Joan Blaeu: Master Cartographer of the Dutch Golden Age

One of the absolute highlights of The National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam is Joan Blaeu's map of the world, dating from 1648. Its size is impressive – over 2 by 3 metres – and at the time it displayed the most up-to-date knowledge of the world we live in. This version of the map, with Blaeu's writing and a new depiction of China, is absolutely unique.

After being hidden away for a long time, the map is once again open to the public as part of the exhibition 'The world according to Joan Blaeu | Master Cartographer of the Golden Age'. The exhibition displays the most surprising details of the map and its political context, as well as giving more information about the Amsterdam-based firm Blaeu. 'The world according to Joan Blaeu' is a supplement to the popular 'Atlases' exhibition and can be visited from 14 April until 31 December 2017 in The National Maritime Museum. 

Michael Huijser, director of The National Maritime Museum, speaking about Blaeu's map: "This map shows how people viewed the world in those days. The outside world inspired fear and curiosity in equal parts. The 17th century marked the beginning of cartographical innovation, which is why maps like these were so important. However, as well as providing useful information, they also inspired dreams of adventure!"

The Amsterdam-based firm Blaeu

The firm Blaeu was the biggest producer of maps in the seventeenth century. Blaeu's maps were based on earlier maps, traditions passed down through the generations, as well as the latest discoveries. The Blaeu firm's bookshop was established 'on the water', on what is now the Damrak in Amsterdam. This location, so close to the port, was no fluke: this was where new products and information arrived from exotic locations across the globe. Seamen, merchants, scholars and regents were drawn to Blaeu's firm, fascinated by his knowledge and skills. The firm's cartographical knowledge influenced the entire world's view of itself, with many cartographers attempting to imitate or surpass Joan Blaeu. 

Surprising details

Blaeu's map of the world is one of the first maps to display the coastline of Australia, known to Blaeu as Nova Hollandia, and New Zealand, which had very recently been discovered by the explorer Abel Tasman. It also features a tiny hut and shipwreck, depicting the site where William Barentsz ran aground on Nova Zembla. We can also see how the Westerners looked upon the rest of the world with an air of superiority: cannibals in South America, llamas in South America, elephants in Africa, sea monsters and naval battles. With the aid of a magnifying glass – as many features can't be seen with the naked eye – visitors can discover and marvel at even the tiniest of details. 

Peace of Munster

Blaeu's map of the world, part of The National Maritime Museum's collection, is dedicated to Gaspar de Bracamonte y Guzman, Count of Peñaranda, who led the Spanish delegation to the peace talks that resulted in the Peace of Münster in 1648. This marked the end of the Eighty Years' War between the Dutch Republic and Spain, and Blaeu's map was created to celebrate the peace. One noticeable factor is that no clear borders are featured on the map. Due to the peace treaty, there was little clarity regarding which European powers controlled certain areas. However, we do see that all of the ships sailing the Seven Seas are flying a – possibly Dutch – tricolour.

The world of Copernicus

In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus announced a revolutionary new view of the world in which the Earth orbited the Sun. This flew in the face of the established consensus that the Earth was the centre of the universe, around which all other heavenly bodies revolved. Because the Catholic Church's official view was that the Earth was stationary, the publication containing Copernicus's theory was listed in its Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Prohibited Books). Joan Blaeu was the first person daring enough to display Copernicus's world view on a map, helping to bring into doubt the consensus held by most of the world population in 1648.