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Thursday, February 11, 2016

Claes Jansz Visscher

Old London Bridge, detail from Visscher's London, 17th century
I can recall as a child, when our family went on vacation, usually a road trip of some kind in the early days when there were few super highways, one item we could not go far without was a good, new, ungainly, accordion folded, oil company roadmap. Years later, when I or my wife were in the driver's seat for such excursions into the hinterlands, we navigated the then brand new Interstate Highway System using an AAA invention called a Triptik. Our recommended route was traced on an elongated, handheld map, by an expert travel advisor with a yellow marker, then bound at the top so we could simply flip up each page as we moved from one segment of our trip to the next. I don't recall when we quite using this service but today, we take along a friendly (most of the time) little guy bearing a digital, animated map plastered across his face. We call him Tommy (short for TomTom, the maker of the device). He's a great little guy, though he sometimes gets upset when we don't follow his advice (he's transgender, he also has a female voice). Moving about this planet today has come a long way in the past five hundred years. There are more places to go, and more ways to get there. Despite that, in the years following the little jaunt Signor Colombo and his friends made in crossing the Atlantic, the art and science of map making exploded, especially in seafaring nations such as Holland. Although he didn't actually travel much from his native Amsterdam, Claes Jansz Visscher went a long way in aiding those who did.

Map of Paris, Claes Jansz Visscher. Only Notre Dame de Paris and a few minor
landmarks can be seen. There's no Eiffel Tower; even the Louvre had yet to be built.
Visscher's (fisher) trademark.
He has no known portrait image.
If you're thinking, "where's the art in mapmaking?" you've not seen one of Claes Visscher's maps. Although they served a very functional purpose, they were also extremely decorative, usually long edge strips of urban waterfronts designed to entice 17th-century tourists to, as we'd put it today, "go on a cruise." Some were merely city maps, such as Visscher's Map of Paris (above) from that period. (He was born in 1587 and died in 1652.) Visscher's Map of Paris is decorated, not with landmarks, but with Parisians (mostly those of noble birth). It's considered to be quite accurate. That would make it a far cry from a map long titled Leo Belgicus (Belgian Lion). Although it's said to be a map of the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium, which, taken together, are shaped a little like a Lion (squint and use your imagination freely). Although it's extremely detailed, I wouldn't call it at all  accurate, more bombastic decoration than traveler's guide. Visscher wasn't it's original cartographer (that title, if you stretch it a bit, goes to another Dutchman, Michael Aitzinger around 1583). Visscher merely engraved it, emphasizing still more its artistic qualities over its navigational attributes.

Despite their obvious difference, both of Visscher's "maps" purport to cover the
same geography. If you try hard enough you can make any land mass look like a lion.
Without doubt, Claes Visscher's most famous map was his Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis Geographica Ac Hydrographica Tabula Autore (All New World Map and Galion Map). I took two years of Latin in high school. Google, I think, skipped class a lot. In any case, putting our heads together that's the best translation we could come up with. Here we see mythological fantasy supplanting touristy scenes (third panel down). Asia is pictured riding a camel, Africa a Nile crocodile and America (for some mysterious reason) is perched on the back of an armadillo. Europe, on the other hand, seems to float in mid-air, the artist apparently not being able to decide her means of transport.

The blurb above (again, more Latin) mentions explorers, Chrisophore Columbo (1592)
Americo Vesputio (1599) Ferdinan de Magellano, Francisco Draco (Francis Drake, 1570), Thomas Candisch (1583), Olisverius Nort (1600), Sebaldus de Weert (1600), Gorgius Spilberg (1615), Commodius vero and Titius Fretum (1616). It ends with the mystery phrase of the day, "Jacobo le Vaire et ab ipsius nomine dictum fretum le Maire." As near as Google and I can tell, that translates to: "Said from his own side, and the name of Jacobo le Vaire le Maire." Apparently Visscher is citing his sources. It should be noted that Visscher appears to have been a better mapmaker than historian. He has Columbus' voyage (and probably some others too) off by a hundred years. The decorations are impressive though.
In studying just the map (panel two), what I find most interesting is comparing the highly accurate continents of Africa, Europe, Asia, even South America, to the extreme inaccuracies seen in his North American land mass. Likewise, at the bottom of the map, it would seem Visscher had absolutely no idea as to the size and shape of Australia, which he seems to have merged with the Antarctic ice cover. Of course, a mapmaker is only as good as his sources, and the west coast of the American continent at the time had only been explored by one sea captain, the Englishman, Sir Francis Drake. Whether that had any bearing upon Visscher's overestimation of North America with its "seven nations" (probably the only native tribes identified at the time), is unknown, but quite within the realm of possibility. Strangely, Visscher seems to have underplayed the size of the Mediterranean Sea, an error he could in no way blame on his sources.

New Belgium, 1671. Claes Jansz Visscher
 Nonetheless, where Visscher's sources were plentiful, such as the northeastern part of what is now the United States, the maps seem quite accurate (along the coast, at least). Cape Cod, Long Island, New Jersey, Chesapeake Bay are easily identifiable. Though primarily regarded for his highly decorative maps, Claes Visscher was no less a draughtsman or etcher than any other Dutch Golden Age artist as seen in his painting, London Bridge (top). Still more impressive is his mob scene in his print, The Decapitation of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt (below), of 1619. What you see is only the main panel. Around the edge were portraits of other men involved in the political brouhaha between Oldebarnevelt and Maurice, Prince of Orange. Ending on a softer note, Visscher was also very competent dealing with landscapes as seen in his Landscape with Cart Crossing a Bridge (bottom).

Decapitation of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, 1619, Claes Jansz Visscher
Landscape with Cart Crossing a Bridge, Claes Jansz Visscher


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