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The First Atlas of the Far East published in Europe

SKU: 9539

The First Atlas of the Far East published in Europe

Date of publication:

contemporary calf


  • Joannes Blaeu
  • Martino Martini
  • Novus Atlas Sinensis

    This, the sixth volume of Blaeu’s great ‘Theatrum Orbis Terrarum’or ‘Novus Atlas’ is also the first atlas of China published in Europe. More properly, as it covers the entire region including Korea and Japan, the 'Atlas Sinensis' is the first western atlas of east Asia.

    The atlas is firmly rooted in Chinese sources. Martino Martini (1614-1661) was a Jesuit missionary who reached China in 1642 and amassed a considerable library of Chinese books and maps, thought to include Zhu Siben's 14th-century atlas of Chinese provinces and Lo Hongxian's authoritative atlas, which was first printed in 1561. Recent work by Mario Cams (see, for example, IMCoS Journal 158) has confirmed that a copy of another Chinese atlas, 'Records of Enlarged Territories', still exists in the Vatican – heavily annotated in Martini's hand. Cams also identifies a rare wall map, printed in Nanjing in 1644, as the source for 'all of the statistical and distance data contained in Martini's text'.

    While in China Martini had to perform a delicate shift in allegiance from the failing Ming dynasty to the Manchu-Qing dynasty. Although Beijing fell in 1644, it would be decades before Qing power was fully consolidated, but it was clear to Martini and his Jesuit colleagues which way the wind was blowing. Its sensitive and ground-breaking subject matter ensured that the creation of Martini's atlas was thoroughly entangled in the commercial, political and religious rivalries of its time, between Dutch and Portuguese and Catholic and Protestant as well as Ming and Qing. There is also an underlying respect for Martini's scholarship throughout. After a 'long, adventurous voyage' (Catholic Encyclopedia 1913) Martini was able to return from Beijing to Rome with his library intact.En route for the Vatican in 1651, his Portuguese ship was captured by the Dutch, and Martini and his collection were detained in Batavia for some months. The VOC officials there quickly realised the importance of their prize, learning from Martini that the Qing dynasty had consolidated its hold on power,and was potentially more receptive to foreign trade than the Ming dynasty which preceded it. This was sufficient to encourage the Dutch to send their first formal embassy to China, 1655-57, which the Portuguese of Macao and Martini's fellow Jesuits at the Chinese court did their best to scupper, presenting the Dutch as untrustworthy heretics from their ancient religion.

    Meanwhile Martini had been granted passage for Europe – but on a Dutch ship – and he reached Amsterdam in 1654, the year in which Joannes Blaeu published the first printed atlas of Scotland. With access to the latest cartographic information and an international market, Blaeu could print material (and of a quality) that his rivals could only dream of. Martini appears to have persuaded him to drop work on all his other projects, including his great town books of Italy, to bring the Atlas Sinensis into print. The politics were handled with tact – the volume is dedicated to Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria, a noted patron of the arts who was then serving as Governor of the (Catholic) Habsburg Netherlands –but as official cartographer to the VOC as well as a commercial publisher Blaeu will have understood the full value of the material which Martini had placed in his hands.The maps presented a wealth of new geographical information, each illustrated with Blaeu's elaborate cartouches, showing regional costume, customs and animals. The text included Martini's own account of his travels, with supporting information about the history, politics and administration of China. European understanding of the region was transformed, and Martini's work supplied the foundations for generations of scholars. After his long-delayed audience with the Pope, Martini himself returned to Beijing in 1658.

    Condition & Materials

    Folio (51.5 x 33 cm), pp. [viii], 171, [xxv], xii, 33, [iii] + engraved architectural title-page and 17 double-page engraved maps with original hand colour, versos blank, mounted on guards; occasional browning or spotting to text and slight spotting to some maps; closed 17 cm tear, without loss, to map of ‘Xansi’ (Shaanxi); ‘Chekiang’ (Zhejiang) map with 6 cm strip torn from lower margin; very small tear to final leaf affecting one or two letters of text, with old repair on blank verso.

    The full title of the atlas is revealed on the back of an open door engraved on the title-page, through which geographically-minded putti (depicted locating China on a globe and examining a more detailed regional map) are granted a direct view of a distant landscape. A variant title-page, perhaps intended for stand-alone copies, contained more explicit religious imagery in the upper part of the page; our example contains the 'Novus Atlas' title within a simple pediment.Bound in handsome contemporary panelled calf, newly rebacked in an appropriate 17th century style, repair to lower cover and some other minor wear, all edges gilt. An early ownership signature has been washed from the title-page.