the table mat, the postcard, the souvenir, uncool though they may be, are interesting as distillations of a city. A Bolivian first-time visitor to London, (as innocent of London as are we of La Paz) can only approach the city with some kind of expectations, a pastiche of London-y things probably only just viable as symbols of the city; the bowler hat (near to non-existent) the red bus, or a view of the Houses of Parliament seen from Westminster Bridge; the stuff of the lowest rank souvenir shop; a folk topography.
There is nothing new in these composite simplifications. Five hundred years ago the co-ordinates of the 'recognisable' London were, naturally, not the distant and barely connected Westminster. Rather London Bridge, the Tower of London and St. Mary Overy, (now Southwark Cathedral); these last two, juxtaposed, commonly summed up Tudor London. Tourists needed summaries of the city, be the destination London, Paris, Rome, Santiago de Compostela (especially the last two: the pilgrim was the early tourist.)