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Map Maker Biography: Pieter van der Aa (Netherlands, 1659–1733)


T Amerikaans Gewest van Florida Door Ferdinand de Soto

Pieter van der Aa was a highly respected and renowned  publisher, printer and cartographer of the Dutch Golden Age of Cartography. Born in 1659 in Leiden, the second most important and populous city of the Netherlands of the era, his early life was quite typical for the time. Apprenticed by his parents to a printer at the age of nine, by his early twenties he had already started his own business, which included publishing and printing along with his own bookshop and auction house.  Leiden’s university was one of the leading scholarly centres of its day, thus his business was of vital import to both the city and university.

Van der Aa was ambitious, and by his early thirties he had been appointed to a prestigious position in the Leiden Booksellers Guild. Later in life when the most renowned publisher of the city was forced to sell due to mismanagement, Pieter was the largest purchaser and soon established himself as the heir-apparent to the firm which had long been the city’s best known and most prodigious publishing house. In his lifetime he published an enormous amount of printed material.

Among his first publications were important works of the time in a number of related fields. He published Traite de la Lumiere by the Dutch polymath Christiaan Huygens, which presented Huygens’ theory of the wave motion of light, examining the phenomena of reflection and refraction.  Other of his firm's  publications included an important collection titled Thesaurii, a study of ancient Greece and Italy, and the Opera Omnia of Erasmus in ten volumes edited by Jean le Clerc (1703-1706, all publications reflecting his intense interest in contemporary science, ancient history and the philosophical/religious issues which had led to the beginning of the end of medieval thought and philosophy.

While publishing these important and influential works, van der Aa was also publishing travel books describing the East and West Indies, and a pocket size book of geographical charts, with maps describing European cities, sovereignties, kingdoms and countries. These smaller sized atlases contained considerable original work by him, and sold well. Thus many of his collectible maps on the market today are of a smaller size than those published by his contemporaries. While many of the maps used by him were the works of others, those maps created by van der Aa himself are easily identifiable by their fine engraving and their oft-times unusual projections, making them highly desirable to collectors.

During his long career he produced a great number of atlases, including   a 28 volume production containing three thousand maps.  He also amassed an enormous number of engravings, charts and maps, which he often used to illustrate his travel accounts and voyages. One such of his publications, Naaukeurige versameling der gedenk-waardigste zee en land-reysen na Oost en West-Indiën, included over 500 engraved views and over 100 maps. This remarkable work used for its source material the travel accounts of well-known voyages dating from 1246 –1696 from such reputable sources as De Bry, Hakluyt, Herrera, de Barros, and Thevenot.  It includes the major voyages of Columbus, Vasco de Gama, Cortes, Drake and includes many minor European voyages as well.

The engravings used to illustrate his publications are done in great detail, whether of Western Europe, including a major work of his dedicated to Italy and Sicily, or of more exotic places such as the Americas, Africa, Moscovia, Turkey and the Middle East. His engravings depict local peoples in their native dress, and often also include their religious traditions, customs, means of travel, housing, etc., all set in their local environs.

His engraving of Windsor shows the castle on its enormous mound with river-going vessels sailing on the River Thames nearby.  Cultivated fields, harvest being taken in, the villages near the castle, vegetation on the riverbanks, all together create a sense of the locale as it must have been in the late 17th – early 18th centuries. 

Another example demonstrating the intricacy and detail of his work is the magnificent engraving shown below, entitled The Court of the Great Mughal at Lahore.  


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