This extraordinary and ornamental masterpiece represents the highest traditions and finest aspirations in scientifically anchored mapping at the dawn of the 18th century. It is best understood as the juxtaposition of the illumination of the Enlightenment and the dark mysteries of the world’s unmapped frontiers.
The map was engraved by the Dutchman Hendrik van Loon, with decorative elements designed and engraved into the plate by Nicolaus Guerard. A first state was published in 1694, but only two examples are known to have survived: one in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris and one in Karlsruhe. Rodney W. Shirley, a renowned authority on early world maps, categorized the first state as RRR, or the highest level of rarity. He notes that subsequent editions were published in 1705, 1717 (text dated 1720), 1730, and 1737. Around 1730 the de Fer firm sold the publication rights to the map. Our map is the rare second state, printed in Paris in 1705/06. It was composed of four sheets, which have been professionally restored and backed on archival linen to create one coherent chart.
The chart features a double-hemisphere world map. Surrounding the two hemispheres are highly detailed illustrations covering various subjects and executed with incredible skill. The images surrounding the globes form a rectangle, which in turn is framed on three sides by large amounts of text and topped by an elaborate title beam. The visual impact of these specialized features in unison leaves a powerful first impression. As one studies the map and delves deeper into its extensive detail, the initial sense of astonishment and wonder is amplified further.
Outside the central upper panel, which contains the map’s title and publishing information, the text is divided into four segments, each a headline. Most of the space – the entire left bar – has been dedicated to geographical descriptions, including subsections on the edition of the map, definitions of terrene and maritime features, descriptions of the Polar Regions, as well as of Europe, Asia, Africa, and America (including a section on Australia/Oceania). These texts are not solely related to topography and toponyms but also include descriptions of the people inhabiting each region. The bottom bar with the general headline Description Geographique defines the map’s measurements. The right bar is more composite, presenting three large headlines: Avertisement (advertisement), Remarques (remarks), and Explication des ornemens de cette carte (explication of the map’s ornamentation). The first and second sections are comments by the publisher and cartographer. The latter passage, however, is particularly crucial in that it allows us to decode the symbolism behind the map’s imagery.
Imagery and symbolism
This map is a product of the Age of Enlightenment. It builds on an underlying notion of human creativity and capacity that ultimately sprang from the Renaissance. This undercurrent stands out clearly in the map itself for the cartographic specialist, but it is perhaps most pervasive, most tangible, in the chart’s many decorative elements. The ideas driving the choice of motifs and their composition is clearly outlined in the first sentence of the Explication: “…when we tried to enrich this map with some adornments both useful and agreeable, the ones that you see seemed perfectly adequate, as they represent what most gives movement to the Machine of the World”. It provides a detailed account of the concepts included in decorating this map.
The chart has an impressive symmetry, both visually and symbolically. The primary visual driver of this duality is the subdivision of the world into two hemispheres. But even within the chart’s individual components, we find a deliberate symmetry that transcends the visual domain and enters the symbolic. The first division in the decorative scheme is the vertical partition into two exactly equal parts, namely a celestial sphere at the top and an earthly sphere at the bottom. However, unlike much Baroque art, this division does not reference religious conceptualizations of the universe.
Instead, it suggests that equal attention and worth be attributed to matters concerning the heavens and the earth. Regarding the heavens, the decorative scheme uses components from religious art, such as angels. Still, these are meant as representations of specific and observable natural phenomena, not supernatural beings. In this way, the ideals of the Enlightenment (and its associated critique of religious doctrine as rigid) are so obviously embedded in this magnificent chart.
If we look at the celestial sphere in greater detail, while at the same time consulting the description in the right-hand bar, we can identify a whole range of concrete components. First, meticulous symmetry has been applied in composing the imagery of the sky. We find the seasons, the elements, the planets, the winds, and the earth’s rotational axis represented, the latter in the form of night and day or dawn and dusk. We find some figures in each corner of the celestial sphere, including two prominent winged figures from which a conical yellow element extends. These are the east and west winds, respectively. While they blow from the appropriate direction, should anyone doubt which is which, the East Wind has been represented in a darker complexion, revealing his Oriental origin.
The East and West winds naturally have their North and South counterparts represented as well, although these are found in the central space of the celestial sphere. Their position is also a reflection of the direction from which they blow; the North Wind hiding behind the figure of winter at the top, whereas a large wet angelic figure at the bottom of the composition represents the southerlies. Interestingly, and in direct reference to the latest voyages of discovery, the south wind has some more minor sidekicks blowing in alternate directions, hinting at the treachery mariners had experienced in the south Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
Also divided between the edges and the center are the seasons and their equinox counterparts. The first female figure after the West Wind is Spring. She holds a wreath in her hands. Below, in an orange and white robe, is the spring equinox. They have their autumnal counterparts in the upper right corner of the map in the shape of another female fronted by children and holding fruits – the result of a prosperous harvest. The autumn equinox is also located below her, holding a scale and occupying the space juxtaposing the spring equinox at the opposite end of the chart.
In the central frame of the heavens, we find winter, the prominent bearded figure at the top of the map, blowing ice and surrounded by snow. Behind him, the winter solstice is hiding in darkness. Below this group, seemingly in deep debate, are the two male figures of Summer and the summer solstice. In a chariot behind the more dominant figures, we find Apollo being chased by the hours – a mythological representation of the measurable passage of time. The celestial panel also includes figurative representations of the elements (earth, fire, water, air) and juxtaposing figures rising and going to bed, symbolizing the subdivision of the earth’s rotation into night and day.
A final note regarding the heavenly space must be made concerning the rendition of celestial spheres. Grouped in two clusters above the north pole of either hemisphere, we find the sun and moon represented as the largest spheres, while the planets Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Mercury are shown using smaller spheres. The size difference is due to the composition and how these spheres could be observed in the sky. Here too we see the underlying current of the Enlightenment manifest itself, in that the rendition of planets, sun, and moon are based on recent findings by leading astronomers and scientists of the age. Superimposing the left hemisphere, we find three smaller spheres representing planets and a larger one representing the sun. Furthest to the left are Saturn and Jupiter, and here it is noted that their depiction is based on the studies of ‘Monsieur Cassini.’
Giovanni Cassini was a 17th-century Italian engineer and astronomer who became a naturalized Frenchman. When this map was compiled, he was a leading astronomer and had been instrumental in setting up the Paris Observatory for Louis XIV in the 1660s. Among his accomplishments, Cassini is famous for being the first to identify a division in the rings of Saturn (which subsequently was named after him). He also made decisive observations of Jupiter, identifying orbital moons. All these cutting-edge discoveries have been integrated visually into this impressive chart.
Conversely, the sun is based on the studies of an entirely different astronomer, the famous polymath and Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680). Kircher was the scientific superstar of his day, engaged in various fields, including Egyptology, geology, and medicine. Among Kircher’s most famous publications is the 1665 book Mundus Subterranus, which contains discussions and vivid illustrations of the sun’s composition. Kircher hypothesized that the sun’s surface was densely covered with active super-volcanoes and that its eruption caused the sun’s immense output of heat and light.
If we move on to the lower panel – things related to the earth and the human condition – we find an equally evocative set of scenes, albeit with somewhat more disturbing images than the celestial plane. The Explication claims that it depicts the four different states of human existence. These are placed around a central cartouche that reiterates the title noted in the top bar. Left of the cartouche, we find the ‘active life,’ with references to science, the arts, warfare, and agriculture. A blue-clad person with a rake represents this state. Below her, we find the compass used extensively in mapmaking, ultimately representing the arts and sciences on a broad scale. However, the compass is also the most widely recognized symbol of masonic orders. Above the cartouche, the figure represents the contemplative or philosophical state of existence. The symbols associated with this character are the large book and a skull, which has faded somewhat in our copy.
Immediately to the right of the cartouche is the representation of the ‘voluptuous life’: a female figure bearing her right breast as if to underline a lack of inhibitions. The vestiges of a hedonistic life surround her: theatre, dancing, wine, good food, and perfume are all represented here. At her feet, we find a child with a flower and lamp, a reminder of the temporary nature of youth and life. While they are beautiful and warming features, ultimately, they are fleeting.
Between the personifications of contemplation and hedonism, we find two depictions of Sisyphus engaged in his eternal task. He represents a life or state of anxiety: an inability to exist in the world with calm. The extensive representation of slavery in the lower panel also references this state of being. To highlight uncertainty and a lack of individual value and worth, the artist uses the image of Europeans cast into bondage by Turks: symbolism that would have been highly disturbing to his contemporary audience. The capturing of European sailors and settlers for slavery by Barbary and Ottoman pirates was common in the 17th and 18th centuries. The most famous example of this was the enslavement of Miguel de Cervantes, who, after escaping years of bondage in Algeria, wrote Don Quixote.
The phenomenon is shown in several different ways. On the right, we see two black men putting chains on a European. The Turks and the Arabs before them had practiced slave-hunting in Africa for more than a millennium at this stage, and the two dark gentlemen clamping the lighter figure in chains were likely slaves themselves. The Turkish overlords are seen behind them and immediately to the left. They stand out from the group by their attire and head garments, but a caravan of camels has been placed behind them to ensure that European audiences correctly recognize the scene.
The activities of the Turkish slavers are also somewhat harrowing. They are inspecting a line of European children taken forcibly from their parents. While the females would be prized contents of any seraglio, the young boys would undergo rigorous military training from a young age until they would become Janissaries: the sultan’s elite guard. In Europe, one could hardly imagine a more horrible fate for one’s children, so the inclusion of this scene is meant to send a chill down the spine of onlookers and perhaps even encourage them to take action against the Turkish menace.
It is no coincidence that the Turks have been placed on the right side of the panel, representing the East. Opposite them, on the left side of the panel, we find people engaging in the other major activity of the day, exploratory trade with people in the newly discovered continents. In this way, left represents the west, while right represents the east – the standard Eurocentric view of the time. The New World scene is a classical one of initial arrival and subsequent settling and trade. We know we are in the Americas not only by its positioning on the left of the map but also by the attire of the locals and by flora and fauna included in the images.
The main characters in this section are stylized chiefs of indigenous peoples fronted by two distinguished European traders, shown in their powdered curly wigs and triangular black hats. The appearance of the indigenous population, with their half-naked bodies and feather headgear, confirms their representation of the Americas in general. But to hammer it home, exotic elements such as monkeys and palm trees frame the scene. Behind them, we see a bay full of European arrivals trading goods with the locals. The strange buildings in the distance further confirm that the view is allegorical as if the artist wanted to catch all of the different stages of colonial expansion in a single scene.
Description of the map
Being a map of the entire world, richly decorated and created in an era where our knowledge of the globe was growing in quantum leaps, it would be an extensive task to describe all its constituent elements in great detail. Instead, we have chosen to focus on several features that characterize this map and the dynamic atmosphere and time in which it was conceived and created.
California as an Island
The first frontier that we will delve deeper into is the American West. In general, De Fer’s map is impressively up-to-date on its exploration, including a decent rendition of the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains and recent configurations of the Arctic regions. There is one feature of the West that nevertheless continued to baffle cartographers and explorers in the late 17th century, namely California. The most enduring misconception – and perhaps the greatest cartographic myth of all time – was the notion that California was an island.
Originally, the notion of an insular California stems from a combination of psychological and geographical factors. Renaissance mariners and conquistadors, including Christopher Columbus, were influenced by medieval-period literature, especially the travels of Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville, which described East Asia as filled with a vast number of islands. The early discoveries in the New World met these expectations: for example, Columbus’s first discoveries were of islands, which we know today as the ‘West Indies.’
After Hernan Cortes conquered Tenochtitlan (present-day Mexico City) in 1521, he immediately cast his eyes on the great ocean to the west, believing the rich islands of East Asia nearby. He and his contemporaries had no concept of the enormity of the Pacific Ocean. The reconnaissance expeditions mounted during the first half of the 16th century, which were either led or authorized by Cortes himself, found in the Baja Peninsula many of the hallmarks of an island, including a long continuous coastline. The ships faced various dangers that helped shroud the geography of California, including storms, rocky coasts, and constant fog. Furthermore, the northern end of the Gulf, where the Colorado River meets the sea, constitutes a vast delta that confused the captains and caused a dangerous tidal bore.
All these factors, combined with an unwillingness of expedition leaders to deliver disappointing news to their superiors (if California were an island, the Spanish would have dominion over its entirety), obscured a definitive understanding of the shape and extent of the California Peninsula. And since mapmakers got most of their frontier information from expedition reports (or sometimes directly from the horse’s mouth), they were unsure whether or not to plot it as an island.
When our map was published, the depiction of California as an island was widespread, taking a variety of forms. Unbeknownst to De Fer and his contemporaries, the Jesuit missionary, Father Eusebio Kino, had begun conducting extensive surveys to end the myth of California as an island ultimately. In October 1700, Kino took a trip down the Colorado River. He relates that he ascended a hill, looked out across the landscape with a long-range telescope, and observed flat land and the river plain where the Colorado River meets the Gila River. Kino later made definitive measurements of the Gulf with an astrolabe. Thus, he could state that: “I have discovered with all minute certainty and evidence, with mariner’s compass and astrolabe in my hands, that California is not an island but a peninsula.” (Polk 1991: 301).
The De Fer chart applies the so-called ‘Briggs model’ of California, recognizable by its flat northern top. The northernmost place name on our map is C. Mendocino, a relatively common configuration since 1542 when Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo navigated the West Coast of America on behalf of the Spanish Crown. A rumor became associated with the expedition that Cabrillo had discovered an entrance to the straight of California around Mendocino. While it is unclear how or when this rumor started, it eventually led mapmakers to enlarge the size of insular California, extending it further north, as depicted on our map. Before the Cabrillo rumor spread, depictions of California were usually much smaller.
The Straight of Anian and the ambiguity of the Pacific
Moving further north, the Northwest Pacific was another frontier that excited European imaginations. Finding the Northwest Passage and understanding the physical relationship between America and Asia was already at the forefront of geographical inquiry and a great prize for explorers to win. The notion that the American and Asian continents were distinct entities was originally put forward by Marco Polo, who notes the Straight of Anian as the separating body of water. During the 16th century, Mercator and Ortelius adopted the concept, and through their seminal output, it gradually became lodged in the European conceptualization of the world. While the notion was true enough, it was only in the great expeditions of Vitus Bering in the early 18th century that the reality was ascertained and charted (today, the straight is appropriately named after Bering). In our map, the Anian concept has also been adopted, as seen in the labeling of what might be considered the southern fringe of the Alaskan peninsula.
Opposite the Pacific Northwest, on the right fringe of the Eastern Hemisphere, we see a partially delineated land labeled ‘Terre de Jezzo,’ a common feature on 17th and 18th-century maps usually associated with the island of Hokkaido in Japan. The origins of its importance can be traced to Father Francis Xavier (1506-1552), an early Jesuit missionary to Japan and China. Xavier related stories that silver mines were to be found on a mystical Japanese island. Spanish traders spreading similar reports corroborated the myth. Over a few years, the rumors became so tenacious and widespread that the great cartographer Abraham Ortelius included an ‘island of silver’ (Isla de Plata) above Japan on his 1589 Maris Pacifici map of the Pacific Ocean. The combination of Ortelius’ cartographic authority and the general promise of great wealth, sustained the myth to such an extent, that fifty years after the publication of Maris Pacifici, the powerful Dutch East India Company sponsored two voyages of exploration to identify and possibly claim this land. Abel Tasman led the first expedition in 1639 and the second by Maarten Vries in 1643. Vries sailed through a straight between the islands of Iturup and Urup and into the Sea of Okhotsk. He later died from disease at sea after an unsuccessful attempt to invade the Philippines, but the discoveries made it back to the old world intact, and the straight was subsequently named after him.
Ironically, the most crucial cartographic legacy of the Vries expedition was an error. Believing the Kurili island of Urup to be continental, he named it Compagnies landt after his employer. Vries perceived this land to be the westernmost region of America, and mapmakers gradually adopted this concept, with the variation that Jezzo now came to refer to this unknown land. Being a typical product of the Enlightenment, De Fer’s map amalgamates the different traditions into a single visual concept. De Fer has the straight bear Vries’ name in a brilliantly strategic move but does not refer to Anian here. He challenges the accuracy of older charts and underlines how up-to-date his work is. At the same time, he labels the tentative continental coastline Terre de Jezzo, thus linking the latest notions (Vries) with older cartographic traditions of a silver island. It is an elegant balancing act.
The newest parts of the world
The Northwest Pacific and Arctic regions are the only areas of terra incognita in the map of the western hemisphere. Another “new” continent is equally obscure in its eastern counterpart, fading into nothingness in the southern Pacific. Southeast Asia, Australia (New Holland), and the vast archipelago that forms Oceania had only been discovered in the century preceding the publication of our map. This period was marked by the rise of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). The VOC was formed in 1602 when several Dutch firms competing for the lucrative Indies trade were consolidated into a single corporate superpower with global reach.
Strongly encouraged by the influential Dutch Governor of Java, Antonio van Diemen, the VOC sponsored the important exploratory voyages of Abel Tasman, the first known European explorer to reach the islands of Tasmania (which he named Van Diemen’s Land after his patron) and New Zealand, just as he was the first to sight the Fiji Islands.
The Australia depicted on our map, labeled Nouvelle Hollande, is based on information compiled during Tasman’s second voyage in 1644. Setting out from Jakarta (Batavia) in late January, Tasman and his crew sailed along the south coast of New Guinea with the ambition of mapping the east Australian coastline. The expedition failed to identify and pass through the Torres Straights (separating Australia from New Guinea), so instead, Tasman began mapping the north coast of Australia, in particular the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Both the failure to explore further east, as well the reconnaissance that was conducted, manifest themselves on this map from half a century later: the separation between Australia and New Guinea is drawn ambiguously narrow, the east coast of Australia remains unmapped, and Van Diemen’s Land is erroneously located on the northern coast of the continent itself. In contrast to these shortcomings, it is also evident from De Fer’s map that a great deal of information was accumulated during Tasman’s survey of the Gulf of Carpenteria since it has become the most comprehensively labeled region on the entire continent.
De Fer expanded his research to multiple sources, like any good cartographer. In New Guinea, many of the place names can be linked to another famous 16th-century expedition, namely that of Jacob Le Maire and Willem Schouten (1615-6). Financed by Jacob’s father, Isaac, a former VOC shareholder who left the company in disgrace, this expedition was planned and executed in open rivalry with the VOC’s seeming monopoly on such adventures. The voyage had two central objectives: to search for Terra Australis, the immense continent thought to exist in the Southern Hemisphere, and to break the VOC monopoly on the western trade routes to the East Indies. Such was the importance of the Schouten expedition that it is one of only two voyages that De Fer has marked on our map. The other was the second diplomatic expedition by a Siamese Embassy to the court of Louis XIV in 1685-86. This reference was undoubtedly included as a tribute to the magnetism of Louis’ majesty.
The expedition reached the north coast of New Guinea in 1616 en route to the Moluccas and Java. The Schouten crew gave many of the place names in this region. The coastal designation of a C. van goede hoop (Cape of Good Hope) at the western end of New Guinea was meant to celebrate the approaching end of the expedition. Another delicious detail for the exploration enthusiast is found just north of New Guinea, where a vertically-distributed archipelago (the Mariana Islands) has been labeled Isles de Larrons. The term comes directly from Magellan’s descriptions of his visit to the islands, which he refers to as the Islas de los Ladrones (‘islands of thieves’) after a dispute with the native inhabitants.
The chart’s newest insertion – in the lower part of the western hemisphere (or left map) – delineates part of the eastern coastline of Tasmania (here labeled correctly as Van Diemen’s Land) and New Zealand. Concerning the latter, this resulted from its discovery by Abel Tasman in December of 1642. Tasman described the islands as a “lofty and mountainous country” and originally named the islands ‘Staten Land’ in the belief that they were part of the same land sighted by Jacob Le Maire off South America. Tasman was quite mistaken, as a vast ocean separated the islands from Tierra del Fuego. By the time De Fer’s map was published, the islands had been renamed ‘Nova Zeelandia’ after the Dutch coastal province of Zeeland. The map includes several place names, including ‘Murderers Bay’ (Mourdenaers bay) — modern-day Golden Bay, an appellation given by Tasman because hostile local Maoris killed four of his crew here.
This De Fer chart is such a visually overwhelming and comprehensively loaded document that it can hardly be fully encapsulated in a short essay. It stands out not only as a product of humankind’s finest principles of inquiry and exploration but has also been elevated to meet the highest aesthetic aspirations of the age. It is a chart that is both explicit and subtle. It was conceived and designed to capture the imagination and inform the curious mind. It blends the highest principles of the Enlightenment with the voluptuous aesthetics of the Baroque and the universal symbolism of the Renaissance. It is by all measures a masterpiece in French cartography.