A bitter gale sliced its way through the heart of Amsterdam the night of February 22nd, 1672, causing "severe cold and dryness," the Hollandse Mercurius later recorded. Dryness is not what one desires when attempting to heat a large, open building filled with wood presses and paper. Dutch buildings in the 17th Century often were little warmer than the air outside. Fireplaces were essential on cold winter nights, even while the growing port city's residents knew flames were always capable of spreading beyond their brick-encased enclosures. But why would anyone be heating, at 3:30 a.m., not a private home, but the largest printing house in Europe?
The reason was an overnight crew seeking to fulfill the single-minded drive of a polymath; a scientist, artist, publisher, lawyer and entrepreneur. More than four decades earlier Joan Blaeu--John, if you translated his Dutch name into English--set out to fulfill the grand ambition of another striking intellect, his father Willem. That dream would be a singularly magnificent legacy of the Golden Age of Discovery, an eleven-volume world atlas. The more than six hundred maps in the Atlas Maior--translated from Latin as the Atlas Major--depicted both the known and the supposed with an accuracy never before seen via an artistry never seen since.
The mapping of the globe fueled the Age of Discovery, but the quest for knowledge was not limited to exploration and cartography. 17th Century thinkers believed all was knowable and sought to prove their point. While Newton hypothesized about our connection to the universe and Descartes our conceptual place in it, Blaeu mapped the contours of their exploration. Take the full title of Blaeu's work: Atlas maior sive cosmographia Blaviana, qua solum, salum, coelum, accuratissime describuntur, or "Large Atlas or Blaeu's Cosmography, in which the Land, the Sea and the Heavens Are Very Accurately Described." "Greetings, Candid Reader!" Blaeu writes in the atlas' introduction. "Beginning with the Earth, I here offer this Geography, complete in all its categories insofar as this was possible in an undertaking that can never be perfected, in eleven volumes."
Printing such a behemoth was no small undertaking. The first three editions of the Atlas Maior--issued in 1662, 1663 and 1664 in Latin, French, and Dutch, respectively--comprised a print run of a mere three hundred copies each. To produce those nine hundred volumes required one thousand work days to assemble the appropriate information in a coherent manner; another three hundred for letterpress printing; nine hundred more for copper-plate printing; and a final three hundred for binding. On that bitter cold February evening at Blaeu's state-of-the-art printing house on Amsterdam's Gravenstraat, his overworked staff was printing a fourth set, this one in Spanish. The reports are unclear how the fire spread from the hearth, but spread it did.
Flames moved quickly throughout the building, across stacks of paper inked and clean. As the fire burst through the roof and exploded window panes, glowing flakes of paper whisked through the night sky the length of town, reaching the Amsterdam Toll gate. "Heaven ordained the disaster... on the 23 of this month at half-past three in the night," the poetic account of the Hollandse Mercurius reads, but the writer then acknowledges the cause likely was from negligence on the part of a printer's apprentice, not otherworldly fate.
Several fire brigades quickly found their way to the scene. But Jan van der Heiden, an officer on one of the brigades, later described the impotence of their efforts. The water brought to the scene, he said, froze inside the hoses.
At the time of the fire, the Atlas Maior had been in print for six years, and copies were owned by the wealthiest businessmen in Holland. Blaeu sold handsomely carved wooden cabinets built specifically to house and display those volumes. He bound some editions in crushed purple velvet, others in red Moroccan leather. The interior pages contained crests for the various royal families of Europe; a buyer could have his own family crest included for a little extra cash.
Many members of European royal families possessed their own copies of the Atlas Maior. They didn't have to pay extra for inclusion of their family crests, and often they didn't pay at all. Blaeu--a savvy politician on the powerful Amsterdam City Council and the longtime Chief Hydrographer of the Dutch East Indies Company--knew that ownership of his masterpiece by powerful kings increased its allure.
Those purchasing the complete set faced a daunting cost, however. The retail price--as much as four hundred and sixty Dutch florins--made Atlas Maior the most expensive book set of the 17th Century. To put that cost in perspective, a printing shop apprentice earning the generous wage of two florins a week would have to work for more than four years while incurring no expenses to gross enough to buy his own set.
The economic value of a single set of the Atlas Maior rose steadily that bitter cold night, like the glowing flakes of atlas pages that drifted upward above the rudely awakened city. As the fire brigade officer put it: "[T]he large printing works with everything in it was damaged to such an extent that even the copper plates stacked in the far corners melted like lead in the flames and others were completely scorched. A large number of very important plates were lost there..."
In fact, most of the plates used to produce the Atlas Maior were lost that night. Some of those plates had been in use in various atlases, with some modifications, for fifty years or more. Joan Blaeu's hands had manipulated every one of them. Sometimes the true impact of a tragedy is not fully realized until time has passed. What became clear years later, as the world-leading Dutch cartographers found themselves eclipsed by the English, was that the night of February 22nd, 1672, marked the end of the cartographic chapter of the Golden Age of Discovery.
The year 1672 is known in Holland as the Rampjaar, or "Disaster Year." The fire was the first of two major tragedies for Joan Blaeu in his own personal disaster year.
Thick glass shielded me from touching it, but I still caught my breath when I first saw the volume before me. It was only one of eleven, of course, and the oversized book was only open to one map, but I felt its greatness through the case. It was 2009, and I stood in Manhattan's South Street Seaport Museum with twenty or so other Washington Map Society members. We were recipients of a private tour of a new exhibit marking the 400th anniversary of the discovery of Manhattan by Henry Hudson. While the navigator was an Englishman, he sailed on that mission as an employee of the Dutch West Indies Company. His contract had been translated from Dutch to English by a cartographer named Jodocus Hondius, who at the time was living in London to escape a particularly bad stretch of the Dutch war of independence against Spain. Hondius and one of his two sons would later play a pivotal role in the creation of the Atlas Maior.
During my visit to the museum I was largely left alone with Blaeu's masterpiece. The most popular exhibit proved to be the famous 1626 Peter Schagen letter, in which the Dutch West Indies Company representative reported that Dutch colonists "purchased the Island Manhattes from the Indians for the value of 60 guilders." It was a line made in passing. Far more words were given to the cargo of the ship that would be arriving from New Amsterdam, including 7,246 beaver skins and 853-1/2 otter skins; no explanation was given as to what happened to the other half of that final otter's skin. This letter, our guide explained, helped create the myth that Manhattan was purchased for a few dollars. In fact the transaction held no meaning to the native Manhattan Indians, who didn't perceive land as a commodity to buy or sell.
While others discussed the improbable origins of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, I looked more closely at the Atlas Maior map in front of me, titled "Nova Belgica et Anglia Nova," or "New Netherland and New England." The Atlantic Ocean appeared on casual observation to be on the wrong side of the American coastline, because Blaeu had oriented the map in a way we would consider upside down. The choice of North atop a map is a recent development. In fact, for much of Western cartography's history, mapmakers placed East at the top to acknowledge the presumed location of the garden of Eden.
Magnificent illustrations marked the map before me. Half-naked natives flanked the map's cartouche. Detailed depictions of Dutch sailing vessels approached Manhattan Island. Indian canoes floated near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Pairs of deer, bears, otters, and a solitary beaver roamed the uncharted interior. Particularly striking was the expanse of the territory Blaeu claimed as "New Netherland." Great Britain was shown possessing New England and Virginia in green, and France eastern Canada in pink, but the Dutch yellow bled far beyond its sole colony of New Amsterdam in southern Manhattan. Deep into the uncharted American continent the imagined yellow empire spread, ultimately pinning in both pink and green.
"Benevolent reader, take pleasure in our labors and whenever something is lacking in either map or description, bear in mind that a mistake is easily made when describing a place one has never seen and that forgiveness is nowhere more appropriate than here," Blaeu wrote in the Atlas Maior's introduction. But the Dutch Republic never held any land in North America beyond lower Manhattan, and in 1665--two years after this map's publication--the Dutch would cede to its rivals naval might and surrender the island to the English. I suspect domestic pride by Blaeu--at the time of this publication a powerful figure in the Dutch government--led to him knowingly exaggerating his native land's global reach.
Blaeu had much to be proud of himself. But what drove his multi-decade obsession to create the Atlas Maior? The answer eluded Cornelius Koeman in his biography of Blaeu:
He must have been inspired by a creative impulse that sent him riding roughshod over the carefully calculating business methods we consider indispensable, consciously aspiring to achieve a culmination in atlas production such as the world had never seen before. And to what end? It is difficult to find an adequate answer... It must have seemed absolutely imperative to create something that would astound the whole civilized world.
Joan Blaeu was born in the modest Dutch village of Alkmaar in 1598, to Willem and Marretgen Blaeu. The twenty-year old Willem was full of promise yet to be fulfilled. He had returned to Holland in the year prior to Joan's birth after serving as an apprentice to the famed astronomer Tycho Brahe on the Dutch island of Ven. (Illustrations of Ven and the Brahe observatory would later be featured in the Atlas Major.) Willem was in a hurry, it seems. He married Marretgen shortly after meeting her in Alkmaar, and Joan came along not too long after that. Conflicting records exist of the exact date of Joan's birth, leaving unanswered the question of the motivation for the hasty marriage. Willem then took his new bride and infant son to Amsterdam. In 1599 Willem opened a modest print shop, relocating to a prime waterfront location in 1605. It was there, in a modest apartment above the shop, that Joan would spend his childhood, joined over time by six younger siblings.
Willem had rejected the lucrative yet intellectually stultifying profession of his father and grandfather--the herring business--to pursue a dream of dominating cartography, an emerging and profitable field. In two years under Brahe, Willem discovered two stars, but more important to his new profession, he determined a more precise means of calculating the Earth's circumference. That insight gave him means to more properly estimate distance and latitude, and he applied that science to mapmaking, a field at the time still known more for art than accuracy. He was an artist as well, however, and we can see that in a painting by Johannes Vermeer. The background of the famous painting Officer and a Laughing Girl is dominated by a Willem Blaeu map of Holland and West Friesland.
Within a few short years of opening his waterfront shop, ship captains across Europe demanded Willem's nautical atlas. His fame led to the appointment as Hydrographer to the Dutch East Indies Company, which gave him access to the latest intelligence gathered by the navigators of the world's largest commercial fleet.
Willem Blaeu was an imposing figure, with a long face and an equally long mustache and beard that completely disguised his mouth. Facial hair was common among the Dutch in the Golden Age, and Blaeu's was thick but properly trimmed. The hair on his head was largely dark, but his beard had turned prematurely gray, adding an element of dignity to his appearance. Both the stern angularity of Willem's face and his stare are not found in portraits of his adult son Joan, who had softer features, more rounded eyes and a slightly fuller face, all suggesting a more wealthy upbringing than his father had enjoyed. Joan wore his hair long, unlike the close-cropped style of his father, but suffered more dramatic baldness on the top of his head. Unlike the full beard of his father, Joan favored a thick, dark mustache with a neatly trimmed goatee.
As a boy, Joan was allowed to accompany Willem into the print house downstairs. The youth soon learned that the making of a map was a multi-step process. By the 17th century, copper plates were the norm in printing, replacing woodcuts. With woodcuts the mapmaker carved depressions in the wood, with the raised portions inked and pressed to paper. There was little opportunity for fine lines or shading, but copper allowed much finer detail. The technology is still used today to print some currency and stamps. One cuts a mirror image into the plate and then runs wet paper over it. The paper absorbs the ink that seeps through the cut copper, and the paper is then hung to dry.
A copper plate can last for decades, and thus cartographers often flattened with a hammer out-of-date sections of maps and updated them with the latest information. Many of the plates that melted in the 1672 fire originated as plates carved by Willem Blaeu decades earlier. But Joan as a young man didn't immediately join his father's enterprise. In 1616 he moved to Leiden to earn a law degree with additional study in mathematics. After graduating three years later he set off to explore Europe. Biographers can find no trace of him until 1630, when, as he tells us in the "Greetings" of the Atlas Major, he joined the family business. There are hints in the Atlas Maior of some of the places he visited, however, with particular references to the varying beauty of the local women.
Amsterdam in 1630 bustled with 116,000 residents, more than twice its population when his father brought him here as an infant. His father's shop was in the Damrak region, which means "upon the water." The Damrak is still a term in use in Amsterdam today; it refers now to a filled-in canal area from the train station to Dam Square. The Damrak in 1630 featured rows of neatly maintained multi-story brick buildings. Most European cities were little more than mud tracks, but Amsterdam residents fastidiously swept and maintained the streets in front of their homes. One visiting English trader, remarking on the polish of the town, wrote that "every door seems studded with diamonds. The nails and hinges keep a constant brightness as if there were not a quality incident to iron." Dutch women also did not follow the European habit of emptying chamber pots out upstairs windows onto the streets below. Instead they did so in the city's canals, the odor of which combined with emissions from the growing town's many breweries to produce a uniquely distinctive aroma. One contemporary described it as a combination of "frying oil, shag tobacco and unwashed beer glasses."
Willem and Joan's fiercest competitor operated a shop next door. Jan Jansson had long been a thorn in Willem's side. He capitalized on the similarity of his last name to Willem's--Janszoon--and was once successfully prosecuted in court for plagiarizing a Willem Blaeu nautical atlas. But for all of Joan's life, his father's domination of the nautical atlas market had not produced the fame that was accorded another competitor, the owner of a monopoly of the most prestigious of atlases, the type depicting both sea and land. That mapmaker was Jocodus Hondius, the man who had translated Hudson's contract with the Dutch West Indies Company.
Gerard Mercator--the creator of the projection of the Earth's round surface onto a two-dimensional map is predominant to this day--in the late 16th Century had coined the term "atlas" with his publication of such a volume, only the second cartographer to attempt to capture the world in one set of maps. When Mercator died Hondius had purchased his copper plates, and thus launched a series of Mercator-Hondius atlases that were unequaled in both quality and sales.
It was Willem's obsession to obtain a sufficient collection of plates to produce his own world atlas, either through production or acquisition. When Joan joined his father's company in 1630 that goal had just been met. Evidence of how Willem fulfilled his dream was visible in how he marked some of his maps. Willem's imprint was complex; it featured a globe flanked by two figures, a winged Time holding a staff and a Hercules bringing a club down on a wild beast. Time's staff is dragging a banner reading "Indefessus Agendo." Translated into English, this described Willem Blaeu's "indefatigable agenda" to dominate cartography. Willem passed in 1637, but Joan kept using "Indefessus Agendo" on his maps for the rest of his life. Those two words defined Joan's life mission, which began with that fateful return to his father's shop.
A close examination of the imprint on a few of the maps in the atlas Willem and Joan jointly published in 1631--the Atlantis Appendix, the first world atlas by a publisher other than Hondius in the 17th Century--revealed another phrase, ghostlike, under "Indefessus Agendo." It read "Jodocus Hondius excudit," or, in English, "Jodocus Hondius engraved this." How is it that Willem Blaeu had obtained plates from his bitter rival Hondius?
Hondius had died three years earlier, leaving his market-dominating collection of copper plates to his sons Jodocus II and Henricus. The siblings had a falling out after their father's death, and each determined to publish his own atlas. Less than a year later, Jodocus II died as well. His widow put her late husband's extensive inheritance of copper plates up for auction. Before Henricus Hondius could learn of the sale, Willem purchased thirty-seven plates, filling in the few parts of the Earth still absent in his collection.
The Atlantis Appendix was a slapdash product lacking originality; a majority of the maps bear a striking resemblance to those in the extremely popular Hondius-Mercator atlas. In the preface to the Appendix, Willem spun this by claiming his work was a supplement to 16th Century atlases produced both by Mercator as well as the first publisher of an atlas, Abraham Ortelius.
Henricus Hondius did not take well to this new competition. He went into business with the Blaeu's neighbor Jan Jansson, who also happened to be his brother-in-law. The new partners took out newspaper ads attacking the Appendix, and set out to publish a new atlas that would restore the Hondius monopoly.
Joan, meanwhile, married a well-to-do local, Geertruid, in December of 1634, and fathered six children with her. Their first child arrived in 1635, a son they named Willem. In 1636 the toddler laid the symbolic cornerstone at a groundbreaking ceremony for a new print shop, the one that would later burn to the ground. When it opened it set the European publishing industry abuzz. Printers from across Europe toured the impressive building, seventy-five feet deep and one hundred and thirty-five feet long, wrapping around a street corner and encompassing a private residence. The shop contained nine letter presses--each one named for a different Greek muse--and six presses for copper plates. One contemporary chronicle said the value of the copper plates held there "must certainly have cost a ton of gold." The presses were a Willem Blaeu design, one of the first significant advances to the technology since their invention by Johannes Gutenberg nearly two centuries earlier. Willem's modifications adjusted the angle of operation to require less physical force to press while allowing the user to ease strain on his back. With those two adjustments, Willem ensured a happier and more productive workforce.
Willem and Joan would only work together in this shop for about a year; Willem died on October 21st, 1638. The cause of death was not recorded, but it must have been expected, because the Dutch East Indies Company that very day named Joan Blaeu his father's successor as official Hydrographer.
Willem departed in the early stages of a comical race between the Blaeu and Hondius-Jansson printing houses, with each attempting to win by printing atlases with more maps than the competition. Mercator and Hondius published a volume with one hundred and eighty-two maps in 1634, adding thirteen more in 1636. With his father near death, Joan answered in 1638 with a two-volume Niewen Atlas, or New Atlas, atlas bursting with two hundred and forty-seven maps. Joan added a third volume in 1640 with sixty-two more maps, and a fourth volume shortly after that with fifty-nine more. Jansson--now publishing alone as well, as Henricus Hondius had lost interest--issued supplements as well, with sixty-two more maps in 1646 and an additional thirty-three in 1650. The latter volume allowed Jansson to re-take the lead on map count, until Blaeu reclaimed it in 1654 with Volume 5, containing forty-nine maps of Scotland, and Volume 6 in 1655, with nineteen maps of China. Much of this race focused more on the number of maps than their quality or utility.
It finally became clear that the war could not be won by supplements, but rather the release of a completely new, comprehensive atlas. Jansson struck first. In 1658 the world was introduced to the Novus Atlas absolutissimus, or Perfect New Atlas. It was available in ten or eleven volumes, boasting more than five hundred maps. Jansson's work was well-received in the marketplace, and Joan needed to respond. In 1662 the Atlas Maior hit the market, with twelve volumes and nearly six hundred maps. But this time its larger size was not its key strength. What captivated the moneyed interests of Europe was its scope, ambition, scientific knowledge, and particularly its artistry. That breath-catching beauty captivated me that day at the South Street Seaport Museum.
The dominance of Blaeu's Atlas Maior remains to this day. The German publisher Taschen sells a one-volume, 596-page replica of the Atlas Major, each map beautifully rendered. I have not found a reproduction of the Jansson Novus Atlas absolutissimus on the market.
The day after we visited the South Street Seaport Museum our merry band of map lovers visited the New York Public Library to see an exhibit titled "Mapping New York's Shoreline 2009." Dominating the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building's D. Daniel and Jeane H. Gottesman Exhibition Hall was a map twelve feet long by six inches wide published in 1846 by Wade & Crooms. Visitors crowed the length of a long table in the center of the exhibit to examine the map's depiction of the Hudson River's entire shoreline, its curves straightened to accommodate the map's sheets. But I lingered by a different glass case. On this day I was treated to four separate Atlas Maior volumes.
Volume I was opened to "Europa." The map lines the continent with images of nine cities in small ovals--beginning with a view of Amsterdam from its harbor--and features left and right frames depicting Europeans in local dress, including dour "Belgi" and flamboyant "Germani." Volume III displayed "Nederlandt," not a map but instead the title plate of that volume's section on the Netherlands, displaying several iterations of the Lion of Holland. The Dutch embraced that image during their rebellion against Spain when the cartographer Claes Janszoon Visscher created a series of maps depicting an independent Holland in the shape of a lion. Volume IV showed "Essexia," a map featuring a Dutch vessel threatening the English shore as well as a blank space in the lower right awaiting the coat of arms of a wealthy purchaser. Volume IX's "Asia" map was modeled after "Europa" in having nine city maps across the top and ten pairs of locals, such as fur-clad "Moscovitae" and turbaned "Arabes."
I peered through the sides of the case to better appreciate the thickness of each volume--easily four inches apiece--while silently expressing gratitude that these volumes had survived more than three hundred years. I couldn't help but think of that 1672 fire, part of what the Dutch call Rampjaar, or "Disaster Year." They don't call it that because of the loss of Joan Blaeu's Atlas Maior copper plates, however. Rather, 1672 was a year of upheaval that shook both government and society.
Joan Blaeu had entered politics in 1650 as a pro-Republic member of the powerful City Council of Amsterdam. His appointment occurred shortly after an unsuccessful coup by the Republic's proto-monarch, the stadholder William II. In 1672 Great Britain had a restored monarchy following the reign of Oliver Cromwell and a Parliament itching for a war of distraction; the Dutch Republic seemed an easy target. No Dutchman had ever known a life without war, and unlike their prolonged but ultimately successful war of independence against Spain, few believed their elected leaders capable of winning this one. They dreamed of a return of the closest thing to Dutch royalty, a descendent of the revolutionary hero William of Orange. In 1672, many championed the young would-be stadholder William III to be their leader. Only twenty two, he had been born just after his father's failed 1650 coup. Sensing the shifting tide, the Dutch elected leader John de Witt--who had served as ward for William and had tutored him in politics--stepped down. The gesture did not satisfy an angry populace. He and his brother Cornelius were wrongly accused of an assassination attempt on William III, and an armed mob seized the two men. Cornelius was stabbed to death by swords, pikes and muskets. John was killed with a bullet to the head. Their bodies were stripped of clothing and dragged through the streets, ultimately suspended from a scaffold by their feet. As evidence of the extreme hatred held by many Dutch, many in the crowd sliced off Cornelius and John's fingers, toes and genitalia to take home for roasting and eating.
William III soon assumed command of the country, declared emergency powers, and on September 10th, 1672, dismissed sixteen Amsterdam council members aligned with the de Witt regime, including Joan. In a few short months Joan had lost the ability to continue to produce his lasting work, the atlas that he had spent forty years constructing, as well as a position of power and civil authority. His health fell into decline, which his biographer believes was directly attributable to his Disaster Year setbacks. On December 28th, 1673, at the age of seventy-five, he died.
Part of what may prompt modern perception of a tragic end of Joan's life is what happened after he died. His son Joan II inherited the family business but lacked his father's passion. He sold most of the remaining copper map plates to various competitors, although pointedly not to Jansson. He then sold the Blaeu print business itself. It's easy to imagine how things might have been different, given one of the rival houses to Blaeu, Elsevier, survives to this day. Elsevier's success in the latter part of the 17th Century was driven in part by acquisitions purchased from Joan II.
But I choose to celebrate what survives. More than sixty copies of the French, Dutch, and Latin versions of the Atlas Maior live on in museums and libraries around the world. I remain alert to opportunities to view more volumes in person.
Two years after the publication of the first Atlas Maior, Filips von Zesen published a book documenting life in Amsterdam. The author extolled the virtue of Willem and Joan Blaeu, then writes this:
But why should we here give to them such unbounded praise? Since father and son without eulogy from us are so well known to the entire learned world, to which they have presented such treasures of inestimable value through their incomparable pains and at great cost, and are so far advanced on the road to immortality, it is more becoming in us to remain silent than to speak further concerning them.
I wish he had chosen to speak further of Willem and Joan. But their legacy lives on in the Atlas Maior.