Auction or Gallery status
Swaen Catalogue

The life of Willem Jansz. Blaeu

Willem Janszoon Blaeu (1571-1638) founded one of history's greatest cartographic publishing firms in 1599.

The Blaeu family has its origin on the island of Wieringen, where around 1490, Willem Jacobsz., alias Blauwe Willem, the grandfather of Willem Jansz. Blaeu was born. From the marriage of Willem Jacobsz. and Anna Jansd. came six children. The son Jan Willemsz. (1527- before 1589) was the father of Willem Jansz Blaeu, who continued the family tradition by practising the trade of herring packer. In his second marrariage with Stijntge. Willem Jansz Blaeu was born in 1571.
We do not know wether he was born at Alkmaar or Uitgeest.
At an early age he went to Amsterdam in order to learn the hearring trade. But Willem Jansz. Blaeu did not like this work very much; as he was more inclined to mathematics.

Tycho Brahe
The celebrated Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), demanded a high standard of his pupils. Some were invited by him, others he undoubtedly took on special recommendation. We may therefore presume that the young Blaeu had reached a high standard of education and technical skill, since he was considered worthy to become a pupil of the great astronomer.
Blaeu lived for two years on the Island of Hven, over the winter of 1595/1596 at Brahe's observatory in Urienborg.

After his return from Hven in 1596, Blaeu settled in Alkmaar. Very little is known of his stay here. Here he married (probably in 1597) Marretie or Maertgen, daughter of Cornelis from Uitgeest. Here also, his eldest son Joan was born.
In Alkmaar, on 21 February 1598, Blaeu observed an eclipse of the moon, which was also seen by Tychro Brahe at Wandsbeck near Hamburg. A page from the original report is given to the right. They made the observations in order to determinate the difference of longitude between the two places.
Blaeu made for Adriaan Anthonisz a 34 cm. diameter celestial globe, based on Brahe's as yet unpublished information.

Blaeu moved in 1598/9 from Alkmaar to Amsterdam and set up a shop selling globes, seaman's instruments and maps. In 1605 he moved to the place now called Damrak, where most of the Amsterdam booksellers and mapmakers were established at that time. The house was called 'In de Vergulde Sonnewyser' (In the gilt sundail). By 1608, he had already published a fine world map and a popular marine atlas. His early works include a globe from 1599, and maps of European countries and a world map in 1604 -1608.
Next to Blaeu's shop was Johannes Janssonius' house. He lived there from 1618 onward, and Jacob Aertsz. Colom lived opposite Blaeu after 1627.
Up to 1617, he signed his work Guilielmus Janssonius or Willem Jans Zoon. His later work was signed G. Blaeu / Willem Blaeu
In 1621 Willem Janszoon added the surname Blaeu(w), sometimes in the latininized form 'Caesius' to his imprints. That almost certainly had to do with the rivalry between him and his neighbour Johannes Janssonius, whose name his own strongly resembled.
By the addition of the name Blaeu, confusion was avoided.

Willem Jansz. Blaeu is believed to have made the first substantial improvements in the moving parts of the printing press. Blaeu employed the best pressman, engravers, scibes and colorists.His types were clean and well cut; his paper, bearing his own watermark, was heavy and of good quality. In 1637 the printing office was moved from 'op het waater' to larger premises on Bloemgracht. There the Blaeu establishment boasted nine flat-bed presses for letter press printing, six presses for copperplate printing and a typefoundry in 1664. Unfortunately, how many presses there were exactly in 1637 is unknown.

In the sixteenth century the art of making instruments flourished especially in the Southern Netherlands. As a result of the great discoveries navigation advanced, and there was a real need for astronomical instruments to determinate positions. Blaeu had enjoyed an excellent training as an instrument maker under Tycho Brahe. In his sea atlases, he shows considerable interest in the instruments used at sea, and illustrates or reproduces them by means of movable diagrams. Only a few instruments constructed by him are still in existence.

Willem Blaeu 68cm globesGlobes
Blaeu produced his globes in pairs : a terrestrial and a celestial globe. In 1599, Blaeu published his first terrestrial globe with a diameter of 34 cm. In 1602 Blaeu produced a small 23,5 cm globe, which he dedicated to the States of Holland, Zeeland and West-Friesland. Blaeu's 68 cm globes were made in response to the 53 cm pair issued by the Hondius firm in 1613. Their preparation was announced in 1614, and when finished in 1616, were presented to the States General, who awarded an honorarium of 50 guilders. They would remain the largest globes in production for over 70 years, until Vincenzo Maria Coronelli (1650-1717) issued his 110 cm pair in 1688.
Contact us if you want to buy this pair of Blaeu's 23,5 cm globes.

Blaeu devoted his attention to the needs of navigation from an early stage of his career. His first publication in this field was his Nieuw graetbouck, and no copy has been found to this day. In the history of early Dutch pilot guides Blaeu's work takes a very important place.
His famous predecessor for the description of the Eastern, Western and Northern navigation was Lucas Jansz. Waghenaer. Blaeu issued two pilot guides, named Het licht der Zee-vaert (first edition 1609) and Zeespiegel (first edition 1623). The works were republished several times.

Separate maps
Willem Blaeu Germany map Blaeu published several separate maps in folio format. Many have figure borders. All are extremely rare.
Map of Germany 1609. Germanae post omnes in hac forma editiones exactissima locupletissimaq. descriptio. Along the top is a border representing the seven Electors and the Emperor on his throne.

Wall maps on parchement
 Willem Blaeu's wall maps are considered to be among the most influential and artistically virtuous masterpieces of the great era of baroque cartography.
The publication of the first set of his wall maps in 1608 was responsible for initiating his ascendancy to the pre-eminent position in the highly competitive global map market. Blaeu published several wall maps, printed on parchment or paper. All editions of Blaeu wall maps are extreme rarities. The one we are offering here is the only original edition published by Blaeu or the publishing house Blaeu. The handfull of wall maps offered for sale in the last 25 years are all later editions by Goos, or Italian copies. Only eight copies copies, all in instututions, are known to Prof. G. Schilder.
The use of maps as wall hangings in contemporary Dutch houses went beyond the desire for cartographic information. Maps were also used to express status, to promote a better understanding of history or politics or to take the place of paintings.
Maps were also used to express status, to promote a better understanding of history or politics or to take the place of paintings. At the time Vermeer painted his works, Amsterdam was the world centre of map-making. Among the most majestic productions were the wall maps of Willem Blaeu. The pride of place that wall maps claimed in Dutch homes is most eloquently presented in a half-dozen or so of the exquisite paintings by Vermeer, as well as in such contemporary scenes as Pieter de Hooch's A Woman Drinking with Two Men (1658) in the National Gallery. These views of everyday life bear witness to an almost totemic cult of maps.

Willem Blaeu Europe wall map on vellumA fine example of a map on vellum is this Pascaarte van alle de Zécuften van EUROPA. Nieulycx befchreven door Willem Ianfs. Blaw. Men vintfe te coop tot Amsterdam, Op't Water indevergulde Sonnew˙ser. The map was first published between 1621 and before 1650. The map is in a first state of two. 687 x 868 mm. The title and imprint appear in a cartouche, crowned by the printer's mark of Willem Jansz Blaeu [INDEFESSVS AGENDO], at the center of the lower border. The map is very rare and suprisingly, no example on vellum is kept in a Dutch Institution.
Interestingly, Johannes Vermeer used this map in his painting "The geographer" (1669), now in Städel Museum, Frankfurt, Germany.

Read more. Contact us if you want to buy this map.


Atlantis Appendix
Blaeu's publication of land atlases came at a late date. From early on Willem Jansz. Blaeu aimed of publishing an atlas to compete with the Hondius-Jansson Atlas. By 1630, he had published at least 17 folio size maps. In 1630 Blaeu was able to realize his plan soon after he had acquired 37 copper plates of the atlas maps by Jodocus Hondius from Jodocus Hondius II. He added these to his own collection and published the Atlantis Appendix, which contained 60 maps.

V.O.C. (1633)
Willem was appointed cartographer to the Dutch East India Company, Vereenighde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) in 1633. During this period, Amsterdam was one of the wealthiest trading cities in Europe and a center for banking and the diamond trade. The VOC contributed significantly to the wealth and prosperity of the United Netherlands, and Blaeu's prestigious appointment firmly established his reputation within the highly competitive field of Dutch map makers.

He became the appointed cartographer for the West Indian Company (W.I.C.), for whom he made his West Indische Pascaert. The largest map printed on vellum at the time.

Go to top

Theatrum orbis Terrarum, 1634
Blaeu's Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1634). In 1633, partly due to aggressive competition by Hondius-Janssonius, Blaeu announced his intention to publish a new 'Novus Atlas' in two volumes. According to Gunter Schilder, correspondance between Blaeu and Wilhelm Schickhard, indicated that Blaeu intended to complete the atlas that same year. Blaeu's intention to publish a new 'International edition' of a world atlas is mentioned on February 11th, 1634 in an Amsterdam newspaper.
"At Amsterdam is now being printed by Willem Jansz Blaeu the large book of maps, the Atlas, in four languages: Latin, French, German and Dutch. The one in German will appear about easter, the ones in Dutch and French in the month of May, or early June at the latest, and the one in Latin shortly thereafter. All editions on very fine paper, completely renewed with newly engraved copperplates and new, comprehensive descriptions."

Despite the fact that Blaeu's newspaper announcement early in 1634 stated that the atlas was 'now beining printed', only the German edition of the atlas was completed in that year, though not in its final form.

We offer the following antique maps published in this rare 1634 Atlas by the publishing house of Willem and Joan Blaeu.

The other editions all have a 1635 publication date. The atlas was published in German (10th March 1634), Latin (13th April 1635), Dutch (22th April 1635), French (1st July 1635).
Blaeu's plans were ambitious. In the preface to the German edition of 1636, he writes : "Our intention is to describe the entire world, that is the heavens and the earth, in several volumes like these two, of which two more of the earth will shortly follow".
But Willem Jansz. Blaeu did not live to see the other two volumes issued which he had prepared. These two volumes appeared in 1640 (Italy) and 1645 (England).
When Willem died in 1638, the business passed to his sons, Joan and Cornelis, who continued and expanded their father's ambitious plans. The French 1638 edition was the last atlas published in Willem's life time.

The publication of the third and fourth volume took much longer than expected and around 1640, the third volume, including maps of Italy and Greece, was finished and volume 4 appeared only in 1645. Together with his third volume Blaeu published a new edition of his first two volumes which included 24 new maps.

Atlas Novus a Atlas Major.
After the death of Cornelis in 1644, Joan continued the business alone and established his own reputation as a great mapmaker.
Joan completed his father's grand project in 1655 with the sixth and final volume of the Atlas Novus.
Of Cornelis we know that he worked until 1644. Joan succeeded in producing the most voluminous world atlas of all time. In 1662 the magnificent Atlas Major saw the light.
The last, eleventh volume of the Spanish edition was in the press when on 28 February 1672, the printing shop was destroyed by fire, a blow from which the famous house of Blaeu never recovered.

Reference books about Willem Blaeu are
- Monumenta Cartographica Neerlandica - Volume 3 by prof. Günter Schilder
- Koeman's Atlantes Neerlandici by Peter van der Krogt.
- Willem Janszoon Blaeu by J.keunig and M.Donkersloot-de Vrij. (Sold out)


We offer the following antique maps published by the publishing house of Willem and Joan Blaeu: