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Northern Delights
By Mel Mandell

The untitled map of Scandinavia from the 1482 Ulm Ptolemy atlas, the first printed map of the north.

Beginning in the late fifteenth century, sea-going Scandinavians could buy navigational instruments and maps depicting their region, vital resources unavailable to their ancestors, the much-feared yet wide-ranging Vikings. Today, map aficionados can inspect many of the most colorful and significant examples of this cartographic tradition, thanks to Scandia: Important Early Maps of the Northern Regions & Maps and Charts of Norway from the Collection of William B. and Inger G. Ginsberg, an exemplary exhibition currently mounted at the American-Scandinavian Foundation’s Scandinavia House in New York City.

The exhibition, which runs through August 16, features seventy-six maps and atlases from the Ginsberg collection that span the history of printed cartography of Scandinavia and Norway through the eighteenth century. Occupying the entire third floor of the American-Scandinavian Foundation’s new headquarters on Park Avenue, Scandia includes maps by such seminal cartographers as Gerard Mercator and Abraham Ortelius, whose depictions of Scandinavia were part of much larger compilations of maps, as well as examples by later and lesser-known map makers who focused exclusively on the region itself. The maps are generously spaced on the building’s high walls, with the atlases in seven display cases.

The collection began when William Ginsberg went in search of early maps of the area near Kragero, where his Norwegian-born wife is from. As he relates in the introduction of the exhibition catalogue, which he compiled, he soon discovered that collecting the earliest cartographic depictions of Norway effectively meant collecting maps of Scandinavia and even the world. After his first purchase, the Blaeu map of Norway from the 1662 edition of Atlas Major, he acquired the map of Scandinavia from Ortelius’s classic 1570 Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, which he describes as “the first atlas in the modern sense of the word.” His search also led him to Waghenaer’s 1585 sea chart of Norway, which not only brought him closer to his geographic focus, but also opened up a fascinating sub-species of early printed cartography. Not until later did he add the first printed map devoted exclusively to Norway, Barent Langenes’s 1602 Norwegia, to his collection.

Early Maps First

The exhibition is divided into two parts, titled Important Early Maps of the Region and Maps and Charts of Norway, and mounted in adjoining spaces. Curiously, the oldest early map on display, a world map, doesn’t show any of the five Scandinavian nations. It comes from a circa 1480 edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia published by Francisco Berlinghieri in Florence. Consistent with Ptolemy’s limited knowledge of the northern part of the world, the Berlinghieri edition also had no maps of Scandinavia among its twenty-six regional maps.

Printed cartography spread rapidly throughout Western Europe. In 1482, shortly after the appearance of Berlinghieri’s edition of Ptolemy, another Ptolemy atlas was issued, compiled by Nicolas Germanus and published by Leonard Holm in Ulm, Germany. It contained the first printed map of Scandinavia, and its world map was modified accordingly. It is the largest item on display, measuring roughly forty by fifty-six inches, and is a beautiful, colorful example in remarkably good condition.

Another Ptolemaic map of Scandinavia, from the 1507 Johann Ruysch edition of Geographia, was included in the exhibition because it was the first copperplate map of Scandinavia. In the 1508 reprinting of the atlas, Ruysch added a world map that is especially prized by collectors. As Ginsberg notes in the catalogue entry, it was the third printed map to show America, it depicts the polar region with reasonable accuracy, and it departs from earlier Ptolemaic world maps in separating Greenland from Europe (though it attaches the landform to Asia).

Not surprisingly, the “Early” maps taken as a whole were not particularly accurate and, because their creators often simply copied earlier maps, perpetuated a number of cartographic misconceptions. For example, it took many decades to submerge the mythical islands of “Estland,” “Frisland,” and “Icaria,” in the Atlantic Ocean. The depiction of Greenland, as mentioned above, varied considerably; the island was sometimes attached to Europe, on other maps to Asia.

One Venetian cartographer, Nicolo Zeno, was something of a con artist. In 1558 he published a book in which he ascribed the discovery of North America and various Atlantic islands (mostly fictional) to the otherwise unknown 1380 voyages of his ancestors Antonio and Nicolo Zeni--112 years before Columbus’s first voyage. Zeno also asserted that the map of the northern regions that he included in his book, much admired and copied in its day, was based on a navigation chart that he found “among the ancient things in our house...all rotten and many years old.” As Ginsberg notes, later scholars concluded that Zeno actually based his map on other contemporary maps, including Olaus Magnus’s Carta Marina of 1539. Zeno’s cartography was appropriated by Girolamo Ruscelli three years later in his edition of Ptolemy, which Ortelius credited in turn for his map of Scandinavia, published first in his 1570 atlas and included in subsequent editions; it featured the islands of Estland, Frislant, and Icaria.

Gerard van Keulen, a member of a prolific family of Dutch map and chart makers, resorted to “copying” of a different sort. The family published two influential atlases of sea charts, Zee Atlas and Zee-Fakkel, beginning in the late seventeenth century, but Gerard also built a lucrative trade in manuscript maps. Because seafarers assumed that manuscript maps were more up-to-date than printed maps, he employed artisans in his workshop to copy large numbers of them. One collection in Leiden alone, Ginsberg observes, has 332 van Keulen manuscript maps.

Most of the early maps of Scandinavia were compiled and issued by established map makers and publishers as part of larger geographical works. However, several of the individuals represented in the exhibition worked outside of what Ginsberg terms the “cartographic mainstream.” Zeno was certainly one, as was Olaus Magnus, a self-exiled Catholic archbishop of Uppsala, Sweden. (Only two copies of the original nine-sheet Carta Marina are known to exist; the full-sized copy in the exhibition is a facsimile printed early in the twentieth century.) Jacob Ziegler, whose untitled map of Scandinavia dates to 1532, was a Bavarian theologian who spent much of his life traveling throughout Europe.

One of the most striking features of the “Early” maps in the exhibition is how often they were enhanced with illustrations of the region’s people, fauna, and flora, sometimes realistic, more often symbolic or mythical. Ortelius’s 1590 map of Iceland, for example, overflows with fanciful sea beasts, four-legged mammals of all sorts, and even a half-horse, half-fish with ferocious-looking webbed feet. The Carta Marina is even more bountiful, with more than a hundred illustrations--sovereigns of the various nations on their thrones, a domesticated reindeer being milked, hunters stalking their prey--that provide a visual narrative of the region’s culture and ethnography.

Spotlight on Norway

Italy emerged in the mid-1500s as a center of cartographic activity. Giacomo Gastaldi was appointed “Cosmographer” of the Venetian republic, and maps made in Rome and Venice were prized for their artistry and accuracy. With the publication of Ortelius’s Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, leadership in the cartographic arts shifted to the Netherlands.

The second half of Scandia begins with the effects of this transformation as it applied to maps of Norway. Langenes’s map of Norway appeared in the 1602 second French edition of his Thresor de Chartes. After a gap of more than thirty years, during which no map of Norway or any part of Norway was issued, Jan Jansson published a map focusing on the Stavanger bishopric and showing Norway below 61 degrees north latitude. In 1658, as part of a ten-volume atlas, he published another map of Norway, extending coverage to approximately 67 degrees.

Jansson competed with the Blaeu family in the lucrative atlas market. Over time atlases became lavish, multi-volume productions with hundreds of maps and greater emphasis on depictions of individual regions and countries. The Blaeu family’s early atlases included only a limited map of Norway, and it basically covered the same area as Jansson’s regional map. Like the 1658 Jansson atlas, however, the Blaeu 1662 Atlas Major expanded its coverage of Norway significantly. It included not only a map of Norway and two maps showing the southern and northern parts of the Stavanger bishopric, but also five regional maps relating to Norway.

The Blaeu atlas represented the pinnacle of Dutch supremacy in printed cartography and, to a lesser extent, of the proliferation of regional maps in atlases. When Dutch influence waned beginning in the eighteenth century, and largely because the market for large, expensive atlases had weakened, formerly separate regional maps were often combined to show larger areas. As a result, early eighteenth-century maps showing Norway alone are relatively uncommon.
The shift of cartographic activity from the Netherlands to other parts of Europe was also marked by greater attention to clarity and detail relative to ornamentation and decoration. Where once sea monsters hundreds of feet long and perhaps capable of overturning ships (ancestors of Moby Dick?) roamed the seas, later maps featured not only more refined geography, but also more place-names and topographical detail. This transformation is readily apparent in the work of Ove Andreas Wangensteen, whose 1761 map of Norway was the first issued by a Norwegian. Wangensteen, who served as a captain in the Norwegian Artillery Corps, drew many of his cartographic as well as symbolic elements from the earlier cartography of Frederick de Wit.

Wangensteen’s maps represented the ascendance of Scandinavian cartography by Scandinavians. With the publication of large-scale maps of Norway by Christian Jochum Pontoppidan beginning in 1785, Ginsberg notes, Scandinavian and Norwegian cartography came into their own. Pontoppidan enjoyed a long and successful career in the Norwegian military and earned a reputation for the accuracy and detail of his maps. According to one source cited by Ginsberg, his work was used in boundary settlements in 1814 when Denmark ceded Norway to Sweden.

Two maps by Pontoppidan represent the endpoint of the printed maps of Norway in the exhibition. However, Scandia also includes a fascinating survey of navigational charts. Ginsberg writes that he was drawn to sea charts because the skills needed to produce maps of the sea and the uses to which the maps were put differ from the skills and uses associated with terrestrial maps.
This portion of the exhibition begins with the first sea atlas by Waghenaer, whom Ginsberg calls “the father of sea atlases.” Published in 1585, it included three maps of the Norwegian coast and was a commercial success. However, its appeal apparently did not extend to seamen. According to Ginsberg, the written directions were too abbreviated, the format was inconvenient for use at sea, and the price for the original folio volume was steep. In 1592 Waghenaer created a new mariner’s guide in a smaller oblong format.

The other eight sea charts in the exhibition cover more than two centuries. By far the most detailed chart is the final entry, created in 1798 by Carl Frederik Grove, an officer in the Danish navy. Grove’s charts, published by the Royal Sea Chart Archive from 1791 to 1803, included such useful information for seafarers as descriptions of harbors, anchorages, and sailing makers. Somewhat unusually, they employed four scales of longitude, using four prime meridians: Greenwich, Paris, Copenhagen, and Pico, Spain’s highest mountain.

What began as a cartographic tribute to Inger G. Ginsberg’s homeland grew to include some of the most significant and beautiful maps in the history of the printed cartography of Scandinavia and Norway. The seventy-six items on display at Scandinavia House are a testament to the Ginsbergs’ vision and discernment. William Ginsberg writes in the introduction to the exhibition catalogue that he will judge the exhibition a success if visitors agree that maps are “fascinating objects for study, appreciation, and enjoyment.” In this the Ginsbergs have succeeded beyond all measure.

Mel Mandell is a journalist living in New York with a special interest in maps. He served in the U.S. Navy for five years.

Illustrations courtesy of William B. Ginsberg


Edward P. Gallagher (left), president of the American-Scandinavian Foundation, with Inger G. Ginsberg and William B. Ginsberg.


Map of Scandinavia from Abraham Ortelius’s 1570 Theatrum Orbis Terrarum.


Norwegia, the first printed map to focus exclusively on Norway, was included in the second French edition of Barent Langenes’s atlas Thresor de Chartes, published in 1602.


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