Atlas Maps - Thinking Big The Beauty of Maps


Atlas Maps - Thinking Big

Documentary series. A look at some of the largest and most elaborate maps ever produced, including the largest atlas in the world, The Klencke Atlas.


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The British Library in London is home to a staggering four and a half million maps.

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Mysterious and beautiful, these rarely seen treasures

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are much more than just two-dimensional physical depictions of a physical world.

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Among its greatest treasures are the world's very first atlases.

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Masterpieces of scientific endeavour and artistic beauty,

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they are the spectacular achievements of the Golden Age of map-making in the Netherlands.

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The Dutch in this period were perhaps the leading mercantile nation,

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in the world, and so I suppose maps are a natural extension of that.

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The world had never seen printed maps so lavish, so physically large, so expensive.

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For a the super-rich merchants of the Netherlands, the atlas became

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a unique opportunity for conspicuous consumerism and personal display.

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A lot of the decoration of maps is about showing wealth.

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You want to show that you can afford to have a map like this, you can have a gilded map.

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But at the same time it's got entertainment value.

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The more beautiful it looks, the more wonderful, the more spectacular,

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the more entertaining it is, the more lovely it is to have in your home.

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There's an artistic value to them.

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Atlases revolutionised map-making

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and changed the way we see the world.

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Beyond their physical beauty, they were also celebrations of an entire culture,

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objects of power and persuasion in a world of commerce and political intrigue.

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The Golden Age of the atlas had its beginnings here,

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in the Flemish town of Antwerp at the heart of the Netherlands.

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From the 1550s, it became a boom town for commerce, banking, map-making and publishing.

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It was home to The Golden Compasses, the largest printworks north of the Alps.

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From these miraculously preserved printing presses 400 years ago,

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came the maps that started the atlas revolution.

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The reason that map-making

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becomes so much part of Dutch life

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is really to do with a confluence of factors. What you have

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is a moment at which the Dutch themselves are very much part of the overseas race.

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They're expanding into the East Indies. They're competing with the Portuguese.

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The want to understand those places as traders and as politicians.

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They want to know about the places they're expanding into.

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The boundaries of geographical knowledge were expanding as never before.

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And in the 100 or more printworks in Antwerp,

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the most highly skilled printers and engravers in northern Europe

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set about turning that knowledge into maps.

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Here at the Golden Compasses,

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400-year-old copper plates are still producing perfect prints.

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For map-makers, it was a time of unprecedented opportunity.

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And one map-maker would rise above them all.

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His contemporary Abraham Ortelius

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called him "the best geographer of our time".

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His name was Gerard Mercator.

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This is an era of intellectuals.

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It's an era of men who are polymaths.

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They specialise in all kinds of things.

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And Mercator is very much one of those men.

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He wants not only to be able to know about his own locality,

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but also to know about the wider world.

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In the 16th century it's all about understanding the universe

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as a product of a divine plan,

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and Mercator is very much one of those men that feels

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through knowledge of the world you can come to knowledge of God.

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To serve God, Mercator used science.

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A man from humble origins, his father was a lowly cobbler.

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Mercator's intellectual ambition was boundless.

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His ideas and his methods transform map-making

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and the way we see the world, forever.

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Using his scientifically rigorous world view, Mercator's projection,

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he mapped the continents to the same accurate scales for the very first time.

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Then he gathered his maps together in a single volume,

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and gave it a name we still use every day.

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He called his book Atlas.

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London's British Library is one of the world's great centres of cartographic learning.

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It is also home to a unique collection of

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Mercator's extraordinary maps, under the care of curator Peter Barber.

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Mercator's Atlas is important because it's the earliest attempt at

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a really scientific view of the world, one that's based on

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deep thought, on the valuation of information,

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and on the presentation of a coherent

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and integrated view of the whole world.

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Geographer and Mercator biographer Nick Crane

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has come to see the Library's Mercator collection at first-hand.

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-Do you think this was actually coloured by Mercator?

-Oh, yeah.

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This, to me, is one of the most exciting books ever published.

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It's the world's first atlas.

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The first bound book of maps that carries the title Atlas.

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It was devised in the late 16th century by Mercator,

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as the ultimate book of the universe.

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It was a cosmography, it was a book that he was attempting to compile

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that would describe absolutely everything in the heavens and on Earth,

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in the whole cosmos - it was a cosmography.

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I've never actually seen

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a Mercator map

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with his own handwriting on it.

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I've seen the prints. I've seen copies.

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In the Atlas, Mercator developed a new method of looking at the world.

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A method that, 400 years later, still seems incredibly modern.

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This is in ink. It's not in pencil, it's ink.

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The beauty of Mercator's Atlas is very much in the idea, the concept,

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and in that sense it's quite invisible. It's invisible beauty. It's a mathematical beauty.

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I can show you very simply just one element of it, which is the zooming element.

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You're very used to Google Earth, just clicking a button

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and zooming in on a panel of the Earth's surface.

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What Mercator does in the same way is to produce five step changes of scale through his atlas.

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For example, you can move in from the world map,

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zoom in a bit further you've got a map of the British Isles,

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and zoom in a bit further, you've got a map of Northern Scotland.

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And move in a bit further, a map of the tip of northern Scotland.

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So it had a very rigorous approach

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to presenting geographical information in such a way that it all made sense.

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You could effectively travel

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seamlessly, virtually across the whole planet

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from the comfort of your own library or scholarly studio.

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This was the era of so-called armchair travel,

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when maps were bought as much for entertainment as for navigation.

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And in his single-minded pursuit of science, and accuracy, Mercator

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had omitted a crucial element in map-making - art and beauty.

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If you read contemporary books about maps, you don't actually

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get very many comments about how nice it is to see exactly where Lisbon is.

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This sort of comments you get is how fantastic it is

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when you're sitting by your fireside

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to see the different parts of the world and the people who live there,

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and the birds that have been found and the activities of the people and to learn about the history.

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This was still the expectation, and Mercator failed to satisfy that.

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And that might help to explain why when his atlas was published,

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it didn't enjoy the great sales that might have been expected

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from a work that was genuinely so trail-blazing.

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The atlas, considered too plain and austere for the time, sold badly.

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But when Mercator died, a shrewd Dutch map publisher,

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Jodocus Hondius, bought the copper plates of his maps.

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And with an eye to a beauty-obsessed market,

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Hondius produced new lavish, illustrated editions of the atlas.

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They became instant bestsellers.

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He had reinvented Mercator.

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Mercator a man about 500 years ahead of his time,

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and he was a long way ahead of his time.

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He produced a rigorous book of mathematically constructed maps

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to a method that we use today.

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And to see these copper plates,

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to my mind desecrated with cartoon characters around the edges,

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and gigantic ships, that was a step back to medieval map-making.

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That's precisely the kind of nonsense that Mercator

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had scraped from the surface of his copper plates quite deliberately.

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He'd have been spinning in his grave if he'd seen what Hondius was doing,

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I'm absolutely certain. He'd have hated it.

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What Mercator hated, the buyers of atlases loved.

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Hondius' success showed that art mattered just as much as science

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in the new world of the atlas.

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In Cecil Court, London's largest concentration of antiquarian map and print shops,

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buyers' tastes remain remarkably unchanged today.

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From my experience as a map seller in the 21st century,

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there's still a demand for decorative maps.

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Given a choice between a map which is scientifically accurate

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or shows something remarkable for the first time,

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and a map perhaps like Blaeu's,

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which is remarkably luxurious and decorative,

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there's always going to be a group of people who are more interested

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in a decorative map, and I can't blame them.

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Blaeu's map here is a wonderful piece of 17th-century art.

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Joan Blaeu, creator of the some of the most ornate maps of the Dutch Golden Age,

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made his spectacular historical map of Britain in the 1660s.

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It's called the Heptarchy, and shows Britain as it was in Saxon times -

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a nation of seven separate kingdoms,

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each king beautifully rendered in the margins of the map.

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Perhaps to our eyes, some of these images seem a little naive or even inappropriate,

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but they're extraordinarily detailed.

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The attention, the care that's been lavished on these, not just the figures in the foreground,

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but the attention that's been lavished on the background detail as well.

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A quite extraordinary amount of work has gone into this, very little of it

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directly connected to the cartography.

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But I suppose in another sense, all of it helping to understand what the map is about.

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By the mid 1600s, the world of map-making

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had moved from Antwerp to Amsterdam.

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Here, the Dutch had thrown off the yoke of Catholic Spanish occupation.

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Amsterdam was now liberal, democratic, and rich.

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Its new wealthy merchant class had cash to spare

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and an eye for prestige objects.

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The arts flourished with painters like Rembrandt and Vermeer.

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The Dutch Golden Age was poised to enter its most spectacular phase,

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and atlases and art would be at the heart of it.

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Art in 17th-century Holland was completely revolutionised.

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I mean, they got rid of the dominance of the Catholic church.

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They'd proclaimed their independence.

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It was almost like a new beginning.

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It was like saying, actually, there's a whole new world out there.

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And we're going to look at it as if for the very first time.

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This is a time when people are looking for somewhere to spend their money.

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They're stopping putting money into churches,

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because that's a very Catholic thing to do, to adorn churches.

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So they're looking for things to spend their money on, and you see that reflected in the Dutch art.

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It begins to become more ordinary scenes, scenes of everyday life,

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scenes of mercantile activity, of things people are familiar with.

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And atlases are an ideal object for them to start putting their money into.

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So while the rich of Italy and Spain commissioned churches,

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the rich of Holland commissioned atlases.

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And in the 1660s, the atlas itself

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became a tool of commerce and politics.

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It is partly about display of wealth and also technical superiority.

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If you bear in mind that something like Blaeu's Atlas Major,

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we're talking about 600 maps in 11 folio volumes,

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was used as a diplomatic gift -

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for example, a set was given to Algiers.

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You have to imagine this book, with its extraordinary broad margins,

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sometimes heightened in gold,

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and it's a symbol of Dutch technical superiority.

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And I think that's one reason why the Dutch were so interested in maps.

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The ultimate gesture in the political world of Dutch map-making was the Klencke Atlas.

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Made 350 years ago, it's still ranked by

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the Guinness Book of Records as the largest atlas in the world.

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And it's the jewel in the crown of the British Library's map collection.

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This atlas is something that I've been aware of

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ever since I joined the British Library, because of its sheer size.

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And having the responsibility for it is actually quite awe-inspiring.

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I mean, it is quite something.

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I've been in the library for 35 years.

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I've never had the opportunity to open it in the way that I'm opening it now.

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Created by Dutch sugar merchant Johannes Klencke as a gift for King Charles II

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on his Restoration in 1660, its purpose was to buy royal favour.

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Well, the frontispiece is something which was intended to impress.

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And perhaps the most important thing about it is,

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if you look at the surroundings, they're all gold.

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So it immediately establishes that this is really something splendid,

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and this is further emphasised by the wording of the dedication.

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"Soli Britannico Reduci Carolo Secundo Regum Augustissimo."

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Translated, that means, "To the British son restored to his kingdoms, the most august Charles II."

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This is a golden book meant for a returning son.

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Made up of 41 of the finest Dutch wall maps,

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the Atlas was the ultimate political sweetener

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that would encourage Britain, Klencke hoped, to buy his sugar.

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The King loved it, placing it in his private cabinet of rarities,

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where the diarist John Evelyn saw it, describing "a vast book of maps in a volume near four yards long".

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The atlas is extremely precious.

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It's one of the most important things the British Library has.

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It's also, despite appearances, one of the most fragile.

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To leaf through it like this,

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as carefully as one can, is just a unique experience.

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In a sense, er...

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I shouldn't really say this, but you almost become Charles II. You become Evelyn.

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You're actually seeing the things with their eyes, and, if you like, with the real dimensions.

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This is sort of reliving the past,

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almost 100%.

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For Klencke personally, the map delivered the hoped-for rewards.

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He received a knighthood from a king deeply impressed

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with one of the most lavish gifts of the age.

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The Atlas offered not just the knowledge of the world to a powerful monarch,

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but a dazzling display of the greatest Dutch art of the day.

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When you think, for instance, that the joins on this particular map

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were etched by Pieter Lastman, who taught Rembrandt, it's just superb.

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Look at this - I'm looking now at a map of Germany surrounded by

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beautifully executed views of the different towns of Germany,

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and with tremendous decorative features - the coats of arms, the allegories all around.

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I'm actually not surprised that Vermeer wanted to include this sort of map in his paintings.

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And this map is in much better condition

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than the maps painted by him in his paintings.

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One of the great masters of the Golden Age,

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Vermeer was fascinated by maps, using them in many paintings.

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For art historians, they are not just background decoration,

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but a mark of how maps had become an integral part of the Dutch psyche.

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I think maps appear in so many of Vermeer's paintings because he finds them ravishing.

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I think very often

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when you look at a Vermeer painting, first off you think,

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"This is a domestic scene, it couldn't be more quiet."

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And then suddenly, it's almost like a sort of shock, actually.

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You see that beyond the figures, beyond the tables and the chairs

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and all the rest of it, there is this image hanging on the wall,

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often quite large, often very detailed,

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and it's an image of the rest of the world, effectively.

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And you think to yourself, actually Vermeer must be saying,

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"Although I'm concentrating on these small little episodes in tiny little places,

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"I'm also aware, as are we all in 17th-century Holland,

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"of this massive thing out there, which is stretching all around us,

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"and which we are, in fact, discovering."

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They went out there, they colonised, they were great shippers.

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They would travel the oceans.

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They were very brave, actually.

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You can sense that in the maps themselves, in the paintings, this sense of wonder.

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It's almost like a miracle.

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Nowhere expresses the miracle and wealth of the Golden Age

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like the Burgerzaal in Amsterdam.

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It's a monument to how maps themselves had become central to Dutch culture.

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From the giant hemispheres in the marble floor,

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to the globes in the light fittings.

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And towering above above it all is the figure of Atlas,

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supporting the world on his mighty shoulders.

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But the ultimate achievement of Dutch Golden Age map-making resides here at the British Library.

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An atlas that combines the precision and ambition of Mercator,

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the beauty and art of Blaeu, and the sheer scale of Klencke.

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And here it is, emerging from the British Library's basement

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on a convoy of trolleys, a 24-volume atlas.

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Like a hymn of praise to the Golden Age that produced it,

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it covers just one country - the Netherlands.

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Named the Beudeker Collection, after the super-wealthy merchant

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who assembled it, even its bindings are tooled in gold.

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This priceless set of atlases represents wealth and luxury

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on a scale not seen before or since in the history of maps.

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Well, this whole atlas dates from the end of the Golden Age of Dutch map-making.

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And it's the fruit of the development of maps

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in the Netherlands since about 1600.

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So the scale of the maps goes from maps of the whole of the Netherlands,

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to plans of individual buildings and even individual parts of gardens.

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It covers the whole range of human experience.

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And it's produced by people who've had generations of

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experience and training in map-making.

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So this reflects itself in two ways.

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First of all, the quality of the engraving is absolutely superlative.

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Secondly, the quality of the colouring is superb.

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I don't think you'll find any atlas

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which has better colouring than these atlases here.

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In the 17th century, the Dutch map trade

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became so dominant in the whole of the world,

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that it became possible for artists to earn a living just colouring maps.

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The results are amazing.

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The colouring was developed to a level of sophistication

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that had never been seen before, and really has never been seen since.

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The maps not only reflect his pride in the Netherlands,

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they show not only the towns and the provinces,

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but also they depict the famous people and their homes,

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and they depict the homes of these famous people because Beudeker knew these people.

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He knew the regents, he was one of them.

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So this is a collection of maps of the Netherlands,

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viewed not only from a standpoint of almost near perfection in map-making,

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but by a person who stood at the pinnacle of society

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and wanted to show just how splendid the nation he lived in was.

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From its beginnings, rolling out maps on the printing presses of Antwerp,

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the atlas revolution of the Golden Age of Mapping

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brought cartography, art and commerce together as never before.

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It changed the way the world looked forever,

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and produced maps the like of which the world may never see again.

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To explore the new world of digital mapping, and to find out more about

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the British Library Map Exhibition, go to bbc.co.uk/beautyofmaps

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Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

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E-mail [email protected]

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Documentary series charting the visual appeal and historical meaning of maps.

The Dutch Golden Age saw map-making reach a fever pitch of creative and commercial ambition. This was the era of the first ever atlases - elaborate, lavish and beautiful. This was the great age of discovery and marked an unprecedented opportunity for mapmakers, who sought to record and categorise the newly acquired knowledge of the world. Rising above the many mapmakers in this period was Gerard Mercator, inventor of the Mercator projection, who changed mapmaking forever when he published his collection of world maps in 1598 and coined the term 'atlas'. The programme looks at some of the largest and most elaborate maps ever produced, from the vast maps on the floor of the Royal Palace in Amsterdam, to the 24-volume atlas covering just the Netherlands, to the largest atlas in the world, The Klencke Atlas. It was made for Charles II to mark his restoration in 1660. But whilst being one of the British Library's most important items, it is also one of its most fragile, so hardly ever opened. This is a unique opportunity to see inside this enormous and lavish work, and see the world through the eyes of a king.


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