The Blaeu Maps
There was a time when geographic uncertainty blurred the lines between fact and fantasy.
Maps weren’t cast in stone, as they are today, but were instead open to magnificent interpretations. Most of the surviving maps and atlases from the seventeenth century were filled with fanciful errors, misinterpretations, or inconsistencies. Where there were gaps, they were filled with sea-dragons and elephants, with swirling clouds of dust and sea, and with extra-large lettering of Latin names.
Through human history there have been many examples of men and women whose work arrived long before its time. Among them were Yacub al-Kindi, Roger Bacon, Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Gallieo… and, the Blaeu family.
As great as any scientific oeuvre, and as sumptuous as any work of art, their collection of cartography was absolutely breathtaking, and was leaps and bounds ahead of anything else of the time.
Conceived by Willelm Blaeu of Amsterdam, but only completed by his son Joan, The Atlas Maior was the single most impressive work of geography since al-Idrisi’s Tabula Rogeriana, executed five centuries earlier.
Published in ten enormous volumes, and completed in the year 1665, the Atlas pushed the boundaries of printing and design, just as it did the limits of geographic knowledge.
The Blaeu atelier was at the time the largest printing firm in existence, with numerous presses and hundreds of artisans hand-printing each folio. These were then outsourced to artists’ studios for the colorizing, before being returned to the Blaeu workshops for binding. Even by today’s standards it was a colossal feat.
I chose a selection of the Blaeu maps to illustrate Scorpion Soup, having been spellbound by the way the each map walks the tightrope between fact and fantasy. To my eyes, they are a work of art as great as any other, and to be celebrated and championed by all.
And, I encourage anyone with an interest in the Atlas Maior, in taking advantage of Taschen’s extremely affordable reprint which, with time, will surely become a collector’s volume in its own right.
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