on January 31, 2010
Did we really need a new facsimile edition of Braun and Hogenberg's Civitates Orbis Terrarum? Several have been published, but in some way each had its strengths and failings. A three-volume facsimile published in the 1960's was long on scholarship but contained postcard size black and white views of the 300-some plates. Another (very expensive) one beautifully reproduced the plates in the format of the original seven volumes, but its accompanying commentary was generally bland and at times quite misguided. With this brilliant single and formidable tome Benedikt Taschen has produced the most extraordinarily helpful, beautiful, and thoughtful presentation of the Civitates for our own time and has given us the most stunning yet in Taschen's extensive series of facsimile presentations appearing during recent years of the seminal illustrated works of art, cartography, and natural history which constitute the cultural history of our civilization. The Civitates has been widely regarded as portraying an orderly and mainly European world of prosperity and peace. The engraved plates are frequently collected as souvenirs of a memorable trip to various of the cities mapped or illustrated in the work. But Stephan Fuessel, in his brilliantly conceived introduction, tackles the intellectual difficulties of the Civitates head on. Rather abruptly he proceeds to interpret the complex iconography of one of the plates which could not look less like a city view. It portrays a visit of Joris Hoefnagel, the great Flemish artist who provided the drawings after which about 70 the engravings in the Civitates were prepared (Southern California residents will know his extraordinary illumination of a book on calligraphy which constitutes a crown jewel in the collection of the Getty Museum), and Abraham Ortelius, a fellow citizen of Antwerp who published the first modern atlas of the world in a number of editions appearing from the 1570's into the 17th century, to the volcanic sulfurous fields of Solfatara near Pozzuoli. This view, generally known by its title in the Latin editions of the Civitates of "Forum Vulcani," seems to have been selected by Fuessel from the series of views in which our merry travelers Hoefnagel and Ortelius make their way through Italy for its complexity and blatant weirdness as a warning not to expect a volume solely of views of citizens gathering in the town squares of Europe and ships sailing down picturesque rivers. The explanation of the iconography of the Forum Vulcani is enlightening and thorough and one wishes Fuessel could have been given space to explain the iconography of others of the more difficult plates in the work, but he next discusses the complex meanings of the magnificent pair of views of the two ends of Cadiz (the Spanish port from which a great number of voyages of discovery or of commerce departed for the New World), with disappointing brevity. But after discussing the thorny issue of iconography, Fuessel boldly leaps into the center of the most controversial aspect of the Civitates--its portrayal of a peaceful and prosperous world at the very time of great violence and conflict directly impacting the lives of the book's creators in the guise of Spain's continuing campaign against the Low Lands including the attack of 1576 on Antwerp in which numerous structures were burned to the ground and thousands were tortured, raped, and killed. (Spain subsequently conquered Antwerp in the 1580's). One wonders what the feelings of Hoefnagel were when he was called upon in the 1580's to produce an oversized plan of his pillaged hometown and delivered a luminous portrayal which shows no evidence of the ravages of war. Fuessel discusses how Franz Hogenberg, the engraver of the Civitates, fled to Cologne for political reasons where he produced a series of smaller, more crudely executed engravings which were a sort of newspaper of the times and which vividly depicted the warfare, torture, and executions being carried out in the towns of the lands now comprising the Netherlands, Belgium, and a small portion of France. Only in the final volume of the Civitates published in 1617 (about 20 years later than the preceding volume so that it hardly seems to be part of the same work) was the subject of violence dealt with explicitly--but it was the violence Turks committed upon Hungary, generally presented from a Hungarian point of view. The view of the Hungarian town of Papa, chosen by Fuessel for illustration, includes scenes of Turkish troops impaling and exhibiting the impaled corpses of the Hungarian inhabitants on stakes. Not good as a souvenir from a European vacation. The magnificent view of Budapest in this volume shows the town with its Turkish rulers in the foreground. Also illustrated is the Austrian town of Sankt Polten with the gallows portrayed in the foreground which were employed to dispatch the leaders of a peasant revolt against landholders. So the Civitates always seems to raise more questions than any single commentator can pretend to contend with--how did its creators really feel about the intense violence raging in many of the towns they portrayed, what motivated Ortelius and Hoefnagel to especially select towns in Italy for portrayal which flourished during the Roman Empire, inserting quotations from Vergil on the plates and speculating in Latin on the effect of the volcanic fumes of Solfatara upon the waters of a local lake (in which apparently dead dogs were immersed and then miraculously revived as a sort of tourist entertainment). Why did they feel compelled to portray themselves in all of these views? What did the two men discuss during these journeys, did they pretend they were ancient Romans? It is certain that Ortelius had a special love for ancient civilizations, since the portion of his atlas depicting the ancient world contains the lion's share of the maps which he personally drew and engraved. There is much more fodder for the mind of the historical novelist in these matters than has apparently been recognized; how regrettable it is that a Susan Sontag never chose to write of these times. Technically Taschen's facsimile is a marvel. Each view or plan is accompanied by a brief identification, a translation of a portion of the descriptive narrative of Georg Braun which appeared on the verso, and a statement as to the status and population of the subject town in contemporary times. And how welcome it is to have a description of what is portrayed. In Hoefnagel's view of the Inn Valley near Innsbruck there appears a small cagelike structure containing statutes of two persons. How comforting to finally learn this is a monument to the meeting of Emperor Charles V with Ferdinand, King of Hungary. The handcolor of the edition reproduced from the Historisches Museum Frankfurt is magnificent and should become the gold standard model for 21st century colorists of these views. The fold-out reproduction of Pirro Ligorio's tremendously intricate conception of ancient Rome is breathtaking. And the editors have shown superb judgment in using the limited space for double page views and for enlarged details not particularly for the largest or most important cities but for the most noteworthy, significant, or visually arresting of the views, with some preference for those of Hoefnagel in evidence. I was so stunned by the magnificence in this presentation of the final of the three views of Seville ("Hispalis"), with the very dramatic scene in the foreground of the adulteress covered with bee-attracting honey and the cuckold wearing antlers being paraded down the main street with a magistrate in charge that I had to put the book down for awhile. But then I have had so many revelations from what London's distinguished map scholar and dealer Jonathan Potter has called simply and truly "this wonderful book."