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Library of Congress Geography & Maps: An Illustrated Guide

Sea Atlases

Nautical chart of the Indian Ocean, showing the coastlines of the Indian and African continents, by Battista Agnese
Battista Agnese. [Portolan atlas of 9 charts and a world map, etc. Dedicated to Hieronymus Ruffault, Abbot of St. Vaast]. [ca. 1544]. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Both manuscript and printed sea atlases are well represented in the collection. The earliest sea atlases were derived during the late thirteenth century in Italy or Majorca from portolan charts which in turn had evolved from sailing guides, known as portolanos. Excellent examples of rare illuminated portolan atlases are found in the Vellum Chart Collection, including works by Battista Agnese (Venice, 1544) and Jean André Brémond (Marseilles, 1670).

The Library's collection of printed sea atlases begins with Benedetto Bordone's Libro . . . de tutte l'isole del mondo (Venice, 1528), the first book of island maps. The next major advance in the development of the printed sea atlases dates from the publication of Lucas Janszoon Waghenaer's Spieghel der zeevaerdt [Mariners Mirror] by Christoffel Plantijn in Leyden in 1585, which contains the first charts on a common scale, a manual of practical navigation, and sailing directions for the North Atlantic off the coast of Europe.

The Dutch dominated the chart trade during the seventeenth century through the privately owned East and West India Companies, established in 1602 and 1621, respectively. Selected titles among the division holdings are listed to suggest the comprehensive nature of this material: Willem Barendsz's Description de la mer Méditerranée (Amsterdam, 1607), the first sea-pilot for the Mediterranean Sea; Willem Janszoon Blaeu's The Light of Navigation (Amsterdam, 1622); Pieter Goos's De Zee-atlas (Amsterdam, 1666); Joannes van Loon's Klaer lichtende noort-ster ofte zee atlas (Amsterdam, 1661); and Joannes van Keulen's The Great and Newly Enlarged Sea Atlas (3 volumes, Amsterdam, 1682 1686), an English edition of the great Dutch work.

A New Chart of the Bahama Islands by John Thornton, in Atlas maritimus
John Thornton. Atlas maritimus or, the sea-atlas. 1700. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

French and British charts began to replace the hold that Dutch charts had on the atlas trade during the eighteenth century with the expansion of maritime activities in these two countries. The Neptune françois (Amsterdam and Paris, 1693 and 1700), prepared under official French auspices and published simultaneously in Paris by Jaillot and in Amsterdam by Mortier, includes some seventy charts of the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. Jacques Nicolas Bellin's Atlas maritime (Paris, 1751) superceded Jaillot's atlas and continued to be issued into the nineteenth century. Early British maritime atlases are represented by Sir Robert Dudley's Dell'arcano del mare (Florence, 1646 1647), the first maritime atlas to use the Mercator projection and a beautiful example of the engraver's art; John Seller's rare copy of the The English Pilot (London, 1671), which initiated the printed chart trade in England; and four variants of Seller's Atlas maritimus, or the sea-atlas (London, 1675). By the turn of the nineteenth century most charts were produced as separates.

Other atlases were prepared to accompany the great voyages of discovery during the late eighteenth century. These include one of five known copies of Thomas Jefferys's Collection of Charts of the Coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador (London, 1770?), based on maps by James Cook, Michael Lane, and Joseph Gilbert; James Cook's atlas accompanying An Account of the Voyages . . . for Making Discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere . . . (London, 1773); Jean François de Galaup, Comte de Lapérouse's Atlas du voyage de La Pérouse (Paris, 1788), which contains maps of "all the lands which had escaped the vigilance of Cook"; George Vancouver's atlas accompanying Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World (London, 1798); Mikhail Teben'kov's Atlas sieverozapadnykh beregov Ameriki ot Beringova proliva do mysa Korríentes i ostrovov Aleutskikh [Atlas of the Northwest Coasts of America from the Bering Strait to Cape Corrientes and the Aleutian Islands] (St. Petersburg, 1852), prepared by the former governor of Russian Alaska, which provided the best charts of the Pacific coast of the United States until 1854; and Charles Wilkes's atlas of charts accompanying his report on the U.S. Exploring Expedition (Philadelphia, 1858), the first scientific maritime exploring expedition sponsored by the federal government.