Joan Blaeu (c. 1599-1673) by Christopher Fleet

Joan Blaeu Joan Blaeu was the eldest son of Willem Janszoon Blaeu (1571-1638), and was probably born in Alkmaar in the province of Noord-Holland in the final years of the 16th century. He was brought up in Amsterdam, and studied law at the University of Leiden before going into partnership with his father in the 1630s. Although his father Willem had cartographic interests, having studied under the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe and having manufactured globes and instruments, his primary business was as a printer. It was under the control of Joan that the Blaeu printing press achieved lasting fame by moving towards the printing of maps and expanding to become the largest printing press in Europe in the 17th century.

Until the late 1620s, the European market for world atlases was dominated by the Mercator maps published by Jodocus Hondius II. However, following the latter's death in 1629, and the growing competition in publishing sea charts and pilot books, the Blaeu business seized its opportunity to publish a grand world atlas: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum or Atlas novus. Willem had already built up extensive contacts across Europe with those who could supply cartographic and topographic information about particular countries (such as Sir John Scot of Scotstarvit in the case of Scotland) and Joan continued to develop these through active correspondence. A small part of this correspondence, amounting to fifteen letters dated between 1626 and 1657 from Blaeu to Sir John Scot of Scotstarvit, survives in the National Library of Scotland (Adv.MS.17.1.9; Moir and Skelton, 1968).

Progress on the world atlas was initially slow, and by the time of Willem's death in 1638 only two volumes had been published, although several more were in progress. But with the publication of a volume for Italy in 1640, one for England in 1645, and another for Scotland in 1654, Joan Blaeu eclipsed his chief rival, Johannes Janssonius, who from this time never matched the quantity of volumes and maps in Blaeu's magnificent atlas. Recognising that the wealthy patrons who would buy such atlases were primarily interested in display, aesthetic considerations such as luxury bindings, fine engraving, bright colour and beautiful typography were emphasised. The currency of the maps, many of which (as for Scotland) had been drafted over a half-century earlier, and an even geographical spread across the known world, were definitely considered less important.

By the 1660s the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (or Atlas Maior as it had became known by this time) had expanded to between 9 and 12 volumes, depending on the language. With over 3,000 text pages and approximately 600 maps, it was the most expensive book money could buy in the later 17th century. The translation of the text from Latin into Dutch, English, German, French, and Spanish for several volumes created enormous work for those involved in typography and letterpress activities. It is estimated that over 80 men must have been employed full-time in the Blaeu printing house in Bloemgracht (not including engravers who worked elsewhere), with over 15 printing presses running simultaneously, and in 1667 a second press was acquired at Gravenstraat. At the same time as producing the Atlas Maior, Blaeu was also publishing town plans of Italy, maps for globes, and other volumes. At its peak the Blaeu press managed to produce over 1 million impressions from 1,000 copper plates within four years (Koeman, 1970).

This growth coincided with a period of prosperity for Amsterdam and the Low Countries, and Joan Blaeu's career mirrored this success. He became chief cartographer to the Dutch East India Company from 1638, and from 1651 to 1672 he served on the Amsterdam City Council without a break, holding several public offices. He also invested in Dutch colonial interests in North America. He had married in 1634, and by this time had three sons and three daughters; however, disaster was about to strike.

In February 1672 a fire broke out in the main printing press at Gravenstraat. There are conflicting accounts of the episode, but it is clear that the damage was enormous, destroying not only thousands of paper sheets and printed maps, but also copper plates and metal for type, both of which melted in the heat. Although his other press at Bloemgracht continued, the loss for Joan Blaeu must have been considerable. The situation was made worse by Blaeu's fall from political office under the new regime of William III (of Orange) later in the year. Many of his surviving copper plates were sold, particularly to Pieter Mortier and Frederick de Wit. In December 1673, Joan Blaeu died, leaving his 22-year-old son Joan Blaeu II in control of the company. The Blaeu press continued to publish maps and other works, but its heyday was over, and the firm ceased operations in the early years of the 18th century. A great era in cartographic history was over.