Posts Tagged ‘Atlas Maior’

My A-Z of reading: A is for Atlas

October 13, 2016

41x19xixdpl-_ac_us160_Some of my readers may have realised I have a long-standing fascination with maps. I remember asking for, and receiving, an atlas for Christmas when I was seven or eight: that’s what comes from hearing about all sorts of faraway and fascinating places from a well-travelled dad (though not all the places were visited freely, thanks to Stalin, but that’s a different story); it was replaced with a larger one a few years later, and then when I was feeling flush, with the full-on, full-size Times Comprehensive Atlas, and I’m now on my second one of those…

So what is it about atlases and maps? Well, there’s a weightiness and therefore a seriousness to a proper atlas, and I find maps a real thing of beauty: the care, neatness and accuracy of the lines, and the different colours for different types of land and depth of sea. And then there is the magic of all those place names, whether it’s the crazy-sounding village names of our our West Country (Queen’s Camel, Mudford Sock, anyone?) or the unpronounceable towns of Eastern Europe (Szekesfehervar? Dniepropetrovsk? Szczecin?)… Milton had a field day in Paradise Lost with faraway placenames: they made wonderful poetry. (And I have a map with them all on!)

There’s a ridiculous amount of information contained in a map, and depending on how well-drawn and coloured it is, you can do a pretty good job of visualising an area, although I will admit that Google Earth does a just as good if not better job pretty instantly. Town, street and metro maps are different, and just as fascinating. And then there are the maps in other languages… early Arabic maps of the world which look wonderfully familiar until you look at the writing. A Polish relative, back in communist times, gave me a road atlas of the Soviet Union, not because it was something that I’d ever use, but because it was something he’d managed to buy, and could offer as a gift, when finding presents for people was really hard. I treasure this volume, on shoddy paper, in Cyrillic script, with vast tracts of the country missing because there are zero roads there (can you imagine that?) and places where you can follow a dirt track for 500+ kilometres until the road just stops, and then have to turn round and head back the way you came.

Atlases have also become excellent at conveying much more than just geographical information, as new generations of cartographers have developed the art: conflicts, migrations, wars and much more can be very clearly represented. I’m thinking of some of the remarkably informative maps published in papers like Le Monde Diplomatique, which occasionally publishes a thematic atlas devoted to a topic like the environment… There’s the astonishing Peters projection atlas, which presents the entire world at exactly the same scale throughout, and manages to equalise the land areas visually too, so that although parts of the world look rather distorted (and we all know that putting a spherical word onto flat paper can’t really be done) the whole world is fairly and equitably represented, with none of the bias to the West, or the US or the developed world that we see in all other atlases.


I love old atlases especially, too, although too expensive for my pocket. I do have a 1919 Daily Telegraph Victory Atlas which is colossal, and built in the old-fashioned manner where every double-page spread is individually pasted and sewn into the binding so there are no minute gaps or discrepancies at the centre where nowadays two pages join… and I think of the incredible labour involved in redrawing so many maps and re-labelling so many towns and cities at the end of the Great War as new nations were born.

My biggest treat is probably Taschen’s marvellous reprint of (selected sections) of Joan Blaeu’s humongous seventeenth century Atlas Maior. It’s a work of incredible colour and beauty, and you get a picture of a half-discovered world, with the lands Europeans knew well delineated in great detail and accuracy, and those half-known, unexplored areas sketched in vaguely, half-accurately – but they are there and you know that there were intrepid explorers hurtling about the globe eager to fill in the gaps.


I’ve never been able – or wanted to – sit and read a dictionary or an encyclopaedia, but I’ll happily spend an entire evening turning the pages and poring over a good atlas.


Joan Blaeu’s Atlas Maior

November 23, 2015

41dl+3ku-+L._AA160_If you’re a regular reader, you will know of my fascination with maps and atlases. I aksed for an atlas for Christmas when I was seven, and haven’t looked back; as soon as I could afford one, I had a copy of the massive Times Atlas. But I have been going back in time with Joan Blaeu’s Atlas Major.

Holland was the centre of the cartographical world in the seventeenth century, when exploration of the world was is full swing, and a number of very detailed and extremely beautiful atlases were produced there. Taschen reproduced a selection in this huge tome which I had to buy…

Maps from that time are quite different from those we know today. They are very colourful, decorated with engravings of all kinds: native costumes, coats of arms of local rulers, impressive buildings in local towns, flora and fauna adorn the edges of most of the maps. Great attention is paid to delineation of borders: whose land is it? Mountains, rivers – and obviously bridges – are marked, as are placenames; totally absent is what we probably find most important and useful nowadays, the transport infrastructure, because there wasn’t one. Not even roads are marked; I suppose the assumption was that there would be roads between places and if you were actually in a place, then you’d find the necessary road.

The level of detail varies considerably according to where the map depicts; Europe and the Mediterranean does pretty well, but the rest of the world is rather variable, and there are no maps that even hint at Australia or Antarctica. The still-to-be explored lands are probably the most interesting, for a number of reasons. For Africa and the Americas, there is plenty of coastal detail, because that’s how the discoveries and maps were made; the hinterlands are blank – Brazil is almost completely empty. In the Americas there are vague annotations in places along the lines of ‘gold is to be found in these mountains’ and the like. Interesting, for Africa and the Americas, is the fact that all places have indigenous names: we are in the pre-colonisation days, before Europeans took overand placed our settlements with familar names, that still endure in many parts of the world. Pictures of the local fauna also abound, as a way of filling up some of the blank space on the maps, so that buyers felt they were getting something for their money…

I always get a sense of how enormous the world must have seemed to travellers and explorers in those days, and the dangers that they ran in their journeys in days before longitude could be accurately determined, meaning that they often didn’t know where they were – literally. There is something wonderful about our species’ urge to know and to discover, even though it often gets us into a mess…

Maps and Atlases

October 8, 2014

9780007551408Readers of this blog who are interested in my posts about travel writing won’t be surprised to learn how much I love atlases and maps: visually attractive, often beautiful, they allow me to explore from the comfort of the sofa, and follow the travels of a host of writers. You will understand why I so often complain about the poor quality of maps attached to travel books nowadays – penny-pinching by publishers, or decisions by editors who have no real feel for what they are preparing for publication, and the needs of those who will actually buy and read the book. I can gaze for hours at the curious shapes of continents and countries, the locations of settlements and the countryside that surrounds them; I can appreciate the vastness of the world, in these days when it’s possible to reach remote places very quickly.

I especially like maps from the past: they are like a time capsule or time machine into a world that doesn’t exist any more. John Speed’s seventeenth century maps of Great Britain, for example, show older names for places, how difficult it was to travel from place to place in those days, places that were important then and are now faded into insignificance, and one notices the absence of some places which have grown up in the intervening years and did not exist, or merit a place on a map way back then. Johann Blaeu‘s stunning Atlas Major from the 1660s, now available again, albeit in an abridged version thanks to those wonderful publishers Taschen, allows one to look at the approximations of places when Westerners hadn’t fully explored and mapped everywhere: there are real blank areas on maps, although often filled up with drawings of (sometimes mythical) flora and fauna – nobody likes a blank space – there are places where only the coastline is known or partially known; there are places just not on the maps… And don’t get me started on wonders like the Mappa Mundi, of which I have a very faded reproduction, and its allegorical representation of the world.

For today’s world, I’ve yet to find anything to better the Times Atlas – I’m on my second copy, since the first was rendered rather less useful by the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the emergence of new countries and the renaming of so many places. The scale and level of detail is marvellous, only the size is a limitation: it doesn’t sit easily or comfortably on my lap while I’m reading. When there’s not enough detail in it, I tend to buy a one-off specialist map, so I have huge maps of the Sahara, the Silk Route countries and so on. I once saw, in a secondhand bookshop, a copy of the Soviet-era Atlas Mira (Atlas of the World), and it was huge: it made the Times Atlas look small. I didn’t buy it, but often wish I had. I do have a smaller Atlas of the USSR, which is very useful when reading about travels in Russia, and especially Siberia. I also have a fascinating road atlas of the Soviet Union from the 1980s. This is fascinating partly because of the large areas that don’t figure in it at all – why would they, when there are no road there? – and also because of the roads which travel 400, 500, 600, even 700 km into the depths of the continent and then just stop. There are no side turnings to right or left. So when you’ve got there, the only way out is to do all that journey over again. It boggles my mind.

I have Google Earth on my computer. Occasionally it’s really useful. I can pinpoint the clearing in the forest deep in Belarus where my father’s home village (hamlet, really: only four houses) used to be. But it remains a curiosity, whereas I would be lost (literally) without my collection of maps and atlases.

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