Book of a lifetime: Atlas Maior, By Joan Blaeu


Simon Garfield
Thursday 04 October 2012 16:21 BST
‘On The Map’ by Simon Garfield is published by Profile
‘On The Map’ by Simon Garfield is published by Profile

For many years I had assumed that the German publishers Taschen produced mostly fetishistic erotica and massive books about Muhammad Ali, but recently I have been knocked out by some of its other fare – not least the reproduction of Joan Blaeu's ridiculously lavish world atlas from the heyday of Dutch map-making. This is the atlas that set the standard for all who followed. In one sense it never will be bettered, for it is the most absurdly sumptuous and ornate affair, and comes close to folly: a garlanded cartouche on almost every page, full-masted galleons upon the Oceanus Occidentalis, elephants and lions on the plod and prowl in Guinea, huge-hatted men with compasses and globes competing for space with cherubs and unicorns.

Occasionally you may read an advert in the Sunday supplements promising a questionably collectable volume with "hand-tooled" binding; the 'Atlas Maior' is hand-tooled to an inch of its life. It did a lot for the hernia and bankruptcy industries. It was published in 11 volumes over 13 years (1659 to 1672), and it cost the modern equivalent of £25,000-£30,000 depending on the profuseness of the colour and the number of maps almost 600 in the first Latin printing). There were also 21 frontispieces, and almost 3,500 pages of text, in which a country's attributes were described like school homework. Germany was "very rich thanks to its commerce" (plus ça change), while Scotland was celebrated for "the excellence of the minds that it produces".

I first became of aware of the atlas at school, where it was talked of in hushed tones. A decade later I saw an original copy behind glass in an exhibition, but thought nothing more of it until Taschen made it available to the commoner seven years ago. I think I drooled when it arrived in a van.

It's hard to select a favourite spread (why would one not want to go to the region north of Paris if it meant an encounter with Ceres, goddess of fertility, being pulled on her chariot by two dragons?) But I'll plump for the spread on Darbie Shire. An inquisitive bull and a flock of sheep ground the left-hand page, while the right is enlivened by the heraldic shields of those who (presumably) put in an early order for the map in question. Thomas Standley is there, as is the Earl of Lancashire. But beneath them two shields remain empty, like an incomplete football-sticker album. Did other subscribers fail to pay? Did Blaeu simply get ahead of himself? Gloriously, we will never know.

'On The Map' by Simon Garfield is published by Profile

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