The Decorative Cartographic Title-Page Part Two

The Decorative Cartographic Title-Page Part Two

In the first part of this article in Issue 41 of TMC the author, himself a collector of title-pages, looked at the five main types of decorative frontispieces – ornamental, compartmental, architectural, pictorial and cartographical. Here, he makes a deeper examination of their content which, to use his own words, ‘opens up a veritable Pandora’s box of influences, subtle meanings and relationships.’

MANY OF THE fields covered in this second part will be familiar to the classicist or art historian but will be relatively new to the majority of amateur map collectors. Indeed, study of the decorative content of maps themselves has received only limited study.

To illustrate the varied content of title-pages I have grouped their main influences under six headings: classical mythology; Renaissance art forms; Christian theology; allegories, images and emblems; symbols of power; science, discovery and exploration. There is a good deal of overlap between one category and another. For instance, figures taken from classical legends are often allegories for concepts such as Time or Wisdom, and heraldic escutcheons (the shield or shield-shaped surface on which a coat of arms is depicted) are themselves emblems with very specific associations of power and authority. Other writers have discussed the categories of symbolic meaning attached to different classes of maps.[1] The same categories, however analysed, can be applied with equal force to the cartographic title-page or frontispiece as it evolved from the earliest days of printing.


There were six volumes of Braun and Hogenberg’s Civitates Orbis Terrarum published from Cologne between 1572 and 1617, each with large plates of town plans and views. The title-page to Part III shown here has a slightly different title, Urbium Praecipuarum Totius Mundi, or ‘The Principal Cities of the Whole World’. Through a massive arch, hung with fruit and flowers, can be seen the construction of a great tiered tower. The female personifications of Peace, Concord, Abundance, and Security, seated on the upper part of the arch, allegorise the virtues of a rich and prosperous city state. Underpinning these achievements are the obligations of Duty and Obedience, presided over by the figure of Justice with her sword and scales.

The whole Renaissance movement was, as its name implies, founded on a reborn pursuit of classical art, literature and thought. Many title pages are based on classical mythology, as by the fifteenth century in Italy (and later in other parts of Europe) it was assumed that all men of learning were familiar with the epics and myths of the Greek and Roman world. The gods, goddesses and heroes of the ancient world frequently appear on the atlas title-page. To give three examples, which are still commonplace today, Minerva (recognised by the owl accompanying her) would be immediately associated with wisdom; the winged Mercury as a messenger or guide; and the armoured warrior Mars as the god of War. Their depiction on a title-page signals to the viewer something of significance about the contents of the book or atlas that follows. The title-pages to the six volumes of Braun and Hogenberg’s Civitates Orbis Terrarum, published over the forty-five years between 1572 and 1617, carry allusive messages of this nature. Volume III, for instance, presents stately figures representing the city planning virtues of Abundance. Peace, Concord, Security, Obedience, Justice and the Community Spirit (in this example, all conveniently named); volume II shows the old Roman figures of Lares and Penates, and other volumes further symbolic personages. A favourite embellishment of many title-pages was to show the gods in the heavens; sometimes with Phaethon driving the chariot of Apollo through the clouds. Celestial images appear in Jaillot’s Alias Novus,[2] in sea atlases by Pieter Goos and the Van Keulens and in Seutter’s Alias Homannianus of c. 1760.


The title-page to Alexis-Hubert Jaillot’s Atlas François is an expression of the power and glory of France, and of the territorial ambitions of the sun$king Louis XIV. At the feet of Hercules, lifting the terrestrial sphere onto the shoulders of Atlas, are the allegorical figures of Asia, Africa and America who ‘… join their voices in applauding France’s triumphs’, as Jaillot says in his preface to the atlas. At the top of the frontispiece the figure of Glory holds a laurel wreath, while the figure of Renown sounds her trumpet, A globe and a telescope are reminders of Jaillot’s commendation of the King’s wish to reform ancient geography. This grand pictorial title page remained in circulation for nearly a hundred years, although in the reissue by Dezauche in 1789 the royal fleurs de lys on the banner and central sphere have been erased in recognition of the new republican regime.

The mythological giant Atlas became synonymous with the word as we understand it today through his personification as the central figure in the title-page of Gerard Mercator’s Atlas of 1595.[3] Here, he is seated, representing the wise king of Atlantis; a sage astronomer, mathematician, and philosopher. These attributes are less well known than those of Atlas as the rebellious son of Iapetus who was condemned for his misdeeds to support the world on his shoulders. In this later form he appears on the title-page to the Mercator-Hondius Atlas Minor of 1608 and on Robyn’s Zee Atlas of 1683. Sometimes, Atlas assumes other identities such as in the title-page to Hubert Jaillot’s Atlas François of 1695 where he is cast as the national ‘Hercules François’.

1 2 3 4 Next
Rodney W. Shirley
Rodney Shirley was educated at Stowe School and at the Universities of Cambridge (MA) and Harvard (MBA). His main career has been in business but for many years he has been a collector and historian of early maps and associated decorative titlepages. He is past president and a current council member of the International Map Collectors' Society. His book The Mapping of the World: Early Printed World Maps 1472-1700 is a standard reference work, as are his two books on the early maps of the British Isles. In 2004 he published a two-volume work Maps in the Atlases of the British Library c.850 – 1800 AD, and in 2009 a book with many colour plates titled Courtiers and Cannibals, Angels and Amazons: the Art of the Decorative Cartographic Titlepage. Rodney lives in Buckingham and is married with three grown-up children.

NO COMMENTS

Why not leave a comment, if you can hardly resist the urge to do so?