Catálogo de catografía, cosmografía, náutica y navegación de la Biblioteca de la Sociedad Bilbaina.

Sociedad Bilbaina, Bilbao, 2009
Hardbound, 269 Pages, text in Spanish. ISBN 978-84-613-3077-5. € 30

In 1839 a group of citizens of Bilbao―the largest city in Spain’s Basque Country―created a social club along the lines of the fashionable saloons that appeared at that time all over Europe, giving birth to the Sociedad Bilbaina. Since its infancy, “reading” was one of the objectives the society wanted to fulfill and to achieve this end a library was formed. By 1881, with already over 1000 volumes in its library, a permanent librarian position was created. Today Mr. José Luis Rubio Virseda, who is also the president of the commission for cultural affairs of the society, holds this position. Mr. Rubio oversees more than 40,000 volumes that now make up the Sociedad Bilbaina’s library with its sumptuous wooden-paneled reading room.

This extensive collection makes it one of the most important private libraries in Spain. The collection includes some rather rare materials that dictated the construction of a vault in 1942 to protect these precious jewels. Among these 40,000 volumes there is an extensive collection of cartographical material, and this handsome book is the catalogue of these holdings of the Sociedad Bilbaina.

Mr. Rubio’s introduction to this book provides a useful definition of Cartography:
“[U]na ciencia polifacética que intenta explicar, especialmente de manera visual, la configuración del Universo, abarcando una amplia gama de disciplinas como las matemáticas, la astronomía, la geografía, la topografía o la navegación así como el diseño y la construcción de los instrumentos auxiliares de las mismas.” “[A] multi-faceted science that attempts to explain, particularly in a visual form, the shape of the universe, thus covering a wide range of disciplines such as mathematics, astronomy, geography, topography and navigation, as well as the design and construction of their ancillary instruments.”

This wide-encompassing definition corresponds to the wide range of books that the cartographical catalogue contains, from treatises of navigation, navigational instruments and astronomy to atlases. The book is broken into six sections: the first five covering the library holdings from the XV century to the XIX century, respectively, and the sixth chapter covering the loose-sheet maps and city plans. Each entry in the catalogue consists of a detailed description of the artifact, including title, author, publisher, dimensions etc. and is accompanied by several illustrations, as well as extensive scholarly notes of the work at hand. Chapter 1 on the XV century holdings opens with a rare incunabulum, the Tabulae Astronomicae [astronomical tables] by King Alfonso X El Sabio (the erudite ruler of Castille and Leon in the XIII century). This book published in 1483 in Venice is an astronomical almanac that was prepared by the Jewish astronomers of the king. The possessions of the library from this century (4 items total) also include a Latin edition of the Liber Chronicarum (Nuremberg 1493) with its famous world map. Chapter 2 on the XVI century includes two editions of Ptolomey’s Geographia (Servet’s, France 1541 and Ruscelli’s, Venice 1562), Isolarii (books of islands) by Bordone (Venice, c.1540) and Porchacchi (Venice, 1572) and a very rare navigational treatise by Pedro de Medina (Valladolid, 1554). This influential work of navigation was intended to help the new pilots of the Atlantic routes and includes a handsome map of the Atlantic with the Nuevo Mundo. The book has several stains due to an unfortunate restoration mishap. Two editions of Ortelius’ landmark Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, the first edition of 1570 (Antwerp) and one in contemporary color (Antwerp 1595) add to the 26 entries in the catalogue for the XVI century.

The golden age of Dutch cartography is well represented in Chapter 3 that covers the eight items of the XVII century. Mercator’s atlas, Blaeu’s Atlas Mayor and a Spanish edition of Voogt/Van Keulen’s maritime atlas (La Nueva y Grande Relumbrante Antorcha de la Mar in its peculiar Spanish title) are all here.
The chapter on the XVIII century describes another 21 treasures. The Universus Terrarum of Raffaele Savonarola, authored under the anagram “Lasor a Varea” and published in Padua in 1713 is a compendium all the places known at the time in the world. Apparently it contains an extensive bibliography for each place, making this book still very useful today. It also contains a lovely view of Bilbao. Another item in this section is Juan and Ulloa’s book of the astronomical observations made on their expedition to Peru (Madrid, 1748) that has the finely-engraved frontispiece by Palomino that was selected for the cover of the Sociedad Bilbaina’s catalogue. It also contains an interesting map of the moon with her fateful mare tranquilitatis in the legend of Selenographic landmarks. The important Atlas Marítimo de España” by Tofiño de San Miguel (Madrid 1789) is also here. This is the first modern atlas of the coasts of Spain and the result of a formidable expedition to take land and astronomical measures to accurately map the Spanish littoral. Interestingly, the maps in this atlas display four prime meridians―Paris, Cadiz, Tenerife and Cartagena.

The section on the XIX century contains 26 items, mostly atlases including a rare so-called “portolan” with 119 maps of the harbors of the Americas commissioned by the Hydrographic Commission (Madrid 1818).
The last chapter covering 36 loose maps and city plans remarkably includes 3 portolan charts and a portolan atlas (XV-XVI centuries) attributed to the atelier of the Majorcan Jewish family of mapmakers the Olivas―perhaps these being the only illustrations in the book whose quality is not on par with the high-resolution illustrations that compose the rest of this attractive book.

In closing, non-Spanish readers should not be deterred by the fact that this book is only available in Spanish (with introductions in both Basque and Spanish). As the reader can see from the rough cameo the catalogue I presented, this book can serve a dual purpose: the first, and most obvious, is as a catalogue of the impressive cartographical collection of the Sociedad Bilbaina’s library; the second, due to the breath of the collection, its illustrations and depth of the description of the items in the catalogue, is as a primer on the evolution of cartography from the lens of the printed material that has survived to this day and is preserved at institutions like the Sociedad Bilbaina.

This review appeared first in the Washington Map Society’s Fall 2010 Portolan

Reviewed by Juan Ceva
from the Society’s September 2010 Newsletter