Antoine Lafreri's Atlases: Collecting, Conserving and Representing Geographical Knowledge

Antoine Lafreri's Atlases: Collecting, Conserving and Representing Geographical Knowledge

Jean-Marc Besse

This project revolves around the cartographic collections (“composite atlases” or IATO atlas/Italian Assembled to Order) composed by the publisher Antonio Lafreri (1512-1577) and his heirs. These collections will serve as an observation site from which to investigate the atlas, understood as a specific form of archiving, conserving and presenting geographical knowledge.

In the history of cartography, the object “atlas” has always encountered difficulty in being accepted as a genuine scientific form. Indeed, until recently, history of cartography was characterized by a “naturalistic” epistemology, oblivious to the material conditions of production of knowledge as well as to the visual instruments of science: priority was given to maps, considered to be a direct representation of reality, over and above map collections. Atlases were often dismembered; add to that the classic distinction between images and books in national libraries, which hampered the identification of hybrid objects, such as Lafreri’s atlases.

Settled in Rome in the mid-1540s, Antoine Lafreri (or Lafréry) is one of the main printers and publishers of engravings in town. In the years 1572-1573, he has a frontispiece engraved, which he adds on to the map collections he produces in a bound form upon his clients’ request; he also writes out an ordered catalogue of his cartographic stock. He thus creates a new object on the Italian engraving market. These “atlases” meet immediate success, and we may consider them as alternatives to Ortelius’ and Mercator’s productions.

Their conditions of production are specific to Lafreri’s collections. His “atlases” are assembled as a result of a negotiation between the publisher or bookseller, and clients whose tastes, interests and financial means may vary. And while, upon the initiative of Lafreri’s nephew and heir, Claude Duchet, a progressive standardisation of production undoubtedly occurs after 1580, each collection may to a certain extent be considered unique, in both its quantitative and qualitative content, as well as in the order of presentation. The modalities of production of these collections cannot be dissociated from the decisions of the buyers and the pragmatic contexts of their use, which in turn raises the question of their true authorship. At the end of the day, the compilation appears less as an object (stabilised and homogeneous), strictly speaking, than as a locus of scholarly, commercial and symbolic transactions – albeit a necessarily unstable one. This calls for a renewed historiographic approach, which would take into account the pragmatic and spatial contexts within which the form of the atlas is elaborated, developed and circulated.

 The project comprises two segments:

1/ The first part is archival, and will involve setting up collaborations with libraries. The purpose is to:

-       Inventory and localise Lafreri’s remaining collections in the public and private domains;

-       Record the history of the collections’ material production, the contexts of their composition, distribution and conservation;

-       Restore the destroyed collections, e.g. in a virtual form;

2/ The second part is historiographic:

The scholarly core of the project revolves around three questions:

-       What were the conditions of production and of first dissemination of the composite atlases on the European market? The aim will be to identify and reconstruct the network of drawers, engravers, printers, involved, as well as the circumstances of buyers’ orders; while simultaneously tracing the connections between cartography and the wider world of artistic, religious or scholarly engravings, on the one hand, and that of collection, on the other. The issue at hand is to analyse the concrete circumstances of production and circulation of the composite atlas as object of knowledge.

-       What is the editorial and scientific logic of these collections? What is their mode of composition and their internal logic, if any? What intellectual or graphic models are used? We are facing a book, or more specifically a problematic element in the history of the scientific book. Questions therefore naturally arise as to page set-up and image format, the relationship between image and text, the standardisation of representation, etc. It is similarly indispensable to investigate the relationship between the cartographic collection and other spaces of (re)presentation of knowledge, such as cabinets of curiosities, collections, and museums.

-       What image of the world do these atlases convey? How is the world seen from Rome? Or from Europe? One may e.g. reflect on the fact that, at least initially in Lafreri’s collections, very little space is devoted to the “New World”, while large sections are concerned with the areas disputed by the Turks. Our issue is hence: what are the spatial values and categories implied by the cartography in the atlases? In these very cartographic collections, Europeans learnt to “read” the terrestrial world and its different spaces: what geographical imaginary does their cartography suggest?

The two main purposes of the project are the following:

1/ With the composite atlas as central object of analysis, we aim to explore the modalities of geographical representations in the visual cultures of Europe in nascent modernity. Indeed, cartographic collections are among the key sites where European culture fabricated its image of the world, or the image of its world.

2/ We further set out to initiate a historical reflection on the mechanisms of production of objectivity in geography. The atlas was a locus where objectivity was being manufactured, as is apparent in the elaboration of procedures of normalisation and standardisation of representation.

This research project, located at the crossroads of several historical enquiries – history of cartography, history of the book, history of engravings and history of the graphic forms of presenting scientific objects – aspires to appraise the emergence, in early modernity, of a specific site of constitution of scientific objectivity – the atlas, considered as a way of both organising and archiving knowledge: paper spaces which are also, and inseparably, work spaces.