A monument from the Canon of Dutch History: Blaeu’s 'Atlas maior'

Ask anyone what comes to mind when thinking of old maps and ten to one the name of Blaeu will come up. The atlases and maps which were printed in the Amsterdam publishing house of the Blaeu’s in the 17th century are world-famous. Not surprisingly, Blaeu’s Atlas maior is included in the Canon of Dutch History: a survey of fifty important persons, creations and events that shows the historical development of the Netherlands. Utrecht University Library houses two beautiful editions of the Atlas maior, written in the Dutch language. Here the library offers one of these monuments in its entirety and in digital format.

Amsterdam as centre of the world

In Blaeu’s days, Amsterdam was the ever expanding centre of international trade, overseas expansion and wealth. In such a city all conditions were present to start a flourishing publishing firm for maps and atlases: international contacts, financial means and a sales market. Not only were there enough sailors and merchants in need of reliable means of navigation, but it also turned out that many well-to-do citizens were curious for the world behind the horizon. They were prepared to spend lots of money on luxuriously designed atlases and beautiful earth globes and celestial globes.

Blaeu’s first steps

Willem Jansz. Blaeu (1571-1638) capitalized on these circumstances, possessing know-how and an excellent business instinct. After an apprenticeship with the famous Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, he founded his own printing and publishing firm in Amsterdam. From his first printed maps (dating from 1604) he attracted attention by the quality of his maps and his innovations. Blaeu did not travel to make measurements. He designed his maps on the basis of already existing maps supplemented with knowledge he obtained from travel accounts and conversations with sailors. His maps and atlases won him an international reputation.

Prosperity under Joan Blaeu

After the death of Willem Jansz. Blaeu in 1638, his son Joan (ca. 1598/99-1673) took over the company. He brought the family business to an even greater prosperity. Building on the legacy of his father, Joan tried to publish a true cosmography, a complete description of the then known heaven, earth and seas. This over ambitious plan failed but did, however, result in the publication of the famous Atlas Maior. From 1662 onwards, this multi-volume world atlas appeared in several editions and languages and was the pinnacle of the Dutch atlas production. In almost six hundred maps and some thousands of pages of descriptions the nine to twelve volume atlas offered a map view of the world.


The genesis of the Atlas maior cannot be discussed without mentioning the rivalry between the Blaeu firm and its fellow-publisher and neighbor, Johannes Janssonius (1588-1664). Both rivals started an atlas run unequalled in history. It resulted in a new development in the Amsterdam atlas production, which was characterized by competition and an increase of the number of atlas maps. A salient detail is that Willem Jansz. Blaeu entered the atlas market by the purchase of the copperplates of Jodocus Hondius jr., the brother of Henricus Hondius with whom Janssonius closely cooperated at the time.

Blaeu versus Janssonius

Up to that time Blaeu had only been active in the field of globes and maritime publications. In the course of the 17th century the trade in this kind of publications stagnated. With the copperplates of Jodocus Hondius jr. Blaeu could drive the, in his eyes obsolete current world atlas of Janssonius, out of the marketplace. In 1630 he published the Atlantis appendix sive pars altera comprising 60 maps, of which 37 had been printed from Hondius’ copperplates. Janssonius and Henricus Hondius responded in 1630 and 1631 by publishing ‘new’ atlases with maps that had been copied after Blaeu.

Larger and larger atlases

A duel arose which lasted for some decades and led to atlases that became more and more extensive. For example if Blaeu presented a two-volume atlas with a total of 210 maps, Janssonius outdid him by publishing a three-volume atlas with more than 300 maps. And so it went on and on. In 1638 when Willem Jansz. Blaeu died and was succeeded by his son Joan, both publishing firms had set up a new multivolume atlas: the Atlas Novus. After that time they tried to get the better of each other by constantly increasing the number of volumes. During this battle, they did not hesitate to copy each other’s maps. By the end of 1658 both Blaeu and Janssonius had published a six-volume Atlas Novus with 400 and 450 maps respectively.

The Atlas maior by Janssonius

In the long run the competition between Blaeu and Janssonius resulted in the publication of an Atlas maior or ‘major atlas’. Janssonius was the first to put such an atlas on the market and in the German language for that matter: the ten to eleven volume Novus Atlas absolutissimus. However, this ‘major atlas’ of Janssonius lacked uniformity and was mainly composed of already existing parts of the Atlas novus. But it must be said: it contained a huge number of maps, 500 to 550, and in combination with the celestial atlas by Cellarius and the town atlases in eight volumes Janssonius was the only one to realize Mercator’s 16th century concept: a complete description of the countries, towns, oceans and heavens.

Blaeu’s answer

Of course Blaeu did not sit still and he also set out to publish a ‘major atlas’ as part of a cosmography. So in 1662 the Latin edition of Blaeu’s Atlas maior appeared in eleven volumes and with approximately 600 maps. In the years to come French and Dutch editions followed in twelve and nine volumes respectively. However, a Spanish edition remained unfinished, while a real German edition was never produced. Purely judging from the number of maps in the Atlas maior, Blaeu had outdone his rival Janssonius. And also from a commercial point of view it was a huge success. Also due to the superior typography the Atlas maior by Blaeu soon became a status symbol for rich citizens. Costing 350 guilders for a non-coloured and 450 guilders for a coloured version, the atlas was the most precious book of the 17th century.

Description of the countries

As said before, originally Blaeu had a total cosmography in mind with his Atlas maior. The full title leaves nothing to the imagination: Grooten atlas, oft wereltbeschryving, in welcke ‘t aertryck, de zee en hemel, wordt vertoont en beschreven (‘Major atlas, or description of the world, in which the earth, the sea and sky is shown and described’). The several editions of the Atlas maior in nine to twelve volumes however only contain the description of the countries. The planned volumes with the seas and the sky never came off  the press.

Design of the atlas

Compared to the previous Latin and French editions, the Dutch edition differs from the Atlas maior, in particular in relation to the order of the maps. In addition the Grooten atlas is not divided into ‘parts’ (North Pole, Europe, Africa, Asia and America) and ‘books’ (the countries and larger regions). This was due to the availability of a large supply of printing sheets which Blaeu still had in stock as a result of the relatively recent reprint of the Dutch Atlas novus (1658). That is why the order of the maps in the Atlas maior became the standard for the order in the maps in the Grooten atlas.

Sources for the atlas maps

Just as with his previous cartographic publications, Blaeu did not spend money on having regions measured and mapped for the Atlas maior. He composed his maps based on several sources, including existing (sometimes hundred years old) map material from other publishers from the Low Countries and abroad. Because of this and also due to the strong competition with Janssonius, Blaeu did not manage to produce a well-composed atlas: for instance a disproportionate number of maps was allocated to the British Isles and to inaccessible China. Blaeu simply had much and original source material at his disposal covering these areas.

The production of the Atlas maior

It was no real surprise that Blaeu was able to pull off the publication of a mega project such as the Atlas maior. In its heydays, the firm had the largest print shop of the world. In the print shop at the Amsterdam Bloemgracht, since 1637 in operation, nine book print presses and six plate print presses were available. In a second print shop, opened in 1667, on the Gravenstraat probably most maps were printed. With these modern and well equipped print shops Blaeu could realize his enormous atlas project: from the Dutch edition with almost 4,000 pages of text and maps to the French edition with over 5,300 pages!

Number of copies

Although the exact number of copies of the Atlas maior is unknown, based on the number of library copies that have come down to us, it could be said that the number of copies depending on the edition amounted to 200 and 650 copies. This means a staggering total of almost 1 million copperplate impressions and over 5 million text pages!


Less than a century after Ortelius Theatrum orbis terrarum , the very first world atlas with slightly more than fifty maps, the concept proved to be such a success that a huge atlas with 600 maps could be profitable. However, the Atlas maior was also a turning point: after that time the role of Dutch cartography was finished. Janssonius died in 1664 while a great fire in 1672 destroyed one of Blaeu’s print shops. In that fire a part of the copperplates went up in flames. Fairly soon afterwards Joan Blaeu died, in 1673. The almost 2,000 copperplates of Janssonius and Blaeu found their way to other publishers.

The world close at hand

The Atlas maior illustrated how knowledge of the world had increased as a result of the discovery voyages and trade contacts. At the same time, the atlas was a popular status symbol and bound in precious leather if so wished. The maps, often published before or taken over from other publishers, were beautifully executed. Blaeu had brought the world within reach with his Atlas maior, in the most beautiful design conceivable.

Digital availability

Blaeu’s Atlas maior takes up such an important place in the Dutch history that is has been included in the Canon of Dutch history. In 1970 a facsimile edition of the French editon was published (Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum). Up till now an integral digital edition was not available. One of the two copies of the nine volume Grooten atlas, in possession of the Utrecht University Library, can now be digitally admired in all its glory. The 17th century geographical world view is from now on 24/7, and 365 days a year available to the 21st century citizen, wherever he is. A fact only dreamt of in the 17th century.

Further reading

MvE, 2012
World map, Joan Blaeu, 1662
Book binding 'Atlas maior', Joan Blaeu, 1664-1665
Engraved title page 'Atlas maior', Joan Blaeu, 1664-1665
Jan Mayen Island, Joan Blaeu, 1662
Print of a walrus near Nova Zembla, Joan Blaeu, 1662
Print of Uraniborg, Joan Blaeu, 1664-1665
Impression of the observatory and wall quadrant of Tycho Brahe, Joan Blaeu, 1662
Schermer polder, Joan Blaeu, 1662
Schouwen-Duiveland, Joan Blaeu, 1662

J. Blaeus grooten atlas, oft, Werelt-beschryving, in welcke 't aertryck, de zee, en hemel, wordt vertoont en beschreven (Utrecht UB: MAG: AC 62-70 (Rariora)); [Amsterdam : Joan Blaeu, 1664-1665).

Digitizing the atlases was possible thanks to a generous grant of the K.F. Hein Fonds.