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Map Maker Biography: Nicolas Sanson (1600 – 1667)

Cartographer/geographer Nicolas Sanson is considered by many to be the founder of the French school of cartography, which would take the place of the Dutch school which had held sway for so long.


Born in Abbeyville in Picardy of Scottish descent, he was educated in Amiens in a Jesuit order. He is said to have compiled his first maps at the age of eighteen in order to illustrate historical and geographical information he had been studying. On completing his education, Sanson started his career as a historian, but he rather soon turned to cartography, and his family became one of the first in France in the field of cartography to enjoy royal patronage.

New style of map making/positions held by Sanson

His maps did not compare aesthetically with the ornate and lavish Dutch style, but were noted for their clarity and precision, and soon came to the attention of Cardinal Richelieu, a great patron of the arts and science, who recommended him to French king Louis XIII. Sanson soon began to tutor Louis in geography, who subsequently named him ‘Geographer to the King’, and Sanson immediately began to benefit from royal patronage. His cartographic undertakings were nurtured and generously rewarded quite early on, and he soon became a prolific producer of maps, producing more than 300 in his career. He retained the title under Louis XIV, and his standards were held in the highest regard by his contemporaries and by his professional heirs as well. His contributions to cartography are manifold, but perhaps most important was his turn away from the lavish embellishments of Baroque cartographic customs to a simpler and more scientific geographical representation on paper.

This elegant map of northern Africa is an example of Sanson’s fine work, demonstrating the blending of artistry and science which combined in his maps, resulting in his becoming the premier French cartographer of his time. The coastline is depicted with precision and detail. All major cities and ports are noted. The topography is shown to be quite mountainous with numerous oases located and forests shown in the European manner. Many rivers, lakes and other waterways are also meticulously depicted, as are cities, towns, settlements and fortresses. The ancient city of Constantina, founded by the Phoenicians is included. A natural fortress, the city occupies a rocky diamond-shaped plateau that is surrounded except at the southwest by a precipitous gorge through the eastern side of which flows the Rhumel River. A lovely drape-style title cartouche embellishes this elegant hand-colored map.

In preparation of his major atlas, Cartes Generales de Toutes les Parties du Monde, Sanson employed a number of engravers, but the maps were compiled by Sanson himself, who first published his atlas in 1654, with 100 maps. He is known for depicting the latest discoveries in the New World, with his map Amerique septentrionale being one of the first to represent the Great Lakes in recognizable form. It includes a map of New Mexico and Florida, and erroneously introduces California as an island. South America is mapped in great detail, and a double hemisphere map is devoted to the two poles.

Another example of the work of Sanson is this depiction of the African continent, dated 1650, which offers encyclopedic information on the various kingdoms and peoples who by 1650 were either vibrant and thriving or had left evidence of their once powerful domains. 

His atlas was one of the most important contributions to French commercial cartography of the seventeenth century.  Cartes Generales de Toutes les Parties du Monde sparked a resurgence in geographical endeavours in France, and his atlas became the foundation of French dominance in map production, which was unprecedented in its attention to precision and scientific detail. With this atlas he almost singlehandedly caused French geographical conceptions to be more influential than those put forward by any other nation. Eventually three generations of the Sanson family would hold royal appointments. Their maps would continue to be published by Nicolas’ grandson Pierre Moulart-Sanson, and after him by a nephew of Pierre, firmly establishing the family as major contributors to French and European cartography, and to the universal dissemination of knowledge in printed form.


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