Italy and the practice of traveling through Early Modern eyes

Joan Blaeu’s representation of Italy in the context of the Grand Tour

Immediately after Blaeu’s Theatrum civitatum et admirandorum Italiæ had been published, it became a big success. His work was praised all over Europe and republished by various editors, like Pieter Mortier, who wanted to make his own profit out of Blaeu’s success. The atlas was considered precious property. Its proud owners often gave the volumes a prominent place in their house, in order to impress visitors with the beautiful and incredibly detailed maps and illustrations. But who exactly were the people that bought these books? What attracted them to Italy, and how did they perceive this country? And where did Blaeu get the idea to make an Italian atlas?

Blaeu and his readers admired the idyllic Italian landscapes, such as this view with the town of Velletri in the background.
Blaeu’s inspiration: the Grand Tour
The idea of the Theatrum civitatum et admirandorum Italiæ was conceived during Blaeu’s travels through Italy, which he begun after his studies in 1620. During this trip, Blaeu made many friends. Thirty years later, these contacts were revitalized by his son Pieter, who on his turn made a tour through Italy. Many of these Italian friends helped Blaeu produce his Italian atlas by sending various descriptions and images of their homeland, which he could use for his maps and illustrations of Italian sites.

In his map of Lucca, Blaeu depicted a typical Grand Tour voyager, meditating and writing about his travel experiences.
It was customary for young, upper class men - like Blaeu and his son - to make a so-called Grand Tour after their studies. These tours typically lasted from several months up to several years. Next to being considered an important step towards manhood (for instance, the young men were expected to sexually develop themselves during the trip, before they would marry an upper-class girl at home), the Grand Tour was also an essential part of the humanist education. This education laid the emphasis on the study of the ancient virtues and literature. Hence, what better way to put the things you learn into practice than to travel to Italy, the heart of Antiquity?

The fish-formed city of Venice was considered to be one of the more exciting destinations within the Grand Tour itinerary.
Who were Blaeu’s readers?
Blaeu’s Italian-themed atlas thus played along with the immense popularity of the Grand Tour. It was aimed at an elite public, firstly because they were accustomed to this kind of trip, but also because you had to be rich anyway in order to be able to buy the costly multi volume atlas.

In the 17th and 18th century, a whole genre of books existed from which the Grand Tour traveler could pick his readings. These books were often pocket sized and could be thrown away after the reader had finished his travels. However, the 52x35 cm sized atlases of Blaeu weren’t exactly easy to bring along. Consequently, they didn’t completely fit into the genre of travel books. By using the books, travelers could outline their itineraries beforehand and afterwards reuse the atlas as a reference work, while writing their memoirs. Nonetheless, the atlases were also of interest for people who never went on a Grand Tour, but who simply were drawn into the enormous fascination for Italy that existed at that time.

This map of the Roman world, Italia antiqua, shows the importance given to the ancient heritage of Italy.
An Early Modern representation of Italy
So what was it exactly that attracted so many people to the wonders of Italy? Which features of this country did Blaeu, and subsequently Mortier, choose to point out in their atlases? By examining this, we can get a glimpse of how these authors, and their readers, perceived the Italian history and culture.

In Blaeu’s time, Italy was far from being a unity: the Italian state would only get its current form by the end of the nineteenth century. Before that, it was a mosaic of different states. In his atlas, Blaeu covered all the important cities and states that today are part of the Italian boot-formed state. However, he included amongst others also Dalmatia, Istria, Avignon and Rhodos. These territories aren’t considered Italian anymore, but were by then culturally, linguistically or politically connected to Italy.

Under each map, such as this map of Siena, Blaeu clearly indicated the highlights of the city.
Blaeu’s atlas starts with some general information about the geography, politics, language and nature of Italy. As to the Italian history, the emphasis lies on military history, since quite a few engravings of war battles are displayed. Blaeu also gives us a curious account of the personalities of Italians. He praises them for being wise and eloquent, but describes them also as being hot-tempered and resentful; he advises his readers to never break a friendship with them, because then they get ‘dangerous’. As to Italian women, he assures they are beautiful but difficult to get close to, because Italian men are very jealous. Did the young Blaeu perhaps encounter a bad love experience during his own trip?

After these general remarks, he exposes a more detailed account of the main Italian cities, which are accompanied by large maps and illustrations. He tells us how and by whom the city is ruled, its main resources and what the inhabitants do for a living. Occasionally he describes a local tradition, and informs the readers if the air is unhealthy or not. However, his main attention goes out to the description of monuments. Even though Mortier stated that, in his edition of the atlas, the ancient as well as the modern monuments would be covered, both he and Blaeu pay the most attention to the ancient monuments. Naturally, these were the tangible remains of Antiquity and formed the material heart of the humanist education. Scholars cherished Italy, and in particular Rome, as the place where the glorious world of the Ancients was preserved. Often though, when visiting Italy, scholars would be disillusioned by the disintegrating ruins that didn’t exactly meet their expectations of (ancient) Roman splendor. This tension is noticeable in the contrast between the various illustrations of the Roman Colosseum in Blaeu’s atlas. One depicts the Colosseum in its 17th century form – a crumbling, neglected ruin – while in the other engravings it is intact and full of its ancient glory.

The Roman Colosseum: expectation.
The Roman Colosseum: reality.
Blaeu’s Italian atlas in modern times
Three hundred years after Mortier published his edition of Blaeu’s atlas, people are still left in awe both by the skilled labour with which Blaeu made his books and by the subject of his volumes, the country of Italy itself. Grand Tourism is replaced by mass tourism, and even though the humanist education has lost its original form, the approach Blaeu chose for his atlas still attracts readers in the present day. Moreover, his atlas allows us to get an exclusive view of Italy and the practice of traveling in the 17th and 18th century. The real value of Blaeu’s Italian atlas thus lies in enabling the modern reader to see Italy and the practice of traveling through Early Modern eyes. Eva van Kemenade

Joan Blaeu [Het Nieuwe Stede Boek van geheel Italie] Het Nieuwe Stede Boek van Italie, ofte naauwkeurige beschryving van allen deszelfs steden, paleyzen, kerken, &c. Nevens de Land-Kaarten van alle deszelfs Provincien. (imp. 'T Amsterdam. Door den Arbeid van Pieter Mortier, Boekverkooper. M D C C IV-V. Met Privilegie.)
4 parts in 3 Volumes:
I: Het Eerste Deel. Inhoudende, Lombardye, te weeten, de Republyk van Genua. De Hertogdommen van Milane, Parma, Modena, en Mantua. De Republyk van Venetie, Luka, En het Groot Hertogdom van Toskane.
2°, 4 - 22 - 78 engravings
II: Het Tweede Deel. Inhoudende, den Kerkelyken Staat.
2°, 14 - 75 engravings
III: Het Derde Deel. Inhoudende, het Koninkrijk van Napels en van Sicilie.
2°, 12 - 37 engravings
IV: Het Vierde Deel. Inhoudende, De Amphitheaters, Theaters, Schouwburge, Zegenboogen, Tempels, Piramide, Graafstede, Obeliscus, Kerken, Paleizen, &c.
2°, 17 - 79 engravings
Rome, Library Koninklijk Nederlands Instituut Rome, DR140 – 142

Black, Jeremy. Italy and the Grand Tour. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.
Brodsky-Porges, Edward. “The Grand Tour Travel as an Educational Device 1600–1800.” Annals of
         Tourism Research 8.2 (1981): 171-186.
Donkersloot-de Vrij, Marijke. Drie Generaties Blaeu: Amsterdamse Cartografie en Boekdrukkunst in
         de Zeventiende Eeuw. Zutphen: Walburg Pers, 1992.
Netten, Djoeke van. Koopman in Kennis: De Uitgever Willem Jansz Blaeu in de Geleerde Wereld.
         Zutphen: Walburg pers, 2014.

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  1. Erg leuk, al die aandacht voor Blaeu, en in het bijzonder voor de mooie Mortier editie in het KNIR! Wel jammer dat er, hierboven en in andere stukjes, zo losjes wordt aangenomen dat Blaeu zelf verantwoordelijk was voor de (tekstuele) beschrijvingen van Italië in de latere nadruk van het Theatrum. Voor zover ik weet wordt de identiteit van de schrijver(s) van deze teksten in elk geval niet genoemd in het werk zelf; waar ik vrij zeker van ben, is dat het níet om Joan of Pieter Blaeu gaat. Het (proberen te) verklaren van perspectieven op het schiereiland in de Mortier editie (bovendien bedoeld voor een ander type publiek dan die waarop Blaeu zich eerder primair richtte) naar analogie met bijv de Blaeus' reizen is historisch gezien niet erg zorgvuldig!
    Gloria Moorman



Koninklijk Nederlands Instituut Rome