Rare Maps and History
Rare maps provide an unusual glimpse
not only into the history of cartography but into history in its
widest sense. Maps embody both the history and
the knowledge available at the time the map was prepared and also the technical and artist achievements of the day. Antique maps were thought of as scientific, authoritative documents which imparted power and control, and were often the preserve of powerful governments or individuals. They were media tools used to promote political interests or financial concerns including fresh colonies around the world. Vintage maps were often used as the media
are today, to influence public opinion about territories claimed
but which may not yet be fully under control.
The flowering of the Restoration in Europe, the European discovery of the Americas, Africa and Asia and the development of printing in Europe all coincided chronologically.
Following quite rapidly behind those developments came the printing of
images. At first simple woodcut illustrations
were used but soon the use of copper plates superceded woodcuts. The first ‘atlas’, to use the modern term, was printed using copper in Bologna, Italy, in 1477. It was a printed version of the Egyptian text entitled ‘Geographia’ by Claudius Ptolemy. At first these atlases contained ancient and,
it was soon to be realised, inaccurate maps. Modern maps were included gradually
but starting almost immediately and, in 1570, Abraham Ortelius published the first atlas as we know it with a complete set of modern, well-informed maps of the whole
Willem Janszoon Blaeu:
Nova et Accuratissima Totius Terrarum Orbis Tabula Auctore Joanne Blaeu
Decoration of Rare Maps
By the end of the sixteenth century, the most advanced maps were being printed in northern European countries. Great
mathematical advances in projecting these maps were being made, notably by Gerard Mercator, with one
such projection famously named after him. The sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries were also an era of elaborately decorated engravings and maps were no exception. Further great map makers of the period included Jodocus Hondius, Willem Blaeu, Jan Jansson and John Speed, to name but a few.
The beauty of rare maps is that it encapsulates much of the written word into
a single two dimensional image over which your eyes can successfully dance for hours.
One could in fact write an entire book about any one of many
individual early rare maps. This is what makes them such a fascinating form of media.
Rare Maps and Economic Power
Old maps give us an understanding of human development. We can see the literal understanding of the shape of the land and sea around us, and the physical development of towns and cities. The spread of European culture and political influence around the world and the conflicts it brought are thoroughly ‘discussed’ in maps. The introduction of technology in the form of canals and railways and their gradual spread and influence around the globe can be readily
inferred from early maps. The economic interests of the day are often recorded in the illustrations applied to the maps, reflecting the society of the day
as well as commercial greed. The clarity and ease with which this information can be
visualised is one of the aspects that makes rare maps so
fascinating to us.