The Atlas Collection (15th-18th centuries)

« Listen to me, Dick, and cast your eyes over that map. »
Dick glanced over it, with resignation.
« Now, ascend the course of the Nile. »
« I have ascended it, » replied the Scotchman, with docility.
« Stop at Gondokoro. »
« I am there. »
And Kennedy thought to himself how easy such a trip was—on the map!
Five weeks in a Balloon, Jules Vernes.

A map encourages you to travel, pressed you to grab your backpack and to go down the road to new horizons. By opening an atlas, a voyager won’t resist at the call of the sea and adventure while a homebird will enjoy travel randomly, according to the atlas he is looking at, around his library, cosily settle down in his armchair. As for a prince, he will cherish a map as a tool of power. Louis XVI giving La Pérouse his instructions:

Louis_XVI_et_La_PérouseThe last three months, Lucile Haguet, French book curator and doctor of History specialized in the western map-making of Egypt in the Early Modern time (impressive, isn’t it?), worked at the section for maps and pictures. She was in charge of cataloguing a part of the atlas collection: 88 atlases printed before the 19th century: “I had to identify the atlas and the author, its provenance, date it, count the number of maps by atlas, note the size, and evaluate the binding. It is a meticulous work and it’s not always simple, especially when you are working on a volume with a title three km long written in Danish!” But all this prized effort informs us about the story of the collection. The atlases were mainly acquired in three different ways: by purchases, donations or war-booties.

Theses atlases, symbol of the appropriation of earth by man, were mostly fading from memory because they were still uncatalogued. And yet, such a collection! The oldest one is an incunabula printed in 1475. If the first atlases were published in Germany, they were afterwards notably published in Netherlands and then, in the 18th century, in France. By the way, do you know who the father of the Atlas was? Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594) was really the first one to use this term in 1595. Good information to impress your friends.

When I asked Lucile what was her favourite atlas in the collection, she was hesitant for a while: “I love them all, it’s not easy to answer…Well, I was really filled with emotion to have a Ptolemy in my hands, an atlas from the beginning of the 16th century representing America and its unknown territories. But I also love this small atlas portabilis, a lovely atlas in miniature. And I’m not even mentioning the Atlas Maior”. The latter, the final version of Joan Blaeu’s atlas, is indeed a treasure. It is the largest and most expensive book ever published in the 17th century.

If an atlas is sometimes a real masterpiece, it might also be a common map of a town that is not aesthetically pleasing but very useful. Some of them try to present the entire world while others are more specialised to a period or location. There are even maps representing some fantasy lands. However, there are no such maps in this collection because these atlases were mainly owned by scholars and intended for study, we remained, and it goes without saying, an academic library.

In some of these atlases we can find ex-libris and handwritten annotations made by readers. It gives us keys to unravel the life history of these books and understand how they were used. One of them was probably owned by a woman and was given, according to the dedication, as a “sign of eternal love”. You should give an atlas to your lover if you are short of inspiration next time.

Another one, a copy of the famous Theatrum by Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598), founder of cartography with the aforementioned Mercator, used to belong to a Jesuit order. Thus, an illustration of women initially depicted with naked breasts has been decorously covered with inks by a pious reader.

Theatrum Ortelius

Someone else has been more impudent towards an atlas, either he was very bored by the book and geography or a joker…anyway; he decided to add sophisticated moustaches to the feminine figures. Priceless amusement after a hard working day, I promise.

Land Atlas Keulen

However, we should not forget the work of the map-maker and send him our regards. This geographer, sometimes also a true artist, was often working in the confinement of his cabinet, which Lucile Haguet illustrates perfectly in an article by using the expression “an armchair map-maker”. Indeed, I beg the reader not to believe that the cartographer was either a daring traveller or an intrepid adventurer. Most of the time, he was drawing the contours of the world through others’ eyes, explorers and sailors.

Zeespiegel 17e siècleWhen Jacques Cartier officially discovered Canada in the 16th century, he described in a diary his discoveries. He encountered, for instance, what he then named “dogs of the sea” using his own vocabulary to depict a seal of something of the kind. But, the map-maker, preparing a beautiful map probably addressed to a prince, has never been to this exotic place and so, take Cartier’s word, and innocently represented a dog in the sea. Charming incomprehension!

In the 18th century, maps became more and more accurate; monsters and chimera of all kinds disappeared gradually. It is the Age of Enlightenment, scientific travelled are now legion, the Englishman James Cook or the French Jean-François de La Pérouse sailed with as many seaman as scientist on board. Portrait of James Cook:

480px-CaptainjamescookportraitDo not forget to have a look at our exhibition room when you visit the library. Here you can have a look to a 15th century world map from Ptolemy’s atlas, this Greek astronomer, mathematician and geographer who worked in Alexandria during the 2th century AD. His influence as a geographer would last for centuries especially when his writings were rediscovered in Western Europe in the early 1400s.

But we started with Jules Vernes, so let’s conclude this article anew with the explorer Samuel Fergusson, dreaming of exploring Africa…or the map of Africa:

“I can skim it like a bird! I can advance without fatigue; I can halt without need of repose! I can soar above the nascent cities! I can speed onward with the rapidity of a tornado, sometimes at the loftiest heights, sometimes only a hundred feet above the soil, while the map of Africa unrolls itself beneath my gaze in the great atlas of the world. »

Charlotte

Lucile’s article : 

http://www.academia.edu/478689/J.-B._dAnville_as_Armchair_Mapmaker_The_Impact_of_Production_Contexts_on_His_Work_Imago_Mundi_63_1_2011_pp._88-105

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