Recent highly publicized thefts of early maps from Yale University’s Beinecke Library, the New York Public Library, and other libraries by E. Forbes Smiley III have highlighted the value of works such as the monumental world atlas published by Joan Blaeu between 1648 and 1655.
Known as the Novus Atlas or Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, this ambitious atlas, a set of which Duke acquired in the 1940s, comprises six folio volumes. The maps are international in scope, covering Europe, Russia, Southeast Asia, Africa, North and South America (with important early maps of Virginia and Florida), and with a large section on China. The fifth volume, devoted to Scotland and Ireland, is noteworthy because it is the first atlas of Scotland ever published.
As a group, the six volumes are significant because they include several maps of individual importance and because of the large amount of cartographic information accumulated in a single work. Blaeu sold the Novus Atlas across Europe in editions translated from the Dutch into German, French, and Latin, even though it was well known when the atlas was published that many of the maps were more than fifty years out of date.
Buyers were willing to overlook any cartographic deficiencies because the Novus Atlas enjoyed the cachet of a prestigious publication. Its full vellum publisher’s binding, elegant typography, fine paper, and large double-page engraved and hand-colored maps appealed to a wealthy audience throughout Europe and made it one of the most expensive publications of its day. John Milton, the English poet, in considering the purchase of a set, complained that “such is the present rage for typographical luxury that the furniture of a library hardly costs less than that of a villa.”
Selections from the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library
April 1, 2007