The Mercator Atlas of Europe

edited by Marcel Watelet

Published by Walking Tree Press

92 pages plus 17 map folios, 1998

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The Star Treatment for a Lost Atlas


Reviewed by Linda L. Richards

Some books are entertaining, meant to bring laughter and fill hours with fun and enjoyment. Some books are enlightening, teaching you about worlds you've only dreamed of. Some books are lovely works of art that are joyful to touch and to own. Books can be all of these things and more, but it is a rare book that manages to be all of three of these things at once.

The Mercator Atlas of Europe is one of these rarities. A book that is beautiful in design and execution that you can lose yourself in for enjoyable hour upon hour. And after that session of pure reading and poking pleasure, you'll find yourself richer: filled with facts you didn't have before.

This is a wonderful book, though one that is nonetheless difficult to describe.

First of all, it's huge. At 11 1/4 x 16 3/4-inches, the Mercator Atlas is a very large book. Even calling it a book is a bit of a misnomer, or -- perhaps, more accurately -- an understatement. There is a book included, but it might be better to call the entire package a portfolio. The book element is a tour -- in text and images -- of the whole. The reinforced slipcase holds the book as well as 17 unbound map folios.

To the modern eye the maps are powerful magic, casting us back to a place in time when the outlines of the world as we know it were first emerging from darkness.

Gerardus Mercator was a 16th-century Flemish cartographer and if you check the dictionary or desk top encyclopedia closest to hand, it'll probably mention him as well as the years he lived (1512-1594). If there is such an entry in your dictionary, however, it will spend more time explaining the Mercator projection which is the system of map projection that Mercator developed and which -- in severely refined form -- is not archaic today.

Passion, brilliance, perseverance and his projection system are what enabled Mercator to create maps more accurate than any that had gone before. It is also thought that he was the first cartographer to bind his creations together in a cohesive way. So that you could see -- under one binding -- how map "a" fit to map "b". It is thought that he created the first known Atlas. The world, as seen by Mercator, was a much more understandable place.

Now all of this would be enough for Walking Tree Press to have created a stunning package around a reproduction of this atlas and the man, but the story gets even cooler from here.

Mercator's Atlas -- thought to have been assembled to help a 16th-century crown prince on his grand tour -- was lost. This is not such a surprising thing, as it didn't take long for cartographical systems of information-gathering to improve and before very long had passed, many of Mercator's maps were known to be inaccurate. Inaccurate or no, history knew them to be carefully created by the noted early cartographer. And there was more than historical value involved: Mercator created his maps brilliantly and lovingly, illustrating as he worked. It was known that the Atlas -- should it ever resurface -- would be a wonderful work of art.

One can only imagine the excitement of the Dutch collector that found the Atlas quite by accident in a Belgian bookstore in 1967. At what point, one wonders, did he begin to suspect that this might actually be Mercator's lost Atlas? At what point did he know ? Perhaps turning 400-year-old pages in growing disbelief, then stopping turning when he suspected what he had.

The atlas that was found in this way in Belgium was ultimately sold to the British Library for what is said to have been around $1.2 (US) million. The Walking Tree edition contains 17 beautifully reproduced unbound map folios and the bound book containing essays written by five distinguished European experts as well as over 100 illustrations salient to -- though mostly not derivative of -- Mercator's work.

The resulting package isn't cheap. It sells for $245 (US). It's a hefty price tag, but worth it: this isn't the sort of production where you'd want to see corners cut or quality shaved, and Walking Tree has done neither. The Mercator Atlas of Europe will find a special place in the libraries of book lovers as well as geography and history enthusiasts. | August 14, 1998


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.