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Course: Europe 1300 - 1800 > Unit 9

Lesson 4: Dutch Republic

The Great Atlas, Dutch edition

The Great Atlas, Dutch edition (Amsterdam: Joan Blaeu, 1664–65) (in support of the Center for Netherlandish Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) speakers: Benjamin Weiss, Leonard A. Lauder Senior Curator of Visual Culture, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Steven Zucker. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(jazzy music) - [Steven] We're standing in the Morse Study Room in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, looking at a series of enormous bound volumes. This is the Great Atlas, the Atlas Maior. - [Benjamin] It has multiple names because it was published in multiple languages. - [Steven] And this is no small feat. In this edition, the Dutch edition, there are nine volumes, but the ambition was a grand atlas that would cover the entire world. - [Benjamin] In the way that Blaeu described it, the heavens and the seas and the whole universe as understood at the time. - [Steven] These are books that are made in the 17th century, when there's an incredible accumulation of new information about the world. And these cartographers are trying to keep up. - [Benjamin] There's new information pouring into Europe from overseas journeys, from early colonization, from trade missions. - [Steven] These were made in Amsterdam, and there is perhaps no city better situated for the bringing together of this disparate knowledge. - [Benjamin] The Blaeus and their competitors are sitting in the one place in Europe where all of this information is coming together. Many pieces of this come from other places. There's information that comes from French sources, there's information that comes from German sources, from Spanish and Portuguese and English sources. But Amsterdam is at the center of a world trade network and a world intellectual network that allows that information to arrive much more easily and with much less effort in some ways than it would if you were sitting in some other, smaller, less well-connected place. - [Steven] Amsterdam was also an important center of publishing, and it was a city that was wealthy enough so that one could accumulate the capital investment that was necessary for an undertaking of this scale. - [Benjamin] There is an accumulation of capital and an accumulation of skill, in Amsterdam, but in the Netherlands more generally, that allows the whole thing to become turbocharged in the 17th century. These are handmade objects, and because of that, they're really expensive. - [Steven] So let's open this book. - [Benjamin] It starts in a very grand manner, almost like you're entering a series of rooms in a palace. This is Joan Blaeu's "Great Atlas, or Description of the World." - [Steven] And he's chosen a typeface that is clearly informed by ancient Roman lettering. - [Benjamin] This looks like an ancient Roman inscription, even though it's in Dutch. - [Steven] Especially since these are all capital letters. - [Benjamin] Which means that they're not as easy to read. So this is making a statement: "I'm big and I'm important." You enter in the first room and you have a letter from Blaeu to the reader. He tells you what the book is for and why it exists and why he undertook the project. - [Steven] There are several title pages as we flip through this book. - [Benjamin] Now we come to the second one, which is a little bit different from the first one. Still all type and all uppercase. And then you get something which looks more like a title page that we would think of today, because it has the same words, but it also has the printer's mark and tells you who published it, where, and when. - [Steven] The first thing that we see that has color is the printer's mark. Clearly, the importance of the printing house. - [Benjamin] One of the things about this copy is that almost all of the pictures are colored. They're not printed in color. If you want a color copy, you have to have it hand-colored. - [Steven] And that's important because these were prestige items. These were not atlases that were being used on voyages. These were kept in someone's home, in someone's palace, and they were a marker of their sophistication. It was a marker of their wealth. We've just turned yet another title page, and we've come across now a full-color etching that is itself processional and grand. - [Benjamin] This allegorical scene with all of the continents gathered around this chariot which is drawn by lions, and each continent is represented by an allegory of itself. - [Steven] With both an animal and a human figure representing that geography, surrounding a woman in this marvelous orange dress holding a key. - [Benjamin] A key to knowledge of the world. - [Steven] And the implication here is that as the owner of this atlas, you too have this key, the knowledge that's necessary to unlock the world. I'm struck by the vividness of this color, of the richness of these greens and orange and reds and golds. - [Benjamin] One of the lovely things about working with books is that most of the time, they stay in the dark, so they don't fade. So having gotten through the overture, you then get down to business, and you get to the first volume of Blaeu's atlas. And this first volume is about the northern world: the Arctic and the lands in far northern Europe around what he calls the North Pole. Each map has a description and a text that describes the place and the people and the climate and the customs. Most of the text, and there's lots and lots of text, comes from other places, just like the maps. Blaeu's not an original cartographer. He's not going out into the field and measuring things and coming back and drawing maps. He's getting people to send him maps and he's getting the rights to print maps. He's also getting other people's texts and putting them together and tidying them up into a neat, coherent bundle. - [Steven] We've just opened the eighth volume. - [Benjamin] So here we have the Americas, both north and south. This is the beginning of the sequence of maps where Blaeu walks you through the parts of the Americas that he has maps to publish, which isn't the whole of the hemisphere. But at the beginning of every section of the world, there's one of these display maps. And so, here, he shows you not just the continents and then things like the various types of ships with various different sorts of national flags on them coming to and fro in the ocean, but also, along the sides, the sorts of people who live in these places, and along the top, some of the major towns, not shown as little dots on the map, but actually with little pictures of what their shape is and what they look like and how they're laid out. - [Steven] He also gives us ships to fill the ocean and wonderful sea creatures. It's important to remember that in the 17th century, for a relatively brief period, the Netherlands held a colony that they had taken from the Portuguese and that they would relinquish to the Portuguese. And the geography that's contained in this map is recently acquired knowledge from a European perspective. - [Benjamin] This map has its origins probably in the 1630s or '40s, and it was published in almost exactly this form in the 1640s in a book published by Blaeu about the Dutch colony in Brazil and the Dutch conquest of Brazil and the ways that they set up an economic system built around plantation slavery and sugar. - [Steven] Which is what we see illustrated in the upper portion of this map. - [Benjamin] The image is an image of a sugar mill by the Dutch artist Frans Post, who had been in Brazil and was working from life. All of that information was pulled together in a book published by Blaeu 20 years before this. And so, the Great Atlas is as much a kind of summation of all of the things that have gone through the publishing house up to that point, repackaged. - [Steven] Blaeu's publishing house, and other publishing houses in Amsterdam, made these great atlases, but they also made smaller atlases and they made maps that were meant to hang on a wall. - [Benjamin] If you start thinking about maps in the context of 17th century Dutch painting, they're all of a sudden everywhere. They're hanging on walls, they're open on tables, and it gives you some sense of how important the world of map-making and the world of cartography was in the intellectual environment and the artistic environment of the 17th century in the Netherlands, because there are a lot of maps, but they're also clearly quite proud of the maps and what the maps mean about the place of the Dutch in the world. (jazzy music)