La Carte du Minard: A Masterpiece in Data Visualization

"Not a man, but the gods defeated me," Napoleon said to Metternich when asked about his debacle in Russia in 1812. (1) Indeed, Napoleon's Great Army was one of the most efficient and feared armed forces to ever cross Europe. Before the beginning of the Russian campaign, it counted 400.000 trained and experienced soldiers. Decimated by the enemy raids, hunger, and cold, only 10,000 of these returned home. What no soldier had ever succeeded, 'general winter' had inflicted his first defeat to Napoleon, Emperor of France, and terror of the entire European aristocracy.

Majority of the people in Europe know the history of Napoleon's Russia campaign as it is such an immense tragedy that has remained etched in the memory of the European people who still cultivate it today. But what was the path followed by the Napoleonic army, and how did its ranks thin?

Charles Joseph Minard: Mapping Napoleon's March, 1861 (Center for Spatially Integrated Social Science (CSISS), 2017) (1)

Joseph Minard, a French cartographer who lived in the time of Napoleon, tried to answer the question long before the emergence of data science; and it is thanks to his creative genius and the meticulousness of his work that his charts are considered to be one of the founding pillars of modern data visualization science today.

Charles Joseph Minard,1781-1870 (Sack, 2020) (2)

What makes it an object of study is its ability to insert graphics, time, and history into a single graphical architecture; so gently integrated that the viewer is hardly aware that he is looking to a world in three dimensions.

Consistent with the French invasion of Russia, the observer is invited to read the map from left to right in order to follow the data flow in the easiest way possible. The thick tan flow line showing the 422.000 of Napoleon's soldiers begins on the Polish-Russian border near the river Niemen. The width of the band clearly indicates the size of the army during the whole six months of campaign. When it reached to Moscow in September, the army had already been reduced to 100.000 people.

Napoleon's retreat is illustrated through the smaller dark band that is linked to the winter temperature in Russia. Dates and scale show the intensity of the harsh winter during which members of the army froze to death on the march. This showed that the Great Army's attempt to cross the Berenzian River resulted with an absolute disaster causing only 10.000 remaining soldiers to finally enter Poland on December 1812. (2)

According to Edward Tufte, professor emeritus of statistics and computer science at Yale University: "It may be the best statistical graphic ever drawn." (Tufte, 2013). (3) The reasons for his enthusiasm are to be found in the way Minard decided to plot his work on variables: the size of the army, its geographical location on two-dimensional surfaces (longitude and latitude), its direction (from west to east), temperatures registered, and some other additional dates that are quite easy to follow for the viewer. Minard's work is unique because of its incredible ability to juggle such a large amount of data on the space which give us access to lots of different matches. For example, we can compare Napoleon's troops at the beginning and the end of the campaign at a glance. With the knowledge of only one survivor for every 42 men, it becomes immediately clear why this military campaign has fascinated generations of historians.

Equally clear are the moments when the army suffered tremendous losses such as the passage of the Berezina River, during which the ice broke, subsequently causing the demise of 25,000 men engulfed by the current. It should be noted that the map shows the progress of the campaign, not the reasons that had influenced it. One possible explanation is the climate. This data is offered to the reader. However, winter cold alone is not a strong enough reason: the Russian army played an important role in Napoleon's defeat. In light of these, today, we can say that Minard consciously decided not to offer all the contextual information necessary to understand the historical event: used sources, the identity of the author and the publisher as well as editorial choices have never been disclosed.

Napoleon's crossing of the Berezina, January Suchodolski, 1866 (National Museum in Poznań) (3)

All in all, there is enough evidence for one to reasonably argue that Minard's work, contextualised in his historical period, is an excellent work of visualization since his map displays complex information through a clear structure. At the same time, the developments that data visualization science has made in the last years show us that Minard's maps are an object of worship as well as being a yardstick for a science that aims at maximum transparency today.


1. Napoleone vs Metternich - L’inizio della fine. Retrieved November 22, 2021, from ARTE website:

2. Riehn, R. K., & Internet Archive. (1990). 1812 : Napoleon’s Russian campaign. In Internet Archive. Retrieved from

3. Tufte, E. R. (2013). The visual display of quantitative information. Cheshire, Connecticut: Graphics Press


1. Center for Spatially Integrated Social Science (CSISS). (2017, March 12). Retrieved November 22 2021,from website: 2. Sack, H. (2020, October 24). Charles Joseph Minard and the Art of Infographics. Retrieved November 22, 2021, from SciHi Blog website:

3. National Museum in Poznan - Przejście przez Berezynę.JPG - Wikimedia Commons. (2020). Retrieved November 22, 2021, from website:

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Leonardo Delfanti

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