Delight in a historic city atlas

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.

Cover of facsimile edition

Cover of facsimile edition

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.

View of Warsaw from the Civitates orbis terrarum

View of Warsaw from the Civitates orbis terrarum, from wikimedia commons 

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).

View of Marseille

View of Marseille from the Civitates orbis terrarum from wikimedia commons

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.

View of Frankfurt

View of Frankfurt from the Civitates orbis terrarum from wikimedia commons

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!

View of Venice

View of Venice from the Civitates orbis terrarum nla.obj-233398363

A facsimile edition of Civitates orbis terrarum or Cities of the World is on display during July 2016 in the Library’s Special Collections Reading Room.

Hi Julie - Thanks for the post. I loved reading it. My interest in Maps is just increasing all the time (and in another life, I'd be a Cartographer)
Thanks very much Andrew. I'm delighted you enjoyed reading the post. The atlas is fascinating and I'd encourage you to go and have a look at it while it is on display in July.
1486 to 1800 Cities, mainly in Europe And since 2001, a very useful website
Thanks very much for sharing the link to this website DL. It looks like a fascinating project and of great benefit to everyone who loves to explore the history of cities.