The Civitates Orbis Terrarum as an Atlas

Comprised of six volumes published between 1572 and 1617, the Civitates orbis terrarum (“the Civitates”) portrayed itself as invitation to explore, as its name would suggest, the “cities of the world.” Originating as the collaborative effort of engraver Frans Hogenberg and Catholic cleric Georg Braun in Cologne (a free imperial city of the Holy Roman Empire in modern-day Germany), the atlas boasts 546 views of urban spaces from across the globe “in the form of prospects, bird’s-eye views, and maps.”[1] Braun and Hogenberg first depict the cities of Europe about which they, as residents of Cologne, retained more direct knowledge, beginning with those in England, Portugal, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy.[2] The atlas then expands beyond European borders to portray Constantinople and Mombasa in broader Eurasia, Jerusalem in the Middle East, Cairo in Africa, and Mexico City in what would become known as the Americas.[3] Finally, the views revisit Europe with urban depictions of France’s Marseille and England’s Oxford, Windsor Castle, and Cambridge.[4]

More than city views, however, the Civitates incorporates text and visual elements that invite its onlookers to consider not simply the geography of the cities depicted, but the peoples and cultures that populate them. As editor of the atlas, Braun penned descriptions of each city and commentaries to open and close the atlas which reflect on its humanist purpose “to collect, decode, and transform the world in all its aspects.”[5] Meanwhile, Hogenberg, as the Civitates’ principal engraver, illustrated with each city “scenes of urban life,” featuring everything from “a conversation between scholars in the view of Oxford or a group of men and women standing on a small hill in the London plate” to the culturally specific garb and mannerisms of its residents.[6] Together, Braun’s editorial contributions and Hogenberg’s engravings in the Civitates serve to enrich readers’ humanist urge to acquire, as Braun put it in the third book’s opening address, “the full and total knowledge of the world.”[7]

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[1] Oana Popescu and Jianca Stefan-Gorîn, “The First Cities of the World in a Bird’s-Eye View,” Urbanism.Arhitectura.Constructii 7, no. 3 (2016): 173, https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.proxy.lib.duke.edu/scholarly-journals/first-cities-world-birds-eye-view/docview/1793891274/se-2?accountid=10598.

[2] Petruta Naidut, “A Book of Cities: Mapping Urban Space in Braun and Hogenberg’s Civitates Orbis Terrarum (1572-1617),” American, British, and Canadian Studies 34, no. 1 (2020): 11, https://doi.org/10.2478/abcsj-2020-0002.

[3] Naidut, “Book of Cities,” 11.

[4] Naidut, 11.

[5] Jessica Chiswick Robey, “From the City Witnessed to the Community Dreamed: The Civitates Orbis Terrarum and the Circle of Abraham Ortelius and Joris Hoefnagel” (PhD diss., University of California, Santa Barbara, 2006): 13, https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.proxy.lib.duke.edu/dissertations-theses/city-witnessed-community-dreamed-civitates-orbis/docview/305350681/se-2?accountid=10598.

[6] Naidut, “Book of Cities,” 21.

[7] Cited in Robey, “City Witnessed,” 58.