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Africa – Nova Africae Geographica et Hydrographica Descriptio by G. Blaeu – 1669


Africa – Nova Africae Geographica et Hydrographica Descriptio by G. Blaeu – 1669, original engraving hand watercolored

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Nova Africae Geographica et Hydrographica Descriptio by G. Blaeu – 1669, watercolored engraving.

Any attempt to define when cartography was born, with any degree of certainty, stands a good chance of being incorrect since cartography traces its origins back through to legends. Some people have claimed that they could distinguish a parchment on the wineskins that Aeolus gave to Ulysses, which outlined the paths of the winds. Others maintain that the ten sacred books kept by Egyptian priests also contained maps of Egypt. These are certainly all legends, but an undeniable fact emerges, that the earliest people among the first organised civilisations possessed rudimentary maps sketched onto various materials, like the bark of a tree or woven blades of leaves and shells. We can only really begin to speak of cartography as a science with Anaximander (611-541 BC), considered by Strabone and Diogene Laerzio as the first inventor of a map of the known world. Cartographic science therefore has its origins in Greek soil, and from these great geniuses its documentary development begins. Notable progress in the development of cartography was subsequently made with the expeditions of Alexander the Great, the discovery of Marseilles made by Pytheas, and the development of scientific theory regarding the rounded shape of the earth, with Aristotle providing proof for the concepts that his esteemed predecessors had previously only guessed at.The relentless spread of the Roman Empire introduced new geographic discoveries and consequently brought classic cartography to an end. The old Greek maps were rendered inadequate. The practical requirements of the Latin world replaced the Greek’s pure speculation for scientific purposes, notwithstanding the efforts made by enlightened geniuses like Ptolemy, Eratosthenes and Marinus of Tyre to further develop the science of cartography. During the middle ages, similar efforts are almost non-existent. In fact, incorrect interpretations of the Bible and the Sacred Scriptures saw a complete turnaround in cartographic science. Quite the opposite was true in the Arab world, where a number of schools flourished during this period, linking cartography closely to the study of geography. The most significant era in the history of cartography runs from the end of the 1300’s until the end of the 17th century, even though we can only speak of a true Renaissance from 1400 onwards. Maps then started to become more technical to meet the growing demands of navigators who required greater certainty during their explorations. From the sixteenth century on, we see maps that are highly decorative, which on the one hand demonstrated the artistic abilities of the cartographers, and on the other, sometimes filled the gaps in the knowledge of the person compiling them. The seventeenth century is a period which sees the Dutch school flourish. A time of peaceful prosperity, together with the greater freedom of thought allowed in Holland, made it an ideal refuge for literary foreigners, philosophers and craftsmen. This period, defined as the Golden Age of the Dutch, coincides with the fortunes of several publishing houses, such as Elzevier and Blaeu. Whilst other European states were experiencing a stagnation in cartographic culture due to internal events which did not favour any such development, Elzevier and Blaeu forged ahead with their masterful creations. Contemporaries of the Elzeviers, the Flemish printing family of Blaeu were mainly involved in the printing of geographic books, nautical maps and atlases. These works were much sought after, particularly their collections of maritime maps, together with descriptions of the coastlines and the accounts of their voyages, destined mainly for use by navigators, all of which greatly contributed to the fortunes of the Blaeu family. The founder of the family was Willem Janszoon, who was also known as Guillaume Jansonius Caesii, and later as Blaeu. He was born in Alkmaar, Holland in 1571 and died in Amsterdam in 1638. The son of a herring merchant (herring traders were entitled to titles of nobility in Holland at the time), he was related to Hooft, famous writer and Burgermeester of Amsterdam. As a young man, Willem was a very keen student of mathematics and astronomy. In 1594 he left for Denmark, where he stayed for about two years with the famous astronomer Tycho Brahe at his observatory in Uraniemgurg, on the island of Hveen, learning the fundamentals of cosmography and geography, and the construction and use of astronomical instruments. He later returned to his own country in about 1597, where he opened a shop for mathematical and astronomical instruments, distinguishing himself as a producer of globes and, later, as a cartographer and writer. On his death, his sons Cornelius and Jan continued the business and followed in his footsteps. Of the two, Jan was better known as a typographer and also as a famous lawyer. He was born in Amsterdam in 1596 and died there in 1673. He was head of the company business from 1638 when he was appointed the official cartographer for the Dutch East India Company. He had a series of important works printed, among them the fourth part of the Zeespiegel in 1646, a large Planisphere in 1648 and a Theatrum Italiae in 1662. The Blaeu printing works are, however, especially well known for the publication, in 1669, of four large mural maps representing Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa. They were exquisitely made and exceptionally beautiful, and are distinguished by the richness of the scrolls and the detail in their engraving. Each map is approximately 1,70 by 1,20 metres and was produced using the same techniques and style, giving a unique theme to the collection. At each side of the map there are eight engravings, representing sixteen people from the local population illustrated on the map. The Southern section contains twelve views of cities and places of the region depicted and, finally, the outside of the frame has a geographic description of the depicted continent in both French and Latin. There are human and fauna figures interspersed between the geographic details covering the continents which lends a certain liveliness to the planimetry. The expanses of the oceans have repeated the usual themes of marine gods, bizarre fish and adventurous vessels. All of this comes together as an eloquent decorative whole, transforming these four maps into true masterpieces of both historic and artistic significance. In order to produce the Four Continents, we have adhered to the same techniques employed by the Blaeus: very finely engraved copper plates and the use of an old manual printing press. The paper onto which the image is transferred is 100% pure cotton and is sourced from an old paper mill that has been operating since the time when these masterpieces first saw the light of day. As with the originals, these large mural maps have been mounted onto a 100% linen canvas, making use of an extremely delicate and complicated process of ageing, using exclusively organic substances. The final procedure of colouring by water colours is carried out by masters in this art who take into account the centuries that have passed in the composition and shading of the colours, and succeed in further highlighting the beauty of these maps. These large mural maps, which have been the subject of much study in this field, are without a doubt one of the most spectacular examples of cartographic representation of their era. They have been produced in a limited number of copies, with the permission of the Military Geographic Institute of Florence, who hold the originals. Four of these re-creations, corresponding to the four continents, have become part of the cartographic collection of the Italian government, at the library of the Military Geographic Institute in Florence, thereby recognising their importance and contribution to the cartographic art.

Additional information

Weight 1200 g
Dimensions 130 × 0,01 × 170 cm

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