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Map Maker Biography: Willem Janszoon Blaeu (1571 – 1638)

Cartographer Willem Janszoon Blaeu was the founder of what would become one of western Europe’s greatest cartographic publishing firms, a firm which published terrestrial and celestial globes, nautical charts, and geophysical maps. A man of myriad talents, he also specialized in the design and manufacture of scientific instruments used in astronomy, cartography, and navigation, and invented and refined mechanical devices for improving printing technology. While he is well-known for his work in a wide variety of fields related to cartography and astronomy, he is best known today as a cartographer, despite having started serious production of geophysical maps at the relatively late age (for his time) of 35.


Descended on his father’s side from men in the highly profitable business of packing herring, he was sent to Amsterdam at an early age to study the specifics of the trade in order to continue the family enterprise. However, his apprenticeship was of short duration, for he found himself rather more attracted to math and science than to the family business. Though he continued to work, it was as a carpenter and clerk in the mercantile office of a cousin.

Notwithstanding his lack of formal education, in 1595 he is known to have become a student of the brilliant astronomer and mathematician Danish nobleman Tycho Brahe, and was acclaimed as brilliant by his peers. To be accepted by Brahe was an honour limited to those found gifted and educated enough by the great astronomer himself to do the work he would demand of them. Thus it is understood that Blaeu had somehow accomplished a high level of education, and developed the necessary skill sets to be of interest to Brahe. He spent the winter of 1595-96 studying astronomy, mathematics and instrument making with him at Brahe's own renowned observatory Stjerneborg, at Uraniborg near Copenhagen, the finest observatory of its day in western Europe. Below is Blaeu's impression of it circa 1595.


Stjerneborg Observatory

Brahe was nearly fifty years old at this time, and had spent his entire adult life in the quest of increasing knowledge of the heavens, of developing instruments for the refining and recording of more precise measurements, for making astronomy a more exact science than  had been possible with earlier, less sophisticated instruments. He trained a generation of young scientists and astronomers, Blaeu among them. Blaeu’s success as a cartographer, instrument maker and astronomer owes much to his intense training with Brahe. As he developed his career, Blaeu went on to make and record his own scientific observations of the moon and its eclipses. He also discovered a star which is now known as P Cygni.


Blaeu is known to have studied and practiced a number of sciences for his own pleasure before marrying in 1597. However, the founding of his cartographic firm in 1599 positioned his life on a new trajectory, and he was soon a financially successful businessman, a commercial globe and instrument maker, a publisher, all the while continuing to make and record astronomical observations. One of his firm’s earliest projects was the publication of a celestial globe, the first printed account of Tycho Brahe’s catalogue of 1,000 stars.

Early on as his own publisher he turned his talents to the making and publishing of nautical charts, and of navigational instruments used for plotting courses at sea. In 1605 he published a nautical almanac based on Brahe’s star-coordinates and astronomical constants. In 1606 he received privilege for his pilot guide, and for his portolan chart of the coasts of Europe. In 1608 he published his Licht Der Zeevaert or Light of the Seafarer. This interest in maritime cartography and the publishing of pilot guides constituted a major portion of his productivity throughout his life, but after 1605 he began to expand his firm’s productions to increasingly include topographic maps.

Blaeu's mapmaking

This appears to have been a pragmatic decision based on public interest and demand for maps of the world, of continents, of separate kingdoms and countries. Maps began to be used as wall hangings, to express status and to promote better understanding of history and/or political boundaries. The wall maps he published in 1608 helped initiate his ascendancy to a preeminent position in the global map market. For many of these maps he often used the work of Mercator, whose plates he had purchased as early as 1612, but he was also clearly attuned to what was happening in the world of exploration as is demonstrated by the typically beautiful Blaeu maps below, the first of Russia with an inset of Moscow, and the other of Chile, both published in his lifetime. 


That he kept pace with exploratory voyages of the Dutch to both the east and the west is also attested to by revisions in various states of his maps charting new discoveries. The States General of Amsterdam appointed Blaeu map maker of the Republic, and he was employed by the governors of the Dutch East India Company as their hydrographer, an important and prestigious position. In 1634 he issued the first two volumes of his long-planned world atlas, Atlas Novus or the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, and was completing work on its final two volumes at the time of his death in 1638. His sons Joan (1596-1673) and Cornelis (c. 1610-1644), continued and expanded their father’s ambitious plans. The two additional volumes appeared in 1640 in Italy and in 1645 in England.

Willem’s circle of friends included the literati of both Amsterdam and foreign lands, including many famous poets whose works he often published, and writers and philosophers whose works he was often asked to edit. His books are described by contemporaries as being sumptuous and beautiful, though he never studied the trade. Blaeu shared traits common to virtually all great cartographers - myriad talents educated, trained and honed to accomplish great strides in the race to a scientific understanding of the planet.

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