When Joan Blaeu started publication of his most important work, the Atlas Major, in 1662, he had an international readership in mind. It was to become his magnum opus, eventually comprising some 600 maps and some 3,000 pages of text, in nine folio volumes, and editions in Dutch, Latin, French, German and Spanish. It is the largest atlas of the world ever published. Its publication was the culmination of the golden age of Dutch cartography, an era of unprecedented flourishing, concurring with the enormous revival of trade and the concomitant wealth and prosperity especially during the first half of the seventeenth century. At the same time, however, the Atlas Major also marks the transition to a period of decline. Stagnation, imitation, and a lack of critical approach became the new buzzwords of Dutch cartography which was increasingly overshadowed by the achievements accomplished notably in France.
J. Blaeus Grooten Atlas, oft Werelt-beschryving, in welcke 't aerdryck, de zee, en hemel, wort vertoont en beschreven. Derde stuck der Aerdrycksbeschryving, welke vervat de Neder- landen. Amsterdam, Joan Blaeu, 1664. 2º. - 149 A 3, fol. Kk1v-Kk2r
The Atlas Major gives a true idea of contemporary Dutch cartography. The publisher has, on the whole, saved himself the trouble of obtaining the latest maps. The majority of the maps were printed from copperplates that had already been used before 1638. There was no critical assessment when the heterogeneously collected material was selected and even when the maps were edited, perfection was not a priority. The representations were not updated, with the occasional exception of minor aspects such as decorations or heraldry. But such lack of fundamental quality detracted little from the admiration the atlas received. Then as well as now, its devotees loved it for its grandeur, its splendid typography, its careful workmanship, its underlying artistic expertise and, of course, its size. No wonder that such a treasure was cherished. Thus beautiful copies have come down to us, bound in velvet, in gold cloth, in red or green leather with gold-tooled decorations, or family arms. Professional craftsmen were hired to embellish the maps with beautiful colours. Special furniture was designed to store the large-size volumes horizontally.
The Koninklijke Bibliotheek copy is bound in white vellum bindings, gold-tooled, with a crown in the central panel of the covers as its characteristic feature. They show four tools from the collection used by Albert Magnus, which warrants attribution of the bindings to this famous Amsterdam bookbinder.