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Willem Janszoon Blaeu


Willem Janszoon Blaeu (1571-1638) founded one of history's greatest cartographic publishing firms in 1599. Using skills learned from the celebrated Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, Blaeu set up shop in Amsterdam as a globe and scientific instrument maker. He soon expanded the business to include map, chart and book publishing.

By 1608, he had already published a fine world map and a popular marine atlas. He then began planning a major atlas intended to include the most up-to-date maps of the entire world. Progress was extremely slow and although he spent the rest of his life compiling maps for this ambitious project, the atlas was not completed until well after his death. In 1630 he purchased 37 plates of the Mercator Atlas from Jodocus Hondius II. He added these to his own collection and published the Atlantis Appendix, which contained 60 maps. Five years later he issued the first two volumes of his planned world atlas, Atlas Novus or the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum.

About this same time he was appointed Hydrographer to the Dutch East India Company, Vereenighde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC). During this period Amsterdam was one of the wealthiest trading cities in Europe and a center for banking and the diamond trade. The VOC contributed significantly to the wealth and prosperity of the United Netherlands, and Blaeu's prestigious appointment firmly established his reputation within the highly competitive field of Dutch mapmakers.

In 1638 Willem died and the business passed to his sons, Joan and Cornelis, who continued and expanded their father's ambitious plans. After the death of Cornelis in 1644, Joan continued the business alone and established his own reputation as a great mapmaker. Joan completed his father grand project in 1655 with the sixth and final volume of the Atlas Novus.

As soon as it was finished Joan began the preparation of an even larger work, the Atlas Major, which reached publication in 1662 in twelve lavish volumes. The Atlas Major was the most expensive printed book of the seventeenth century, consisting of nearly 600 double-page maps and 3,000 pages of text. The maps were richly embellished, often hand-colored and heightened with gold, and epitomized the style and quality of the period, which has become known as the 'Golden Age' of cartography.

Joan Blaeu On the death of his father, Joan inherited the VOC appointment. His duties to the company included making manuscript charts and compiling sailing directions for navigators. He had access to a great amount of up-to-date information particularly on regions of the world dominated by the Dutch. Although much of this information was incorporated into his manuscript charts and large wallmaps, it seems he was unable to take advantage of his privileged position with the VOC for his own publications. As such, many of the maps in his great atlases contain less accurate information than his competitors.

In 1672 a fire destroyed Blaeu's printing house in the Gravenstraat, and a year later Joan Blaeu died. The firm's surviving stock of plates and maps were gradually dispersed with some of the surviving plates being sold to Frederick de Wit, Pierre Mortier, and Schenk and Valck. Many of these maps were included in composite atlases, even as late as 1730. However, the demise of the House of Blaeu brought an end to the Dutch domination of cartography.

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