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Library of Congress Geography & Maps: An Illustrated Guide

European Atlases

A prized atlas treasure is a bound collection of maps assembled by Antoine Lafréry, a native of Burgundy who moved to Rome about 1540 and set up shop as an engraver and publisher. Cartographers in Rome and Venice, who had perfected copperplate engraving for maps, dominated the European map trade during this time. Lafréry and other Italian publishers and dealers began to assemble these individual maps into bound folio volumes based on the interests of their customers. About seventy of these composite Italian atlases are extant today, each unique in its contents.

World map by Henricus Hondius showing two hemispheres, which are bordered by the representation of the four elements of fire, air, water, and land, as well as portraits of Julius Caesar, the geographer Claudius Ptolemy, and the atlas's first two publishers, Mercator and Hondius.
Jodocus Hondius and Robert H Power. Vera totius expeditionis nauticæ. 1595. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.
Henricus Hondius's ornately decorated world map first appeared in the 1633 edition of the atlas that was originally published in 1595 by the Flemish cartographer Gerard Mercator and subsequently published by Jodocus Hondius and his sons, Jodocus, Jr. and Henricus, and his son-in-law, Jan Jansson. The world is depicted in two hemispheres, which are bordered by the representation of the four elements of fire, air, water, and land as well as portraits of Julius Caesar, the second-century (A.D.) geographer Claudius Ptolemy, and the atlas's first two publishers, Mercator and Hondius.

Abraham Ortelius revolutionized the map trade by publishing the first modern atlas. With the publication of his Theatrvm orbis terrarvm [Theater of the World] in Antwerp in 1570, the first book of maps uniform in size and design, the center of the European map trade shifted from Rome and Venice to Antwerp, the largest and most active port city in Europe. Engraved mainly by Franz Hogenberg and printed by Christoffel Plantijn, the first edition consists of seventy maps on fifty-three sheets assembled from the best available sources. Extremely popular in its day, numerous editions were issued from 1570 to 1724 in Latin, Dutch, French, German, English, and Italian. The Library's collection possesses 59 of 82 identified editions of Orteliana, one of the largest in the world.

The name most associated with advancing cartography as a science during this formative period is the Flemish geographer Gerard Mercator who helped free geography from its Ptolemaic influence by his prodigious contributions in the production of globes, maps, map projections, and atlases. Through the generosity of Melville Eastham, the division received copies of his magnum opus, Atlas sive cosmographic meditationes de fabrica mundi et fabricati figvra (Duisburg, 1595), and the first two parts of this atlas which were issued as separate publications prior to Mercator's death in 1594: Galliae tabule geographicæ (Duisburg, 1585) and Italiae, Sclavoniæ, et Græciætabule geographice (Duisburg, 1589). The Library has copies of these editions as well as representative copies of subsequent editions published by Jodocus Hondius, who purchased the plates in 1606, and by his son Henricus and Jan Jansson. Other rare pre-1600 printed world atlases include Gerard de Jode's Specvlvm orbis terrarvm [Mirror of the World] (Antwerp, 1578), one of twelve recorded copies; Christopher Saxton's An Atlas of England and Wales (London, 1579), the first atlas of any country, which is called "the Elizabethan atlas" because each map bears the coat of arms of Queen Elizabeth and Thomas Seckford, one of the Queen's Masters of Requests, who commissioned the maps; Corneille Wytfliet's Descriptionis Ptolemaicæ avgmentvm, siue Occidentis (Louvain, 1597), the first atlas devoted exclusively to the New World; Matthias Quad's Evropae totivs orbis terrarvm(Cologne, 1592); and Maurice Bouguereau's Le théatre françois [Tours, 1594], one of nine known copies of the first national atlas of France.

Title page from Gerard Mercator’s Atlas sive cosmographic meditationes de fabrica mundi et fabricati figvra (Duisburg, 1595), which shows a figure examining a globe in his hands with another globe by his feet.
Gerhard and Rumold Mercator.Atlas sive Cosmographicae meditationes de fabrica mvndi et fabricati figvra.1595. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.
This atlas, Gerhard Mercator's magnum opus, was originally published in two editions.

The Golden Age of Dutch Cartography that was inaugurated by Ortelius and Mercator found its fullest expression during the seventeenth century with the production of monumental multi-volume world atlases in Amsterdam by Joan Blaeu, Jan Jansson, Claes Janszoon Visscher, Abraham Goos, and Frederik de Wit. The division possesses excellent representative copies of all of these publishers, including Joan Blaeu's Le grand atlas (Amsterdam, 1667), a monumental twelve-volume French edition; Jansson's Novus Atlas (Amsterdam, 1658); and Joan Blaeu's Spanish edition of Atlas mayor, which he issued between 1659 and 1672. The Spanish edition is very rare because almost the whole edition was destroyed by fire in 1672 when the publishing house of Blaeu was burned. About twenty copies are known to exist in public libraries and private collections.

The center of the European map trade began to shift from the Low Countries to France in the 1650s with the publication of Nicolas Sanson's Cartes générales de tovtes les parties dv monde in Paris in 1654 which introduced French precision in mapping. Extremely rare in its unaltered state, the division possesses a copy of the second edition printed in 1658 and a two-volume 1670 edition with 153 maps. Among other copies of Sanson's atlases is his Géographie universelle (Paris, 1675?), dedicated in manuscript to the Dauphin, son of Louis XIV. Sanson was succeeded by Alexis Hubert Jaillot who was named Géographe Ordinaire du Roi in 1675. Two variant copies of his two-volume Atlas françois (Paris, 1695) are found in the division, one containing 123 maps, the other 138 maps.

French geographers placed cartography on a firm scientific footing during the eighteenth century, and many of their maps reflect original surveys or first-hand accounts obtained from French explorers and missionaries. The division holds a large number of French atlases from this period including works by Jean Baptiste Nolin; Guillaume Delisle, the leading cartographer of his era; Philippe Buache, a theoretical geographer; Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d'Anville; and Gilles and Didier Robert de Vaugondy, whose Atlas universel (Paris, 1757 1758) was published with the support of Madame de Pompadour.

The harbor of Bombay as depicted in William Hacke's A Description of the Sea Coasts.
William Hacke. [Bombay.] A description of the sea coasts ... in the East Indies. 1690. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.
The harbor of Bombay as depicted in William Hacke's A Description of the Sea Coasts. Known as the "Buccaneer's Atlas," this manuscript work was compiled in London about 1690 from Spanish charts captured by the English privateer, Bartholomew Sharpe.

British world atlases date from John Speed's A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World, first published in London in 1627. The division possesses a copy of the 1631 edition and two variants of his The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain (London, 1676), which includes a copy of Prospect. The division also has a copy of Moses Pitt's English Atlas (4 volumes, Oxford, 1680 1683), which remained incomplete when Pitt was imprisoned in the Fleet for debt. Other prolific British publishers during the end of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century for which the division holds numerous copies of their world atlases are Thomas Kitchin, Herman Moll, Robert Sayer, John Cary, Thomas Jefferys, William Faden, and John Arrowsmith.

The division's holdings of German and Italian eighteenth-century atlases are represented by Johann Baptist Homann, geographer to Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor, who revitalized German cartography with his Neuer Atlas (Nuremberg, 1730) and Grosser Atlas (Nuremberg, 1737), both of which were reissued numerous times; Matthaeus Seutter; Vincenzo Coronelli, an Italian globe and atlas publisher; and Franz Anton Schraembl, who published the first world atlas in Austria.