Book History

Author: Unknown, probably Willem and Joan Blaeu
There is no citation for the author, so it is possible that the essays and descriptions of places were written by members of the printhouse, by either of the Blaeus themselves, or by other people - the Blaeus occasionally plagiarized so it is hard to know where they actually acquired the written texts.
Bibliographic Information
These volumes were printed in 1645 in Amsterdam by Joan Blaeu. The UMW Library contains volumes 2 and 3 of a four volume set. Volume 2 contains information on France, Spain, Portugal, Asia, America, and Africa. Volume 3 includes Italy, Greece, and Crete. Each book is 100-120 pages.
Physical Description
Each volume is 20.5” long, 14” wide (closed), and with a binding width of 3.25”. The book is bound with a vellum cover and has gold tooling. There are many inserts of hand-colored copperplate maps. Both volumes have ties that seem to be much more modern than the rest of the book. There are also many repairs to both books, although the third volume is in better condition. The ragpaper is of excellent quality and in good condition.
Illustrator: Multiple unknown artists
The Blaeus made or bought plates of the maps used in their atlases; occasionally they plagiarized and stole plates from competitors. There is no attribution of each map, so it is fairly impossible to know the source of each image without access to purchase records.
Publisher: Willem and Joan Blaeu
Willem Blaeu (1571-1638) was a cartographer and printer in Amsterdam. He learned from Tycho how to make celestial globes. He potentially copied some maps from his chief competitor, Janssonius, who also copied from him. His shop was next to the water, meaning he had direct access to sailors and their first-hand reports of foreign places. He printed other types of works, too, though under another name and with Cologne as the location. Many of these works were from various denominations and political groups, which could have caused legal issues.

After his death, his son Joan Blaeu (1596-1673) took over the business and continued printing the Atlas Novus (called the Nouvel Atlas in the French edition). His masterpiece, which was made using the plates he and his father collected over the course of both their careers, was the Grand Atlas, a massive 9 to 12 volume atlas published in six languages.
There were multiple printings of the Blaeu atlas. In 1635, Willem Blaeu printed the first edition in two volumes; his son followed with a four volume edition in 1645, as held in the UMW library. In 1655, he printed a six volume edition. In total, there were editions in French, Latin, German, Dutch, and English. A volume three in French of the same year sold at auction for £16,250 ($26,215) in late 2010, which indicates the rarity and significance of this atlas. There appears to be more recent replications contained at several universities around the world, but only a handful of original Blaeu atlases, with even fewer 1645 editions. A partial online edition exists at the University of California, Los Angeles library page. In addition, there is some confusion over the difference between the Atlas Novus and the Atlas Maior (Grand Atlas), the later edition published at the end of Joan’s life. Some posit that it expanded over the years to include the other volumes, while others maintain that it was a different venture.
“The Atlas Novus by Willem Blaeu.” The National Library of Russia, 2008.

“Blaeu Atlas,” March 9, 2007.

“Catalogue.” Sotheyby's, November 4, 2010.

“Dutch Cartography in the 16th and 17th Century |” European Heritage, 2010.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Johns, Adrian. The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Koeman, C. Joan Blaeu and his Grand Atlas. London: George Philip & Son Limited, 1970.

Miller, Julia. Books Will Speak Plain: A Handbook for Identifying and Describing Historical Bindings. Chicago: Univ of Chicago Pr, 2010.

Van Helden, Al. “The Galileo Project.” The Galileo Project, 1995.

Virga, Vincent, and Library of Congress. Cartographia: Mapping Civilizations. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2007.
Le Theatre du Monde, also called the Nouvel Atlas, was a four volume set of atlases published in 1645 in Amsterdam by the father-and-son printers Willem and Joan Blaeu. The UMW Library has volumes two and three of the French edition, which grew from an initial printing of two volumes and later developed into six volumes. The atlases are unique for their rarity and high quality and also illustrate a paradox between a lack of accuracy and the Enlightenment drive for exploration and classification.

Willem, the father, (1571-1638) began as an astronomer and cartographer before opening his print shop in 1605, which he used to publish his own works. By his death, he was printing high-quality atlases, beginning an impressive collection of copperplate maps. Joan continued the business and expanded upon his father’s initial plates. His work culminated with the more famous Grand Atlas, a massive nine to twelve volume atlas, depending on the language; it used many of the plates Willem collected and that were used in the Nouvel Atlas.

The UMW volumes are indicative of the quality of texts printed by the Blaeus and attracted society’s elite, including the Sultan of Turkey and the Emperor Leopold II. The UMW volumes have vellum (animal skin) covers with gold details, expensive paper, and dozens of hand-colored maps, along with the hand-pressed type. The books were large, measuring 20.5” long, 14” wide, and 3.25” deep. One of Joan’s later atlases, the Grand Atlas, sold for what would be $72,000 today. While the earlier Nouvel Atlas was cheaper, the high price of the later work indicated the material value placed on such a piece.

Despite the quality of the book’s production, the accuracy was poor, even by 17th century standards. For example, in volume three there is a badly-scaled map of Africa that any educated person would have recognized as imperfect. While it may seem that greater perfection could be achieved with more printings, the atlases show that instead, the opposite occurred and over time the precision – already less-than-ideal – decreased.

The primary reasons for this were the plates that were used to make the maps. Printers rarely made corrections to their plates, instead using the inaccurate ones for the life of the print house. Thus, errors were standardized, as plates were copied and distributed but rarely corrected or reissued. The problem was industry-wide, as print houses would buy, sell, steal, and plagiarize plates from one another. However, the buyers were not overly concerned with accuracy, as the books were intended to mark class rather than for individual study.

Seemingly contradictory, the books did have intellectual worth, adding to their value. Though the owners would have known of certain flaws, the books still represented Enlightenment ideals and contained the knowledge produced by colonization. The rich elites buying atlases such as these would have had personal interest on many levels in colonization, with regard to the economic, political, and ideological motivations for expansion. Therefore, the books represented a concise means of displaying the power and knowledge gained from such pursuits. They include maps of the Americas, China, and Africa, with regional titles based on the ruling power. For example, in the Americas there is a New Britain, New Holland, and New Spain, among others.

Likewise, the atlases displayed the simultaneous trend towards classification. As the colonists explored distant regions of the world, they encountered various indigenous peoples, plants, and animals, and tried to classify them. The atlases included detailed drawings of Native American tribes from all over the Americas, as well as small maps of some of the major colonial and native cities. The Blaeus, though primarily interested in profit-making and competition, participated in the 17th century attempts to summarize extant knowledge in a compendium.

As a result of this, alongside the competitive nature of the book-making industry, longer and larger atlases came out in succession. While the UMW atlases are indicative of the conspicuous consumption of the elite classes in European society, they simultaneously show an intellectual curiosity that contrasts with the blatant inaccuracies reproduced in the texts.

Submitted by Carly Boucher
Published: 1645
Call Number: Rare G 1015 .B53 1643 v.2 and v.3