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Willem Jansz. Blaeu

Willem Janszoon (Jansz for short) Blaeu (1571 - 1638) was the founder of a large publishing firm that became famous in the field of cartography under the name Blaeu. The Blaeus were quite a prosperous Mennonite family of Amsterdam. Willem’s father, though, lived in Alkmaar, north of Amsterdam, or in the nearby village of Uitgeest, which is where Willem was born in 1571 and where he received his early schooling.
            It must have been during this period that he met Adriaan Anthonisz (1541- 1620), surveyor, astronomer, mathematician, military engineer and fortifications superintendent of the Dutch Republic. This enthusiast for the liberal arts was the father of the better-known Adriaan Metius, who was also born in 1571 and would later become Blaeu’s scientific adviser. Blaeu moved to Amsterdam at the age of 23 to learn the ins and outs of the herring trade from his family. However, being more interested in scientific matters, and especially in mathematics and astronomy, he left after two years for Denmark, where he studied for two years with the renowned astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) on the island of Hven (modern Ven in Sweden. Tycho Brahe had his own observatory, as well as a workshop for the manufacture of instruments, and a printing press. This enabled Willem Jansz to acquire both theoretical and practical knowledge, and brought him into contact with people with similar interests.
            After his return to the Netherlands he applied himself to astronomy for several years in the city of Alkmaar. Very little is known about his stay there, but it was where he married Marretie or Maertgen Cornelisdr of Uitgeest, probably in 1597. It was there, too, that his eldest son Joan was born. On 21 February 1598 Blaeu observed an eclipse of the moon from Alkmaar that was simultaneously observed by Tycho Brahe in Wandsbeck near Hamburg. The purpose of their observations was to determine the difference in longitude between the two places.
            While in Alkmaar he made a celestial globe 34 cm in diameter for Adriaan Anthonisz that was based on Tycho Brahe’s new but as yet unpublished star catalogue. The globe was published in 1597/98 and was masterfully engraved by Jan Saenredam, a pupil of Hendrick Goltzius and father of Pieter Jansz Saenredam, the famous painter of church interiors.
            The production of globes was Blaeu’s main activity at the start of his career, and in order to set himself apart from the many others called Willem Jansz he dubbed himself ‘Willem Jansz Globi’ or ‘Geloobmaker’. Blaeu followed the tradition of making globes in pairs: a terrestrial and a celestial one.


Willem Jansz moved to Amsterdam with his family around 1598/99, and opened a shop selling celestial and terrestrial globes and astronomical instruments, all made by himself. The great voyages of discovery advanced the science of navigation, and there was a pressing need for astronomical instruments to determine the position of ships at sea. Blaeu had enjoyed an excellent training as an instrument maker under Tycho Brahe. He shows considerable interest in maritime instruments in his sea atlases, and illustrates or reproduces them by means of movable diagrams.
            In 1605 he moved to new premises on Damrak, where most of the Amsterdam booksellers and mapmakers had clustered at that time. The building was called In de Vergulde Sonnewyser (In the Gilded Sundial) and here he also set up a printing shop and publishing house. His first publications were in the fields of cartography and navigation, and by 1608 he had already published a fine map of the world and a popular marine atlas. His early works include a globe of 1599, maps of European countries and a world map in 1604-1608.
            Blaeu’s early interest in navigation led to his first pilot guide, which was called the Nieuw graetbouck. He occupies an important position in the history of early Dutch pilot guides. His famous predecessor for the description of eastern, western and northern navigation was Lucas Jansz Waghenaer. Blaeu issued two pilot guides: Het licht der Zee-vaert (first edition 1609), which firmly established his reputation as a maritime cartographer, and Zeespiegel (first edition 1623), both of which were reprinted several times.  (image III)
His reputation is apparent from a fragment of Vondel’s famous poem Lof der zeevaart (Praise of navigation) of 1623:

Honour is due to his [Tycho’s] pupil too, not for fancy pastry
Neither for procuring marzipans, my Knights, but his Cartography,
Protractors, Astrolabes, as well as Globes concave and convex,
Adorned with symbols, and illustrations of wondrous effects:
Who brings books to light, for which they widely render thanks,
When he plumbs the grounds, and cautions against banks,
The copious creeks, and corners curved and bent,
By which they flaunt firmly through the fluid element.

The voyages of discovery in the fifteenth and sixteenth century created an insatiable interest in cartography. They also advanced the science of navigation, and there was a pressing need for astronomical instruments to determine the position of ships at sea. The newly discovered territories offered opportunities for trade, and it was not only essential to know how to reach them but also how to return home safely again. Knowledge increased with every voyage, and maps consequently became more and more accurate. The unfolding of new opportunities increased the demand for good maps.
In addition to charts used specifically for navigation, growing numbers of people became interested in maps. They wanted to satisfy their curiosity about new countries, even if only on paper. Maps were also used to advertise one’s status, to promote a better understanding of history or politics, or to take the place of paintings.
            The first large centre for the production of maps was in the southern Netherlands in the sixteenth century, with Plantin, Ortelius and Mercator as the leading publishers. They were the first printers of world atlases. Mercator’s name is indissolubly connected with his invention, the Mercator projection, a system of increasing latitudinal degrees for use at sea.
            Because of Amsterdam’s growing role in international trade in the sixteenth century, it is not surprising that the market for maps and pilot guides slowly moved northwards, initially led by publishers who had emigrated to the Dutch Republic from the southern, Spanish Netherlands. Amsterdam was a favourite place for political refugees, victims of religious persecution and fortune seekers.

Amsterdam expanded enormously during the Twelve Years’ Truce (1609-1621). The economy flourished and this was reflected in the output of maps. Willem Jansz was not the only publisher of maps and globes in Amsterdam. When he set up his business, Cornelis Claesz (1546/47-1609) and Jodocus Hondius the Elder (1563-1612), both originally from the southern Netherlands, had already made a name for themselves. After Claesz’s death, Willem Jansz succeeded in acquiring much of his estate, which strengthened his position as a map publisher. However, he had fierce competition from his neighbour Jan Jansz, or Johannes Janssonius, another mapmaker, bookseller and publisher who took the premises next door to Blaeu on Damrak. Willem Jansz had also Latinised his name to (Guilelmus) Janssonius, in accordance with the general custom, and this caused much confusion and was later abused by Jan Jansz. Willem Jansz decided to change his name and chose that of his grandfather, ‘Blauwe Willem’ (Blue William) as his surname in 1621. From then on, he called himself Willem (Jansz) Blaeu and sometimes added the Latinised form ‘Caesius’ (bluish-grey) to his imprints.
            In 1621 Janssonius published a plagiarised copy of Blaeu’s pilot guide Het licht der Zee-vaert. He was able to do so with impunity because Blaeu’s copyright had expired. Blaeu then decided to compete with his competitor Janssonius and his brother-in-law Henricus Hondius(1597 - 1651) in the field of atlas production, in which the latter had a monopoly with the Mercator/Hondius/Janssonius atlases.  Blaeu had already published several maps in atlas format and started to gather maps for his own atlas. In 1630 he purchased 37 plates of the Mercator atlas from Jodocus Hondius the Younger. He added these to his own collection and published the Atlantis appendix, which contained 60 maps. This publication sparked off a new trend in Amsterdam atlas production that was characterised by competition and an increased output of maps. Blaeu then began planning a major atlas that would include the most up-to-date maps of the entire world.
            In 1633, partly due to aggressive competition from the firm of Hondius-Janssonius, Blaeu announced his intention to publish a new Theatrum orbis terrarum, sive, Atlas novus in two volumes. According to Gunter Schilder, correspondence between Blaeu and Wilhelm Schickhard indicates that Blaeu intended to complete the atlas that same year. Blaeu’s plan for a new ‘International edition’ of a world atlas was publicised in an Amsterdam newspaper on 11 February 1634. ‘Presently being printed at Amsterdam by Willem Jansz Blaeu is a large book of maps, the Atlas, in four languages: Latin, French, German and Dutch. That in German will appear around Easter, those in Dutch and French in the month of May, or early June at the latest, and the one in Latin shortly thereafter. All editions on very fine paper, completely renewed with newly engraved copper plates and new, comprehensive descriptions.’
            Despite the fact that the newspaper announcement in early 1634 stated that the atlas was ‘presently being printed’, only the German edition was completed that year, though not in its final form. In 1635 Blaeu issued the first two volumes of the Atlas novus. Progress was painfully slow, and although he spent the rest of his life compiling maps for this ambitious project, the atlas was not finally completed until well after his death.


Willem Blaeu’s wall maps are considered to be among the most influential and artistically virtuosic masterpieces of the great age of Baroque cartography. The publication of his first set of wall maps in 1608 marked the start of his ascendancy to the pre-eminent position he occupied in the highly competitive worldwide map market. Blaeu published several wall maps, printed on parchment or paper. A fine example of one on vellum is this  PASCAARTE van alle de Zécuften van EUROPA. Nieulycx befchreven door Willem Ianß. Blauw. Men vintfe te coop tot AMSTERDAM, Op’t Water inde vergulde Sonnewÿser.                              

It was first published some time between 1621 and 1650. It is the first state of two, and measures 687 x 868 mm. The title and imprint are in a cartouche crowned with Willem Jansz Blaeu’s printer’s mark, with his ‘INDEFESSVS AGENDO’ motto at the centre of the lower border. The map is very rare, and surprisingly no Dutch institution has an example on vellum. Interestingly, Johannes Vermeer used this map in his painting The Geographer of 1669), which is now in the Städel Museum in Frankfurt. Amsterdam was the world centre of mapmaking in Vermeer’s day, and Blaeu’s wall maps were among its most majestic productions.
            Blaeu also printed loose track charts on parchment, known as ‘overzeilers’ in Dutch (literally ‘charts for sailing across oceans and seas’) which were printed on an especially wide press. In addition to charts, Blaeu issued several folio maps, as well as assembled wall maps and a series of large-format profiles of cities throughout the world, many of them with figural borders.


The production of globes was also an important and lucrative part of the business. In the second half of the seventeenth century, after buying up the copper plates of all the rival firms, the Blaeus became the sole producers of globes in Amsterdam.

In addition to his activities as a publisher, Blaeu continued his scientific pursuits. He used his findings to improve his maps and guides, so each discipline strengthened the other. His expertise won official recognition when he was appointed official cartographer and examiner of navigating officers to the Amsterdam chamber of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in 1633. It was a period when Amsterdam was one of the wealthiest trading cities in Europe, and a centre for banking and the diamond trade.
            The VOC (1602-1798) contributed significantly to the wealth and prosperity of the Dutch Republic, and Blaeu’s prestigious appointment firmly established his reputation within the highly competitive world of Dutch mapmakers. As official cartographer of the VOC, as well as of the Dutch West India Company (WIC; 1621-1792), Blaeu had the finest craftsmen at his disposal, and the quality of his own work continued to improve. The artists drawing and colouring the maps usually worked on the premises, which meant that the quality of their work was under constant supervision.
            Willem Jansz Blaeu sold his products not only in Amsterdam but throughout Europe. One key plank in his merchandising strategy was the biannual Frankfurt Buchmesse, where book and print publishers and sellers from all over Europe gathered to display and sell their latest wares
            Blaeu published a new edition of his world atlas in German (10 March 1634), Latin (13 April 1635), Dutch (22 April 1635) and French (1 July 1635). He had ambitious plans for his publications, and said in the preface to the German edition of 1636: ‘Our intention is to describe the entire world, that is the heavens and the earth, in several volumes like these two, of which two more of the earth will shortly follow’. But Blaeu did not live to see the publication of the other two volumes he had prepared. They appeared in 1640 (Italy) and 1645 (England).
After his death in 1638, Willem Jansz was succeeded by his sons Joan (1598/99-1673) and Cornelius (c. 1610-1642) Blaeu, who continued and expanded their father’s ambitious plans. Joan inherited his father’s VOC duties, which included making manuscript charts and compiling sailing directions for navigators. He had access to a vast amount of up-to-date information, particularly about parts of the world dominated by the Dutch. Although much of this information was incorporated into his manuscript charts and large wall maps, it seems he was unable to take advantage of his privileged position with the VOC for his own publications, with the result that many of the maps in his great atlases contain less accurate information than that of his competitors.
            Joan continued the business alone after Cornelis’s death in 1644, and established his own reputation as a great mapmaker. He completed his father’s grand project in 1655 with the sixth and final volume of the Atlas novus. Joan succeeded in producing the most voluminous world atlas of all time when the magnificent Atlas maior saw the light of day in 1662. The final, eleventh volume of the Spanish edition was in the press when, on 28 February 1672, the printing shop was destroyed by fire, a blow from which the famous Blaeu publishing house never recovered. Joan’s sons Johan and Peter were the third generation to run the firm before it closed down in 1706. The printing shop had already been sold in 1695.

Click here to see samples of maps by the Blaeu family.

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Author: Paulus Swaen 2017