Open minded traveller or prejudiced businessman?

Religion in Blaeu’s Stedeboek van Italie 

Muslims, Jews, Christians and Atheists: they are all present in the Netherlands of today. For a long time, this country has been considered a tolerant place where everyone is free to practice their own religion. This image goes back to the sixteenth century, when Willem of Orange promised 'freedom of thought' for every citizen of the Low Countries. This promise attracted a lot of refugees to the 'land of true freedom', which led to a representation of all kinds of religions in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. At the same time, the Protestant church was the only formally accepted church in the Netherlands. This meant for example that Catholics had to practice their religion in hidden churches, and Jews were not allowed to marry non-Jewish people. In this (in)tolerant climate of the Netherlands, Joan Blaeu wrote his Stedeboek van Italie. Born as a Protestant in the Netherlands, he traveled across Catholic Italy, where he also faced Jewish and Islamic communities. How are these different types of religion in Italy of that time represented in his work? And to what extent are Blaeu’s descriptions of the Catholics, Jews and Muslims in Italy a representation of the 'tolerant' dutch attitude towards religions in the seventeenth century?

Muslims and grasshoppers
In his description of religion in Italy, Blaeu writes: 'Only the Roman catholic religion is practiced there, except some Jews, who are tolerated in Italy, and some Protestants, who live close to the Canton of Grisons and to the Swiss.' Muslims aren’t mentioned in this religious description. This is remarkable, because a lot of mosques can be seen on the paintings of different cities in Italy, especially in Dalmatia (see the images below).

The city of Nadin in Dalmatia.
The city of Vrana in Dalmatia.
When Blaeu mentions Muslims in his city descriptions, it is not to describe them as citizens of Italy, but as destroyers of Italian cities. About Ostia, he writes: 'It was founded by Ancus Martius, fourth king of Rome, and destroyed by the Saracen.' When he gives a description of the city of Otranto, he writes that it was plagued with grasshoppers, and also with Turkish people. Only in the description of Nadin, the Turkish people are mentioned without any judgement: 'This city belongs to the Turkish people.'

Jews with yellow hats
Like Muslims, Jewish people are not described with great sympathy in Blaeu’s work. In Rome, it seems that the Jews are not considered as Roman citizens: 'This city is so well populated, that it counts three hundred thousand souls, except the eight thousand Jews, who have their own neighborhood.' In the description of Venice, where more than 4000 Jewish people lived in their own ghetto at that time, the Jews are not even mentioned. On a four pages covering map of Venice, were churches are marked with numbers, there is no reference to the synagogue of the Jewish ghetto. And in Avignon, the Jewish people also do not seem to be considered as full members of the city, for they 'have to wear a yellow hat in public, so that they can be distinguished from the Christian people'. When Blaeu describes the triumphal arch of Titus in Rome (see image below), on which you can see the Roman pillaging of Jerusalem, it seems that he does not feel sorry for this Jewish tragedy: 'They say, that the Jewish people here, because of their shame, don’t want to see the monument of their destruction, even though they had deserved this.'

The triumphal Arch of Titus in Rome.
The brave and gentle Catholics
Traveling across Rome in the seventeenth century, Blaeu must have been overwhelmed with Catholic churches. Instead of his judgmental attitude towards the Jews and Moslims, Blaeu writes with much respect and admiration about the Catholics. In his description of Rome, he says: 'All the popes have been settled here, and have ruled the Roman people and everything which is considered the Papal States, and that power the popes have earned with the bravery and gentleness of all the Christian kings.' About Saint Peter’s Basilica, he writes: 'This church is the most beautiful building that one has ever seen. It was the work of several popes.'

St. Peter's Square.
Inside St. Peter's Basilica.
Unmentioned Protestants
But what about Protestantism, which was Blaeu’s own religion and which he mentions in his description of religion in Italy? It seems that he did not feel any responsibility to talk about the Protestants of Italy. Only when he describes Trento, he gives some background information which refers to Lutheranism and the Counterreformation: 'This city became famous because of the council, which was held there against the dogma of Luther and his followers.' But in his descriptions of the Northern parts of Italy, where most of the Italian Protestants lived at that time, Protestant communities are not mentioned.

Open minded traveler or prejudiced businessman?
Blaeu seems to write more positively about the Catholics than he does about the Jews and Muslims. Born as a Protestant in the Netherlands, there would be no reason for Blaeu to make this clear difference in his attitude towards other religions. Why is it then, that this cartographer from Alkmaar mentions Muslims in the same breath as grasshoppers, while he praises the Catholic popes because of their bravery?

During his youth, Joan Blaeu himself had traveled a lot in Italy, and had made many friends. For his atlas of Italy, Blaeu send his son to this country, who used his father’s old contacts to acquire the source material. It is very easy to understand that these Italian contacts did not describe Muslims as very pleasant people, for they had had multiple Turkish invasions. This negative association with Muslims is reflected in the descriptions of Blaeu. Another explanation has to be found for his unsympathetic attitude towards Jews, for there had been no invasion on Italian cities by Jewish people. This negative attitude towards the Jews must have been the product of anti-Semitic prejudices in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. For example, Jews in the Dutch Republic were not allowed to join a guild, or to marry non-Jewish people. Finally, the question remains why Blaeu writes with such a great admiration about the Catholics. As a Protestant from the Protestant Netherlands, wasn’t that a strange thing to do? There are two explanations for Blaeu’s great respect for Catholics. Firstly, it would have been hard to write negative about the Catholics in Italy, for most of the people in Italy were Catholic and so much beautiful buildings there were made by the Catholic Church. Secondly, like his father, Joan Blaeu had published a lot for a Catholic public before he started his Italy project. Under the name Cornelis van Egmond, he had published forbidden Catholic works. A major part of Blaeu’s readers where Catholic, so strategically, it would have been unwise to write negatively about the Catholic religion in Rome. In that way, Blaeu was a real Dutchman: non-Protestant religions were only tolerated in the Netherlands of the seventeenth century when it served an economic purpose. Apparently, Blaeu was more a businessman than he was a Protestant. Kim Hensbergen

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

De la Fontaine Verwey, Herman. "Dr Joan Blaeu and his sons.” A History of the World in Twelve
          Maps. Ed. Jerry Brotton. UK: Penguin, 1981.
Donkersloot-de Vrij, Marijke. Drie Generaties Blaeu: Amsterdamse cartografie en boekdrukkunst in
          de zeventiende eeuw. Zutphen: Walburg Pers, 1992.
Van Eck, Xander and Priem, Ruud. Vormen van verdraagzaamheid: religieuze (in)tolerantie in de
          Gouden Eeuw. Zwolle: WBOOKS, 2013.

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Koninklijk Nederlands Instituut Rome