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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)