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A spectacularly preserved and coherent 4-map set by Frederick De Wit, one of the most prominent and successful Dutch cartographers of the 17th century.

Place/Date: Amsterdam / ca. 1680
Title: Novissima et accuratissima totius Americae descriptio; Accuratissima totius Asiae tabula recens emendata; Totius Africae accuratissima tabula; & Nova et accurata totius Europae descriptio. Per FREDERICUM DE WIT.
See condition notes.
Old color
Condition Rating


A splendid and uniform set with exceptional contemporary hand-color heightened in gold. While these maps can be found individually elsewhere on the market, this superlative group is a unique opportunity for the serious collector.


This offering consists of four uniformly sized double-page maps of the continents Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas (North and South), as they were understood in the 17th century. The sheets were published jointly in Amsterdam in 1680 and constitute the first state of this highly collectible set. The map of the Americas is particularly seminal in that it dramatically improves on De Wit’s two previous America maps from 1660 and 1672 (the latter a wall map) and constitutes the first Dutch chart of North America in which all five of the Great Lakes have been included.

The maps were produced as copperplate engravings and subsequently hand-colored and emboldened with gold leaf in the lettering. An important part of what makes Neatline’s set so desirable is the pristine state of both the coloring and gilding. On all four sheets, the map titles and major regional and oceanic toponyms stand out dramatically from the rest of the map due to their well-preserved golden edges. While the importance of original coloring in general is discussed further below, the particular visual characteristics of each map are examined in the individual descriptions of each sheet below.


The Americas (Novissima et accuratissima totius Americae description)

This magnificent chart of the still partly obscure American continents has been celebrated as an important development in the Dutch mapping of the Americas. It carries all the hallmarks of a great 17th century chart: from elaborately decorated cartouches to visual depictions of the great wilderness that characterized these young continents. Most of America’s northwestern plains remain a largely unexplored Terra Incognita, complete with fur-bearing game such as wolverines, bears, and foxes. The Pacific Northwest is entirely absent from the chart.

Our copy is the first state of this map, published in Amsterdam in 1675 (Burden, 465). We can conclude this with certainty by identifying a number of features that in combination only figure on the original state. First of all, we note the subdivision of longitudinal lines into exact tens: from the third state on, longitudinal lines occur in ten-degree intervals from the 8th degree (i.e. 18 to 28 to 38 etc.). Secondly, we observe the inclusion of no less than eleven ocean-going ships, which have been omitted from the fourth state of this map. And finally, we note that the island of Madeira has been labeled Madera, whereas from the second state on this attribution is erroneously made to the Canary Islands. In combination, these three features unequivocally confirm Neatline’s copy as a first state in original coloring.

De Wit had produced his first American chart in 1660 and a second more monumental wall-map in 1672, but both of these were characterized by a paucity of credible geographical information. It is almost as if De Wit was aware of his wall-map’s shortcomings, because not long after he had published it, he began working on this much more accurate and comprehensive chart. While this new version clearly builds on his previous American charts, it was also informed by Guillaume Sanson’s 1669 map of North America, which provided much of the latest reliable information – especially in the French territories. The discrepancies between his own American charts and Sanson’s work seems to have motivated De Wit to produce something even better. It is likely that it was this competitive drive that lead to this new and spectacular chart.

De Wit’s 1675 chart included a number of important new additions, the most important of which undoubtedly was the inclusion of all five of the Great Lakes in the Midwest: Lac Superieur (Lake Superior), Lac des Puans (Lake Michigan), Mare Dulce (Lake Huron), Lac Erie (Lake Erie), and L. de S. Louis (Lake Ontario). However, the western coast of Hudson Bay has also been significantly updated, as have political demarcations in North American. The latter is emphasized both by extensive labeling, but more importantly by means of highly distinct regional colorations in the original green, pink, and orange colors.

Another important feature of this map is that California is depicted as an island. This cartographic enigma, which is celebrated by many collectors, began in earnest around the 1620s, when maps of North America suddenly began depicting an Insular California. The notion developed following early Spanish expeditions up the Pacific coast. In particular the writings of a Carmelite friar, Antonio de la Ascension, seem to have promulgated the idea among Spanish mariners and cartographers, and from here it soon spread to the formerly Spanish domain of the Netherlands. Throughout Europe, the competitive cartographic markets hungered for fresh information on the new world, and often ideas would be incorporated without much critical verification. It was all about being first.

The California-as-an-island idea had thus been well established by the time De Wit compiled his charts. Important predecessors such a Hendrik Hondius, Nicolas Sanson, and John Speed had all been taken in by the notion and included it prominently in their charts. It was, in other words, neither strange nor out of place for De Wit to follow in this tradition. In many ways, this De Wit map represents a unique point in time in which the geographic myth had transcended into cartographic reality, and before it was first debunked by Father Kino, who travelled the Pacific coast and verified the peninsular nature of California himself. Kino published his observations in Paris in 1705, but the insular depiction was continued well into the 18th century.

Even though South America seems to have been portrayed in full, there are still many aspects of its depiction that reveal it to be riddled with speculation and mythology. Highly important is of course the depiction of Cape Horn, as this was the only known route from the Atlantic to the Pacific at the time. While the Straits of Magellan and the Straits of Le Maire (Lemair) have been depicted fairly accurately, the map also includes a Strait of the Brouwers, which runs between the known State Island (Staten Lant) and a second undefined island to the east, which does not exist.

Like in North America, De Wit has used the open swathes of unknown wilderness for artistic depictions that were meant to instill wonderment and excite the imagination. We have mentioned the wild mammals on the Great Plains and similar use is made of the Amazon, where indigenous villages and combat scenes fill up the uncharted space. While still a largely unexplored region at the time, the Amazon includes an extensive network of rivers extending from the unknown interior to their various deltas on the coast. As waterways constituted the only transportation infrastructure through the dense vegetation, it is no surprise that rivers were the most accurately marked out physiographic features on the map. Indeed, prior to the Portuguese and English pushing them out of the region, the Dutch had entertained huge imperial ambitions for Brazil.

An interesting inclusion, albeit hardly unique for the time, is the depiction of Lake Parime in modern Guyana. This mysterious lake has been repeatedly associated with the legend of Eldorado; a city of gold supposedly located on its shores. While there exists no historical or archaeological data to corroborate that such a place ever existed, the myth has been both long-lived and extremely tenacious. Obviously, the notion must have sprung from the immense wealth that the conquistadors brought back from the New World. The opportunities that this new and vast territory afforded attracted many adventurers and opportunists, to whom history’s judgment has not been very kind.

The notion was nevertheless pervasive. So much so that expeditions continued to be launched well into the 20th century (e.g. Colonel Percy Fawcett). The most infamous expeditions to find the mystical city of gold were perhaps those lead by Sir Walter Raleigh, the close confidant and advisor of Queen Elizabeth I. Raleigh made several attempts to find Eldorado: the first in 1594 and a second in 1617 (under King James I). Both attempts failed miserably and when Raleigh against orders raided a Spanish galleon on his second voyage, he was recalled by King James and executed.

A final note should be made regarding the two spectacular cartouches. Both are elaborately adorned with figurative motifs that have been drawn from Nicolas Janszoon Visscher’s 1658 map (although with important variations). The motifs stand out crisply in their magnificent original coloring. In the lower left corner we find the title cartouche surrounded by a composite scene of Native American life. The dominant figure is chief to the left of the title box, who seems to be receiving offerings or inspecting crops. Further to the right we find additional presenters leaving and approaching, as well as two children and an agitated man drawing his bow. The title box itself, while simple, expresses the great duality of the New World: atop the box we find two open-mouthed serpents seemingly ready to strike at any moment, while at its base lies the rich golden bounty that drew so many to their untimely deaths in strange lands.

The second cartouche, in the upper right corner of the map, is a droplet shaped plaque carried by four distinct figures. In the upper left corner is an angel. To her right is another pure woman holding a golden cross and seemingly staving off a demonic clawed figure, which has lost his grip and is falling away. On the lower left, we find another generic Native American chief seemingly engaged in assisting the angel. Roughly translated from the original Latin, the text reads: America has its name from Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine who was sent out by the auspicious King Emanuel of Portugal, from Cadiz, in the year 1497. The first out of Europe, although Christopher Columbus, of Genoa, in the year 1492, on the order of Ferdinand, King of Castile, found the American islands Hispaniola, Cuba, and Jamaica.


Asia (Accuratissima totius Asiae tabula recens emendata)

De Wit’s chart of Asia is another seminal map in the history of Dutch cartography. Hardly had it hit the market before other local mapmakers such as Justus Danckerts began copying it. The map shows Asia in its entirety: from the Black Sea in the west to the islands of Japan in the east. It also includes Arabia, East Africa and the Horn. Complex areas, such as the Indonesian and Philippine Archipelagos have been rendered with a new degree of accuracy and confidence. In addition to the exceptional original coloring and remarkable pictorial details such as the Great Wall of China, the Asia map contains several noteworthy elements that will be discussed briefly here.

First of all there is a delineation of the mystical Japanese island of Yedso. This was not an uncommon feature on late 17th and early 18th century maps, and was often – as it is here – associated with the island of Hokkaido. The origins of Yedso’s importance can be traced back to Father Francis Xavier (1506-1552), an early Jesuit missionary to Japan and China. Xavier related stories that immense silver mines were to be found on a secluded Japanese island: a notion that in the following years was strengthened by Spanish traders spreading similar reports. The rumors became so tenacious and widespread that the great cartographer Abraham Ortelius included an island of silver’ above Japan on his 1589 Maris Pacifici map of the Pacific Ocean. Half a century later, the powerful Dutch East India Company sponsored two voyages of exploration to identify and possibly claim this land. The first expedition was led by Abel Tasman in 1639, the second by Maarten Vries in 1643.

Believing the Kurili island of Urup to be continental, Vries named it Compagnies landt after his employer. He perceived the new land as the westernmost fringe of America and mapmakers gradually adopted this concept, with the variation that Yedso now came to refer to this undefined land. In De Wit’s chart, Yedso has nevertheless been equipped with a number of Dutch toponyms, suggesting a considerable degree of exploration and geographical knowledge.

Also worth noting is the presence of the North Australian coast in the bottom right corner of the map, here appropriately labeled Hollandia Nova. From their base in Jakarta, the Dutch sent several exploratory expeditions to this region – that of Abel Tasman being the most famous – in order to claim this remote land. It was Tasman who in 1644 gave it the evocative name, but the Dutch never really settled here. Consequently, when the British established Sydney and the province of New South Wales as a formal colony in 1788, it was without any opposition from the now significantly weakened Dutch. The term nevertheless continued to be used colloquially until the mid-18th century.

As with the Americas map, this sheet also contains a fine scenic cartouche in the lower left corner. This time we see a composite depiction of a traditional caravan and the trade associated with it. Oriental traders with turbans and camels appear to be in conversation with other Asian peoples, perhaps haggling over the prices of their goods. Perched atop the wall that forms the foundation for the cartouche text, we find two exotic looking birds, a bow and arrows, and a large glazed jar. At its base, a large flowing textile presumably represents either the silk and textile trade that stretched across the continent. In sum, we have a singular image that captures the great diversity of both peoples and goods originating in Asia – at least as it was promulgated in the European imagination.


Africa (Totius Africae accuratissima tabula)

The Africa sheet of this amazingly preserved set fully encapsulates why De Wit’s charts were so popular both in his lifetime and today. Very few late 17th century maps depict the African continent with such meticulous care and attention to detail. Even the great Saharan belt, which remains largely void of human settlement to this day, has been extensively annotated, decorated and labeled. It is a truly impressive chart of a continent still largely underestimated by Europeans.

Like the Asia chart, this became the late 17th century standard for subsequent Dutch maps of Africa. It was reissued a number of times by other mapmakers such Danckerts, De Ram, Visscher, and others, and reappeared well into the 18th century. Like its counterparts, the Africa chart is De Wit’s original first state, as can be confirmed by the omission of his credentials as privileged, which are found in later copies. As with the other charts, the state of preservation is superlative, with every detail clearly visible, and every speck of original color and gold still in place. That Holland indeed was a maritime nation is manifested through the depiction of no less than seven ocean-liners in the waters surrounding the large African landmass.

We have already noted the impressive degree of detail throughout the continent, and to this may be added a fan of vivid African wildlife scenes, including: lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, monkeys, and ostriches. Yet there are other more esoteric features to note as well. In general, the map shows an overwhelming amount of information concerning waterways. Lakes, rivers, and coastal inlets are depicted in great detail throughout, and the Nile dominates the continent like large snake. It is clear that De Wit appreciated the importance of the Nile, but his geographic rendition of it is somewhat antiquated – even for the late 17th century. It extends from its delta in Egypt across most of the continent, connecting to a huge Central African lake labeled Zaire Lacus. This notion predates De Wit by more than a millennium in that it comes from the Ptolemaic understanding of African geography.

A significant swathe of the interior in southern Africa has been labeled as the Kingdom of Monomotapa (Mono-um-Motape Imperium). This kingdom, which was established by a prince of Zimbabwe in early 15th century, extends as far down as the Rio de Infante in modern South Africa. Portuguese mariners encountered its people in the course of their voyages down the African coast and around the Cape.

A final note should be made on the elaborate and decorative cartouche. Once again, it offers little textual information other than the map’s title, maker, and place of origin, but the imagery is loaded with a powerful symbolism. The textual tenement is crowned by two rather regal looking male lions. To the left we see three adult figures in discussion representing the peoples in and to the north of the Sahara. To the right, we find sub-Saharan Africans represented in the form of a chief, a child, and two other figures. One of them sits atop a domesticated elephant. Thus, we once again see in the imagery an attempt to encapsulate the vastness and diversity of this continent.


Europe (Nova et Accurata totius Europæ Descriptio)

De Wit’s chart of Europe was also important in that it was accurate and beautifully decorated, and thus almost automatically in demand. Just like today, the appeal of each map was considerably augmented by the existence of the three others. In this way, De Wit’s maps became (and remain) most desirable as a complete set.

By the late 17th century, Europe had of course been extensively documented and mapped for centuries, and other than political divisions and new developments, there was not much of novelty value to add. Consequently, many maps of Europe as a continent begin to focus on other elements that might make that particular chart appreciated and desirable.

In this case, we see the inclusion of plentiful topographic features, gilded compass roses, and figurative depictions. In all four maps, ships constitute a core decorative element in the maritime sphere, but in the European chart an Ortelian sea monster and a large figure of a woman riding a bull in the Atlantic have expanded the repertoire. The latter is Europa herself, a Phoenician princess that according to Greek mythology was seduced by Zeus who had taken the form of a bull. Above her, we find a more traditional scroll-like title-cartouche carried by putti. While perhaps the most well-documented geographic area in the set, the Europe map stands out because of its overtly golden sheen, created by highlighting every major township of the continent with a dot of gold.


Background: How to understand color on antique maps

The terms ‘Original’ or ‘Contemporary’ or ‘Old’ color are used for the most part interchangeably in the antiquarian map world to refer to color that was applied to a map immediately after or close to the time of its printing as part of the publication and selling process. Until the development of color printing (halftone, chromolithography, etc.), maps were colored by hand: sometimes by the publisher or people hired by the publisher, sometimes by independent colorists working for the map’s owner.

Modern color’ is used to describe color that was added long after initial production, even if the color is centuries old. Both in cases where original coloring faded or burned, and when maps were issued without color, it is not unusual to find 17th century maps colored (or re-colored) in the 18th and 19th centuries. This color is grouped with the work of present-day colorists under the term ‘modern,’ and when skillfully applied both can be quite visually pleasing.

Historical background

For most of the history of mapmaking, color was uncommon but not unknown.The oldest known maps were incised into clay tablets in ancient Babylon and could obviously not be colored. But as the medium evolved, we see that for some of the earliest preserved maps, coloring played an important role in encoding or embedding concepts in schematic visual renditions of the world. Impressive charts like the Tabula Peutingeriana, early Arab or Ptolemaic maps, the 6th century mosaic map in Madaba, Jordan, and Medieval portolan charts all used color to distinguish individual features and enhance the visual impact.

From the late 15th to the late 16th century, a period that saw the invention of the printed map and the rise of map publishing as a business, color remained uncommon. Maps would often figure within the context of geographic books or itineraries and would rarely be subjected to coloring. However, some map publishers did begin to color maps in order to make them more sellable by enhancing appearance and readability, as well as to highlight specific features conveyed in the map’s composition.

Coloring would be applied to maps for decorative purposes, and the more competitive the map business became, the greater the need to enhance them visually. During the 17th century and the Dutch Golden Age of cartography, the hand coloring of maps grew increasingly common and popular, and many mapmakers started issuing formal polychrome sheets to meet the growing demand. A pioneer in this regard – in part due to his technical skill and strong sense of aesthetic – was Willem Janszoon Blaeu, who began issuing magnificent tomes of hand-colored maps.

The depth and splendor of early coloring was in part due to the way pigments were prepared and used. Some of the pigment initially used in the hand-coloring of maps became unavailable during the 18th century, making the original techniques a lost art. Coloring was used in different ways and for different purposes. Four main colors were usually used to highlight political subdivisions: green, pink, orange, and yellow. A stylized cathedral colored in bright red or gold often marked larger urban centers, whereas blue was commonly reserved for denoting bodies of water. Black was the color most used for toponyms.

Discerning old color

If skillfully applied with historical correctness, modern coloring can sometimes be very difficult to distinguish from contemporary or original color. Discerning between the two takes experience.

When evaluating maps for original color, there are a number of features that one might look for in order to confirm that the coloring is indeed original. The most common and simple technique is to examine the verso of the map, as old greens and browns in particular often show through the paper as a result of oxidation.

Another common, albeit more difficult, way of discerning original color from later coloring is holding it up to historical and stylistic scrutiny. Often, the original coloring of landmasses constituted a reflection of political subdivisions at the time of publication. Such realities would sometimes either be forgotten or disregarded when maps were subjected to later coloring. The reason for discrepancies of this sort was usually the changing nature of political realities. The later coloring of maps with different political subdivisions could thus be construed as an error in historicity, but is much more likely because the desire for original states is a modern collectors phenomenon. In the 18th and early 19th century, far more importance was lent to maps be usable, and thus the need for updated political divisions was considered paramount.


Frederick de Wit

Frederick de Wit (1629–1706) was a Dutch cartographer and artist who drew, printed, and sold maps from his studio in Amsterdam. He was a pioneer of Dutch Golden Age cartography, and the founder of one of the most famous map-publishing houses in Amsterdam. He was born in Gouda but moved to Amsterdam at the end of the Thirty-Years-War (1618-48), which had engulfed most of Europe and ultimately liberated the Netherlands from centuries of Spanish dominion.

Soon after arriving in Amsterdam, probably in 1654, De Wit opened a printing shop named The Three Crabs (De Drie Crabben). A year or two before, he had married Maria van der Way, the daughter of a wealthy Catholic merchant, and this may have helped secure the funding to start his new operation. His aspirations as a cartographer were nevertheless made clear when he shortly after changed the name to The White Chart (Het Witte Pascaert), under which he gained international renown.

In the latter half of the century, De Wit began drawing, copying, and publishing atlases and maps. By the 1670s he was issuing large folios with up to a hundred maps in each tome, including a famous nautical atlas in 1675. From 1689, De Wit received a state privilege from the Dutch government to draw and issue maps. This protected his work from the illegal copying known from his earlier charts. De Wit was among the first to apply extensive coloring and his original color atlases and continental charts remain highly sought after to this day.

Following De Wit’s death in 1706, his wife ran the business for four years before selling it at auction in 1710. Their only surviving son was a successful merchant in his own right and had no interest in taking over. At the 1710 auction, most of De Wit’s plates were sold to Pieter Mortier, another Amsterdam cartographer and engraver. After passing the firm to his son, who teamed up with Johannes Covens, the firm became Covens & Mortier, the largest cartographic publisher of the eighteenth century.

Condition Description

Together 4 double-page engraved maps, fine contemporary hand-color, heightened in gold.

America: 53 x 61.4 cm (20.9 x 24 in); Asia: 53 x 62 cm (20.9 x 24.5 in); Africa: 53 x 62 cm (20.9 x 24.5 in); Europe: 53.5 x 62 cm (21 x 24.5 in)


Carhart, George

2011 Frederick de Wit and the First 'Concise Reference Atlas': A reexamination of the Amsterdam map, print and art seller's life, work and contribution to the distribution of cartographic knowledge during the second half of the 17th and early 18th centuries. Doctoral dissertation from the University of Passau (completed 02/2011).

Provenance: Property of the Late Gunnar Skoog.

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