City atlas De Wit

City atlas De Wit is the Google Earth of the 17th century. You can find almost every house, every tree and every back garden of the cities of the Low Countries on it. Look up your place of birth in the old centre of Leiden, for example, or see how the laundry lies bleached in the fields outside The Hague.

City Atlas De Wit: an extremely heavy atlas

The castle in Leiden

The City atlas De Wit is a city atlas with maps and prints of important monuments in Dutch cities. Such atlases were popular among wealthy citizens and nobles in the 17th century. They are not intended to be taken with you on a city walk, as they are enormous and heavy. This atlas weighs no less than 7 kilograms.

The maps are very detailed. This makes them very suitable for armchair tourism: traveling from your lazy chair. On the map of Haarlem, for example, the old center is very visible. Anyone who lives there can easily find their own house and map out the route to Saint-Bavo.

  • Haarlem. The map is so detailed that you can almost walk around in it.

Amsterdam: centre of cartography

In the 16th century, Antwerp was the centre of cartography: the art of making maps. But when the Spanish conquered Antwerp during the Dutch Revolt in 1585, many mapmakers moved north. Amsterdam became the new centre of cartography. Famous mapmakers are at work, such as Willem Jansz. Blaeu with his son Joan and Johannes Janssonius. They make the most beautiful atlases. They all want to make a book about all the cities in Europe. Blaeu was the first to finish his edition, in 1649. Janssonius followed 8 years later.

At the end of the 17th century, their younger colleague Frederick de Wit appeared on the scene. De Wit buys a few original copper plates from his colleagues and gets to work on them. De Wits City Atlas was published around 1698. It shows that De Wit has made the necessary adjustments, such as new buildings and more explanations. He also put his own name on it.

How maps are made in the 17th century

To take measurements for new maps, the surveyor walks the streets of the city. He measures the length of the straight stretches by counting the number of steps, or he uses a measuring chain. At bends, side streets and intersections he measures the direction with a compass. Or he measures the angles between the streets with the Dutch circle, an angle measuring instrument. This creates a network of lines: the skeleton of the map. The houses, canals, trees and sometimes people are drawn in it.

The result does not look like the maps we use now. The buildings on these old maps are drawn in a 3D-like, crooked way. You see the street grid from above, just like modern city maps, but buildings and other objects from the side.

  • Detail from the map of Medemblik. On the left a surveyor with a Dutch circle, which is used to measure the angles between the streets. On the right a surveyor with his measuring tape.

  • Vlissingen. You see the city from above, but houses, ships and trees from the side.

How maps were printed in the 17th century

The maps are drawn by the artist. They are then engraved (cut) or etched in mirror image on a copper plate by an engraver. With the latter technique, the lines are etched out with acid.

Printing an engraved card is a lot of work. Only the lines need to be printed. That is why the entire plate is first covered with ink. The surface is then cleaned so that only ink remains in the grooves. Finally, the plate is printed on slightly damp paper.

During that time, printing can only be done in one color at a time. If you want the cards in color, you can have them colored by hand by so-called 'setters'. The KB copy is hand-coloured, but most known copies are in black and white.

The City atlas De Wit in the KB

The Atlas De Wit was acquired in 2010 with the support of the Mondriaan Foundation, the VSB Fund and the Friends of the KB. The City atlas De Wit measures 55 by 38 centimeters and weighs more than 7 kilos. This copy contains 126 sheets: 108 sheets with plans and 18 sheets with pictures. A total of 127 cities from the Low Countries are depicted.

Reprint of CIty atlas De Wit

In 2012, Lannoo Publishers and the KB jointly produced a facsimile (complete reprint) of the City atlas De Wit, with an introduction by the then curator of old prints Marieke van Delft and cartographer Peter van der Krogt. The book is sold out, but sometimes available second-hand.

Hoe kun je Stedenatlas De Wit zelf inzien?

The original book can be viewed by researchers in the KB. The title is Theatrum ichnographicum omnium urbium et præcipuorum oppidorum Belgicarum XVII Provinciarum peraccurate delineatarum. = Perfecte aftekeningen der steden van de XVII Nederlandsche Provincien in platte gronden. = Le theatre des plans de toutes les villes qui sont situéez dans les XVII Provinces du Pays Bas parfaictement déseignéez. t'Amsterdam, : by Frederik de Wit, [after 1698]. It has 126 leaves. You will find this masterpiece in the KB catalogue under request number KW 1046 B 16.

You can also browse through the digitized book. You can download and reuse the plates separately via Wikimedia Commons.

Read more about the City atlas De Wit



  • Nijhoff, N. 'Het stedenboek van F. de Wit'. Het boek 23 (1935/36), p. 353-366.

Want to know more?

Esther van Gelder
Conservator incunabula