A New Old View
When we think of the Grand Tour, it is the English rather than the Dutch who first come to mind. Yet, seventeenth-century Holland (or, more correctly, the United Provinces) was a rich mercantile empire with trading outposts as far the island of Kyushu in Japan and colonial settlements and plantations, such as Surinam, in South America, India, and Africa. A community of enterprising travelers and cartographers, the Dutch engaged in the exploration of the New World just as they were rediscovering the legacy of classical antiquity. They were thus the principal audience for the Theatrum Civitatum et Admirandorum Italiae, whose first three volumes, originally published in 1663, have recently been acquired by Dumbarton Oaks. Usually translated as the “Town Book of Italy,” this project was a brainchild of the leading Amsterdam mapmaker Johannes Blaeu (1599–1673), who ran one of the city’s largest printing establishments. Published in Latin, which was still the lingua franca at the time, it was intended as a cultural and historical guide as well as a cartographic atlas for the educated elite, curious about the past and present of one of the heartlands of European civilization.
Blaeu’s original idea was an ambitious publication that would have comprised a total of ten volumes, five of which were supposed to deal with the monuments of ancient Rome, organized into specific types, and another five with the main attractions of various states of seventeenth-century Italy. Nine years after the appearance of the three initial volumes, however, his main workshop was destroyed by fire, with much of the material ready for publication irredeemably lost. Blaeu’s heirs continued his work, adding in 1683 two more volumes on Piedmont and Savoy, but were unable to complete the full series. Yet, even in this incomplete form, the “Town Book of Italy” was a success, as attested by subsequent editions produced by other Amsterdam publishers well into the eighteenth century.
The three luxurious volumes at Dumbarton Oaks, bound in the original Dutch vellum with gilt borders, feature over a hundred engraved plates (mostly maps and views), some of which are hand-colored. The first volume, dealing with the cities of the Papal States, is a rich visual and textual introduction to their main monuments and landmarks, beginning with a brief outline of the pivotal historical events, the leading local families, and other important characters, followed by the survey of the principal buildings. Some illustrations also represent major gardens, such as those of Frascati and Tivoli, as well as sacred and devotional sites located in the immediate vicinity.
The second volume, on the monuments of ancient Rome, includes sections on circuses, theaters, and amphitheaters; its important focus, however, is on Egyptian obelisks with meticulously recorded hieroglyphic inscriptions, a source of scholarly fascination throughout the seventeenth century. A special highlight is an account of the moving of the Vatican Obelisk in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, one of the greatest engineering feats of the sixteenth century, carried out in 1586 by the papal architect Domenico Fontana. For Blaeu and his readers, the glory of the ancient Rome, therefore, was always interlaced with the achievements of the modern city.
Finally, the third volume, which deals with Naples and Sicily, pays much attention to the natural attractions of these regions, especially the unique geology and vegetation in the areas of volcanic activity, such as Mount Vesuvius and the Phlegraean Fields.
For Dumbarton Oaks, the acquisition of these three fascinating volumes coincides with the increasing focus of its Garden and Landscape Studies program on urban landscape studies, supported by a generous grant by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. By putting this rare and incredibly rich resource at the service of scholarship, we hope to promote a deeper understanding of the intricate and dynamic relationships that exist between the natural environment and urban form, putting them in a broad historical perspective.