The Dutch Golden Age of Cartography

Maps as Art

Maps as art

In 2009, a company named Millennium House published a 580-page monster of an atlas entitled Earth. Bound in leather, hand-tooled and hand-gilded, the price was only listed upon application. But then, Earth Platinum Edition was released, putting all other atlases to shame. This was the biggest book ever made—1.8 by 1.4 meters, and $100,000. Earth Platinum Edition not only required its own plane to fly the atlas and its wealthy owners, but it also required six people to lift the atlas. In 2012 the Guinness Book of World Records named it the biggest and most expensive atlas in the entire world.

“Why would such a user-unfriendly atlas sell for $100,000?” one might ask, or even “Why would someone even think of making an atlas of such grandeur?” Through intense research studying the Dutch Golden Age of Cartography in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, research provides the answer: a long-standing intersectional tradition of art and cartography has yet to die.

Centuries ago, in Amsterdam, mapmakers used designers, artists, and engravers to sell the most ornate and detailed maps on the market. Before the atlas was invented, wealthy intellectuals would purchase sheet maps one at a time, and hang them on their wall. Just like a work of art, people would pay exorbitant prices to display a famous “Blaeu” or “Ortelius” map. It made the buyers appear more cultured, intelligent, and classier than their peers.

The connection between a mapmaker and an artist may seem difficult to envision at first. Most people see mapmakers charting unknown lands while on a ship, braving the waters, storms, jungles, and wild animals all in order to paint a realistic view of the Earth in order for the world to gain knowledge.

The reality was quite different in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however. Mapmakers, like artists, made a living through the sale of their artistic creations. In order to make the most profitable creation, Dutch map publishers needed the most informative and the most aesthetically pleasing map possible. Sometimes, on the other hand, the most up-to-date information would cease to be a priority when cost became a problem.

With the introduction of the printing press, mapmakers might not have been able to buy new copperplates every time a geographic area would change. Instead, they would add new designs, re-used the old plates, or added new information somewhere on the map by hand-painting the information. Many mapmakers also dedicated their maps to wealthy or influential individuals in the hopes of selling the map at a higher price.

Some scholars recommend separating the map from its iconographic meaning as an artifact and its function as a carrier of geographical information to better see maps as a work of art. Seeing as there is an important distinction between form and content regarding cartography, noting that distinction is key in better understanding the art in a map.

Art & Cartography Intersects

Several art historians have been turning their attention to maps. Beyond that, curators of art in museums have widened their notions of what can be displayed justifiably along the walls of art museums, and with that, the traditional distinction between fine and applied art has broken down. In the 1980’s, four major art exhibits displayed on the themes of art and cartography combined. While many exhibits of old and rare decorative maps exist, the newest exhibitions actually include modern art that employs a mapping theme.

Most historians classify two periods of mapmaking: a decorative phase, and a scientific phase. The latter phase began in the second half of the eighteenth century, where accuracy took priority over the beautiful and aesthetically pleasing cartouches and frames. However, in recent decades, most art historians aim to end the arbitrary cutoff date, seeing that art and science evidently coexisted with cartography throughout the entire history of cartography, from the accurate to the fanciful, and that there should never be a date in which any historian considers eliminating art from the discussion of a map.

With a narrow definition of the phrase “work of art”, certain elements of a decorative map are often left unconsidered by map historians. While the obvious cartouches, putti, ships, sea monsters and other embellishments stand out as artistic elements, other matters must be considered as well, such as the role of the artist in mapping, the iconographic character of maps, and the sources and development of cartographic elements like color, symbol design, and lettering.

Understanding and researching all possible artistic elements of a specific map can reveal the cultural context of a map’s origin, and a full understanding of artistic style in cartography can only be obtained through treating the different elements of style as interdependent, and viewing them in a holistic way to see the entire map differently.

How they were made and displayed

When one thinks of the idea of “maps as art”, one might consider a decorative map, accented in gold, framed, hanging on a wall for all to see. However, maps were not always displayed in such a manner during the seventeenth century. The painting below, by Jan Bruegel the Elder, portrays the collection of the Flemish collector Pierre Rose and one of his maps, sitting in an atlas on a table in the bottom right corner of the painting. The atlas is more focused in the image on the right.

archdukes pierre rooseScreen Shot 2016-07-26 at 10.16.55 PM



Maps were infrequently sold independently and hung on a wall, as they are displayed in the 21st century. Inserting numerous maps into an atlas provided protection against passage of time and weather. The atlases themselves were a work of art– the bindings, made of Moroccan leather or velvet– were emblazoned with gold family crests and coat of arms. Beyond the atlas itself, multi-volume atlases were displayed in ornate and decorative cases, like The Grooten Atlas, shown below.

Located in the University of Amsterdam Special Collections. Blaeu's eleven-volume Atlas Maior (1662-1664) bound in white leather and gold leaf.

Located in the University of Amsterdam Special Collections. Blaeu’s eleven-volume Atlas Maior (1662-1664) bound in white leather and gold leaf.

The Grooten Atlas serves as a prime example of how fanciful the display of an atlas could be. Not only was every volume of the atlas bound in leather and stamped in gold, the collection was held in a ornately carved case, complete with expensive glass. While not displaying the maps as the primary work of art, displaying the volume set allowed for the collection of atlases themselves to serve as an expensive showpiece in a room.

Color on maps

Color has been used on maps for both functional and decorative purposes since the late Middle Ages. Color could assist in the differentiation of symbols, and imprecise information could also be aided by pictorial depiction, which lent itself to rely heavily on color. A map’s color depends on the mapmaker’s available tools and materials, as well as the current state of printing technology. The maps below, along with all versions of this Blaeu map, are examples of hand color painting on a printed map.

Copper engraving, a method that was used to print this particular Blaeu map, was a technique used by the mid-sixteenth century. While copper plates made reproducing high quantities of the same map quite simple, the color could not be printed. Consequently, color became a late and optional addition to the map-making process. Just like books, maps were commonly bought with and without color. Some maps were purchased without color, and later painted by the owner. In some cases, maps were re-painted in later centuries due to fade in color. Without consistency in color as an option in the map’s printing production, map color during the seventeenth century is fairly variable and lacks symbolic significance.


Atlas Major, 1665.



Image Sources:

(left): Nova Totius Terrarum orbis Geographica ac Hydrographica Tabula by Willem Blaeu via Wikimedia Commons is in Public Domain (PD-US).

(right): Nova Totius Terrarum orbis Georgraphica ac Hydrographica Tabula by Willem Blaeu via Wikimedia Commons is in the Public Domain (PD-US).

Artists & Cartographers

Willem Janszoon Blaeu

The Blaeu family is a three-generation lineage of notable map-making tradition during the Dutch Golden Age of cartography. Willem Janszoon Blaeu, the most notable Blaeu cartographer, is considered by many to be the most influential Dutch mapmaker in the history of cartography.

Willem Janzsoon Blaeu was born in 1571, but the specific birth date and location of his birth remain uncertain. At an early age, Willem travelled to Amsterdam to serve as an apprentice in the herring trade– the family business. Blaeu gives recognition and often dedicates his maps to Cornelis Pieterz. Hooft, a relative he had apprenticed under in order to learn the trade, and motivated him to leave the family business to study science and mathematics.

He soon left to study under the world-renowned astronomer Tycho Brahe on the island of “Ven in the Sund”. The length of time Blaeu spent with Brahe is unclear– some scholars claim it was two years, others will argue that it had only been a few months. Regardless, the time Blaeu spent with Brahe was enough time to spark a new passion in him: geography. Blaeu began to practice the art of globe-making with the famous scientist. Brahe demanded a noted high standard of his pupils, and Blaeu was one of the most skilled.

Once he returned to Holland, he began making country maps and globes. In the early seventeenth century, upon realizing he was in dire need of more money, he began producing ornate world maps and atlases. In the early 1630’s he declared his intention to be the first mapmaker to make an international world atlas– multi-volume atlases printed in Latin, German, Dutch, and French. By 1633 he was named the official cartographer of the Dutch East India Company, or VOC. He died in Amsterdam in 1638.

His two sons, Cornelis and Johannes Blaeu, took over the map business upon Blaeu’s death.

Maarten van Heemskerck

Maarten van Heemskerck was born in the village of Heemskerck (northern Holland) in 1498. After beginning his artistic training with Cornelius Willemsz in Haarlem, he was called away from his pursuits to assist his father with the family farm. After an argument with his father, he departed to continue his studies, this time in Delft under Jan Lucasz before returning to Haarlem to serve as a pupil of Jan van Scorel, where he notably learns his Italian-influenced painting style.

He completed his “Grand Tour” in Europe in 1532, where he spent a lot of time in Italy. In 1536, he returned to Haarlem, where he began to serve as the president of the Haarlem Guild of Saint Luke, and earned a secure living for himself. Heemskerck is most notable for being the first Netherlandish painter to make designs for commercial printmakers. He utilized special techniques like cross-hatching and stippling to aid the engraver in the reproduction of the design into a copper or wooden plate.

Hendrick Goltzius

Goltzius was a German born Dutch printmaker, and is considered the leading engraver of the early Baroque period. A master of northern Mannerism, Goltzius was famous for the “swelling line”– contrasting thin and thick lines to create tonal effect of distance. He also used cross-hatching as a technique to enhance shading as well, a quality that remained an essential aspect to the renditions on Blaeu’s map. How did Goltzius’s prints ultimately land on Blaeu’s map? Goltzius studied under a man named D.V. Coornhert, who was one of Willem Blaeu’s first engravers in 1547.

Baccio Baldini

Not much is known regarding Baldini’s life. Born in 1436 in Florence, Italy, he was notably inspired by Sandro Botticelli. Active in the midst of the Italian Renaissance, he worked as an engraver.

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