Delight in a historic city atlas
Explore cities of the past in a facsimile atlas
4 July 2016
The beautiful works of early cartographers cause me to marvel at both their technical skill and their artistic and creative abilities. In this world of the ubiquitous Google maps, they make me realise the hunger our ancestors had for knowing about the world they inhabited, the strange or exotic places they might hear about as well as those closer to home that they would never have the opportunity to visit. It also reinforces the fact that while most people lived and died close to where they were born, there were a significant number who travelled surprisingly widely.
While few copies of the original atlases published in the 16th and 17th centuries survive, and may be so rare and fragile that they can only be handled by a few privileged scholars, some excellent facsimile editions provide us with the opportunity to experience some of the delight of the original. A digitised version just doesn’t give me the same pleasure as turning the pages of an atlas, seeing its actual size, feeling its weight and seeing it as the first owner did—with a sense of wonder and exploration.
One of my favourites is the Civitates orbis terrarum. The Library holds two facsimile editions of this monumental work. The first is a reproduction of the entire 6 volume set, published in Amsterdam in 1965. The second, which is on display during July in the Library’s Special Collections Reading Room, was produced by Taschen in Germany in 2009. It is a reprint of all 363 colour city plates from the original, accompanied by selected extracts from the original text on the history and significance of each urban centre, plus translations of the Latin cartouches. A detailed commentary has been added that places each city map in its cartographical and cultural context, and examines earlier sources that influenced the maps and later editions.
The Civitates orbis terrarum is recognized as one of the greatest achievements of late 16th and early 17th century European cartography. It was produced between 1572 and 1617—just before the devastation caused by the Thirty Years' War. It contained 564 plans, bird's-eye views, and map views of all major cities in Europe, plus cities in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America that were important to Europeans.
Georg Braun (1541-1622), a canon of Cologne Cathedral, conceived the idea for the atlas and was responsible for the descriptions for each of the plates in the series as well as the introductions for each volume. Over a hundred different artists and cartographers contributed to the Civitates including Joris Hoefnagel and his son Jakob, Hendrik van Schoel, the surveyor Jacob van Deventer of the Netherlands, the English cartographer William Smith and the Danish cartographer Heinrich van Rantzau. It was largely engraved by the cartographer Franz Hogenberg (1535-1590).
The Civitates not only shows the towns but also features additional elements, such as figures in local dress, ships, ox-drawn carts, agricultural scenes and topographical details that help convey the situation, commercial power, and political importance of the towns they accompany. It therefore provides a unique view of urban life at the turn of the 17th century. In fact, many of the maps are still relevant when visiting historical town centres today.
Interestingly, Braun's motives for adding figures to the views went further than just providing some ‘local colour’. As he stated in his introduction to book 1, he believed that by depicting people, his plans would therefore not be scrutinized for military secrets by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire, as their religion forbade them from looking on representations of the human form. The cartographers of the period had to be wary of provoking the ire of the authorities. Maps could be a risky business!