Mapping the 16th century garden

If I told you that there were about 500 late 16thc maps and views showing landscapes and gardens from  across four continents collected together in one place you’d probably be a bit surprised.  The reason you probably don’t know about them because they’re not detailed measurable drawings and they don’t have  elaborate planting plans BUT they do exist and  can be found  in the first  atlas  of towns published in 6 volumes between 1572 and 1617

I was originally going to use the name of the atlas for the title of this post but I suspect if you’d seen  Braun & Hogenberg’s  Civitates Orbis Terrarum in the subject line  the post would have gone straight into the trash unread.  So I hope you’ll read on when I tell you that although the title maybe a bit of an unpronounceable mouthful the content of this collection of maps of European cities was ground-breaking when it was published and still staggering in its conception, utility and aesthetic appeal.

Early modern Europeans, especially the wealthy and mercantile classes, travelled far  more than we might imagine, so contrary to what is often thought, the late 16th century  was not a static age.  It’s true that the mass movement of  pilgrims had largely ceased with the Reformation but there were increasing numbers of merchants, students,  and even people that today we might  think of as “tourists.”  From the accounts they have left it would seem most of these travellers were interested in urban life because towns were the centres of  trade, learning and organised society.

Although there are also descriptions of emerging industries and rich agricultural areas few, if any were interested in landscape for its own sake, especially not wild or remote areas, however beautiful they might appear to us today. Wilderness was a concept that did not appeal.

Towns however were different, and they had another attraction. They were centres of power and money, and so were of great political and diplomatic interest.  On a more sombre note that meant controlling them  was important and led to frequent military action, and of course armies too needed reliable information, particularly maps, to campaign effectively.  But until the late 15thc these did not really exist.


Instead the earliest views of Europe’s cities were fairly crude woodcuts Most were stylistic or imaginary and had little connection with the real city they were supposed to depict. Indeed one image sometimes served to represent several cities, and its not until the 1480s  that we see a genuine attempt made to depict a real city as it really was. As surveying and cartographic techniques improved  during the 16thc  so copperplate engraving began to supersede woodcut images and that led to a number of much more “accurate” city views.

But where the idea for an atlas of towns come from?

It was probably an offshoot of the publication of the first atlas  of the world. This was  Theatrum orbis terrarum – compiled by the Dutch/Flemish cartographer  Abraham Ortelius and published in Antwerp in 1570.  Ortelius did something no-one had done before, and used a uniform style and presentation for each of the 53 plates.   It was a  team effort and one of Ortelius’s collaborators was the German engraver Frans Hogenberg who was responsible for engraving most of the maps.   It may be that the idea for a separate but complementary atlas that covered the world’s cities came while they were still working on Theatrum, but the idea must have been crystallised when  Ortelius and Hogenberg  met a German cleric, Georg Braun,  who  visited  Antwerp between 1566 and 1568.

There’s no doubt that the idea was going to be popular.  Ortelius’s world atlas, was originally published with a Latin text to accompany the maps, but it was rapidly translated into French, German and Dutch and  as many as 25 editions appeared before  Ortelius’ death in 1598, with yet more in the years afterwards.

Braun seems to have taken the lead in overseeing the preparation of Civitates, with Hogenberg either engraving or organising the engraving of most of the plates.  Obviously it was impossible for everything to be drawn from scratch, so  Braun collected together all the existing city and town plans and views that he could find, then used original drawings by up to 100 different travellers and artists to supplement or improve upon them.

Braun stipulated that  ‘towns should be drawn in such a manner that the viewer can look into all the roads and streets and see also all the buildings and open spaces’

The project began tentatively. They  compiled a single volume which was published in 1572, but its success led them to embark immediately on a second one which came out three years later in 1575.  However in the introduction to the second part Braun suggested that readers who did not find their own city included could, if they provided a suitable drawing or plan, have it included in a future publication.  That clearly produced a good response because Volume 3 was published in 1581,  a fourth in 1588 and then a fifth in 1597. The appeal to readers for maps of their own towns  meant an over representation of Dutch and German towns and fewer French, British or eastern European towns than might be expected. Another result of this was that about 50 cities appeared twice and Jerusalem and Rome three times.  The final 6th volume came out in 1617 long after Hogenberg’s death, leaving Braun as the only surviving member of production team for the first volumes.

As usual with such large scale works the plates were sold unbound either in black and white or hand-coloured.

Civitates  raised  cartographic standards to their then highest level and was not surpassed in scope or quality for at least a century.

There are a total of  546 prospects, bird-eye views and map views of 475 cities from across Europe, but also some in the Islamic world and even two in the Americas, and together they offer the  most complete picture of the late 16thc urban world.

As you’ll have seen from the details  I’m using the images are as varied in style as  the original drawings or maps themselves.


There are some relatively straightforward town plans  but overall the plates  tend to be more topographical in approach, with lots of birds-eye perspectives.  

However Braun managed unified these different styles by adding additional details such as shipping, animals or artefacts and most obviously a group of people in local costume – rather like a mini fashion plate – in the foreground of many of the plates. To make these figures stand out they were often added on imaginary hills.

Although Braun wasn’t the first person to use this technique, there is at least one an earlier image –Nuremberg 1552 – he claimed he did it for a particular reason.   While Europe’s rulers may have argued and even fought each other,  they were all Christian, and  one of the worries about the atlas was that it would also be useful to their mutual enemy, the  Ottoman Turks, who  were a real military and naval threat to eastern and southern Christian Europe.  Braun  wrote in the first volume in 1572:  ‘Nobody has to be afraid that our work may harm the Christians in any way, because with its help their major cities could be conquered by the enemy. That danger, which is rather real, is avoided in this way. We asked the different kinds of clothing of all nations and several people to be drawn at each city, both of the high and low classes. The reason is because the bloodthirsty Turks, who are not allowed to look upon representations of the human form, will never allow this book, however great their use for it may be’ Translation from University of Utrecht]

In addition to the plates Braun also included an accompanying text, in Latin but also often in the language of the city being mapped, which gave a short description of the commerce, situation and history of most of the places included.   You might wonder why an atlas might need that but  part of the appeal of  Civitates is that it acted as a companion for the arm-chair traveller which would according to  Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy of 1621 nor just inform  but also raise the spirits  of the reader as well.

We also have Braun’s own more commercial reasons for doing so. He wrote to Ortelius on  October 31st 1571, :” some learned men here in Cologne think that Master Frans’s  [ie Hogenberg] Book of Cities would commend itself more to purchasers if the proper names of places, churches and gates were given in the native language, so as to satisfy both the learned and the unlettered: the learned because they will have the Latin descriptions on the back, the unlettered because each will see his own native town depicted with places named in a form familiar to him. I think the usefulness of this arrangement evident when pictures of cities are sold separately, but the citizens would like them less if they could understand nothing of what they read. For while this is nevertheless the practice in the descriptions [i.e. maps] of countries in your very beautiful Theatrum, and admitting its usefulness to the learned, yet you see how many people are distracted by it; and since Master Frans’s subject is a popular one, delighting the eyes even of the unlettered, it would appear sensible to me to accommodate ourselves somewhat to them …”

So what do the maps tell us about gardens and open spaces?

First of all that most cities, even the largest most commercial, appear to have had more gardens and green spaces within their boundaries or walls than we might have imagined.

London for example is thought to have had a population of around 150,000 when its image was published. They were largely crammed into the walled city or its immediate suburban parishes and overcrowding is known to have been rife. Yet it’s also true that the city contained  areas of houses with large gardens, and was surrounded by common fields.  Just as London today is, despite how it might feel at times, one of the greenest cities in the world, so it appears to have been in the later 16thc.

Antwerp was the commercial hub of Europe It was part of the Spanish empire and was heavily fortified. Yet within its walls there were still large open spaces and houses with substantial gardens, although obviously in this case, those spaces are merely shown stylistically.

It also serves as a good example of how cities change since it is actually recorded 3 times by Braun and Hogenberg.  In 1584 during the Protestant uprisings against Spanish rule the city was sacked and as  result lost its commercial supremacy to Amsterdam and London.  It never recovered.

Your eyes are not deceiving you.

The city’s defences have been planted with trees.




This was not as unusual as it might seem. Look at the map of Lucca below and you’ll see that the ramparts there are also  planted with trees and have been turned into  a perimeter walk.



I suggested earlier that gardens were often shown stylistically.  While I’m sure none of the spaces is very accurate the overall effect is impressive and presumably was indicative of the kind of gardens one might have seen.  However there are also examples, such as these three extracts of the  view of Odense in Denmark  [1598] where much more detail is shown, and it seems clear that the artist was drawing from real life.




Similarly the royal palace in Buda is shown in detail and although the pleasure gardens  [Horti amoeni – garden of the senses]  and the columns of King Matthias Corvinus’s Aula marmorea [which I think translates as marble hall or entrance] are still somewhat sketchy, nevertheless they add considerably to our knowledge.



There are often more details about gardens on the outskirts of towns  as here for at Arras in Northern France, and occasionally even distinct landscape features such as  deer park at Frankfurt.[below]






Civitates created a new interest in mapping towns which continued into the 18thc.  Its images and their plates also had a long life.  After Hogenberg’s son, who had helped his father on the final volumes,  died in 1653,  363 of the plates were bought by the Amsterdam map publisher Jan Jansson who re-used many of them unaltered, alongside a series of newly commissioned engravings,   in his own 8 volumes of town views  that began appearing in 1657.

Many of the maps were also used by Matthäus Merian the elder in his  massive 21 volume set of views, Theatrum Europaeum, published from 1640 onwards. Others were reused by other atlas compilers and publishers right through until the late 18th by which time the original copper plates were wearing a bit thin.

For more on the afterlife of Braun and Hogenbergs work and later town atlases see James Elliot, The City in Maps (British Library, 1987), and his short article drawn from it: Braun & Hogenberg and after: the town plans of the 17th century.

So where can you get a copy? If you’d had a spare £262,000 you could have picked up an incomplete set at Sotheby’s in 2018. However there is also a facsimile edition by Taschen which is slightly cheaper!

But the best way to see the breadth and scope of the work [although the collection is not quite complete] is via the digital version created by the Hebrew University of Jerusalm which is here I have obtained most the images in this post.

I’ll end with a quote  by RV Tooley from the preface to the facsimile edition :

Civitates “forms a wonderful compendium of knowledge of life in Europe in the sixteenth century. And as city growth in early times, with a few obvious exceptions, was more or less static, even further it gives a visual printed record of mediaeval Europe, and is one of the most valuable sources remaining to the student and historian of these periods.”  

But more than that its just fun to look through and enjoy!

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3 Responses to Mapping the 16th century garden

  1. Geri Lawhon says:

    Being a history buff, I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Thank you for writing it.

  2. I am a new recruit to The Gardens Trust. For the blogs alone it is worth joining, they are full of interesting information and great illustrations. But this blog on the Civitates atlases exceeds all previous ones that I have read and is humorous too. Thank you and please keep the blogs coming!

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