The angel was a recurrent marginal embellishment on hundreds of maps made in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, whose innovative commercial mapmaking dominated the international market. This essay explores how the mapmakers adapted pervasive conventions of cartographic angelology as a means to explore the expanding possibilities as well as the limitations of their own practice. The peculiar pictorial partnership between cartographers and their guardian spirits was a means to delineate cartography as inspired work. However, an interrogation of the implications of this spiritual service tracks the angels’ descent as downfall. The migrations of this ubiquitous visual device across numerous maps and representations of Amsterdam reveal the various ways that spirits were enlisted into their earthly ministry to the global mapping enterprises of the Dutch trading empire.
The mundane and the celestial come together rather jarringly in cartographer Pieter Bast’s 1601 view of Amsterdam (Fig. 1). Arrayed along a narrow strip of land is a group of well-dressed people; some gesture dramatically, but this does not immediately indicate what they are doing there. In the fields behind, fat cows are grazing, a farmer does the milking, and a milkmaid carries pails. Forming the back boundary of the meadowland is the town skyline dominated by the jutting silhouettes of churches. At left is a cluster of ships’ masts: the famed Amsterdam harbor. Bast’s engraving, like many such views, renders a distinctive cityscape from the perspective of the surrounding terrain.1 Interrupting this prosaic scene is a pictorial embellishment that frequently decorates maps and urban prospects—from the skies above the cow pastures, angels descend. This beatific eruption into the everyday is noticed by the people in the picture. At right, a man points up as if to alert his companions to the apparition. Another man has dropped cloak and sword and bends backwards to gaze up. Sketching tools in hand, he appears to record the scene, as if drawing inspiration from the vision of angels. We can identify the working artist as Pieter Bast, whose signature is in the grass beneath his feet. The two men who direct attention heavenwards are very similar; possibly Bast has included himself twice, emphasizing a particular connection with the divine messengers. In considering the interaction between them, we begin to apprehend the focus of the engraving, which brings together the ordinary on-the-ground efforts of the cartographer, who stands by a ditch in the polder to depict the city profile, with the extraordinary activity of angels who look down from on high.
This essay examines the peculiar pictorial partnering of mapmakers with otherworldly intermediaries, a motif so pervasive that it has escaped critical scrutiny. While the imagery was not new, in the course of the seventeenth century, Amsterdam cartographers deployed it in inventive ways, producing hundreds of maps adorned with hosts of winged angels, putti, cherubs, and genii. The depiction of spiritual beings on the margins of maps was a graphic means to herald the ambitious achievements and possibilities of the city’s innovative commercial cartography, which dominated the international market and facilitated the enterprises of a rapidly expanding global trading empire. Moreover, mapmakers adapted the imagery of heavenly intercessors to visualize the cartographic procedures of their own practice. The many variations of this oft-repeated pictorial device accordingly reveal much about how maps mediate knowledge about the earth—and to what ends. In what follows, we will see that this ornamental motif has a paradoxical effect: it is a celebratory conceit that simultaneously signals the myriad difficulties, limitations, and downfalls involved in the mundane practices of making worlds.
Bast’s angels are one of the earliest mobilizations of this motif in relation to Amsterdam, and offer a productive starting point (Fig. 1). Ostensibly sent by God, they present a flowing banner inscribed with the city name; it unfurls as a note of visual exaltation. Specifically, and importantly, their purpose is to laud Amsterdam’s admiralty and civic magistrates, prominently invoked in the large cartouches that also float weirdly in the skies. Bast has dedicated his print to these high officials; the aggrandized texts declare his submission, and their magnificence, prudence, fame, and potency. Giorgio Agamben, in his theological genealogy of economy and government, argues that angels have two main tasks: they glorify, and they minister. He draws a parallel with the kind of work that bureaucrats do on earth: “the angel is the figure of the government of the world par excellence.”2 Sovereign authority—whether of God or mortal rulers— requires legions of intermediaries on high and on the earth to administer and to venerate the procedures of governance. Such day-to-day operations of power (making and dedicating a city view) and the mystification of power (the triumphal descent, the panegyric to the governors) are baldly juxtaposed in Bast’s polder scene. Like angels, the civic rulers exalted by Bast are God’s terrestrial servants. In an analogous manner, cartographers serve these divinely appointed authorities. The greatness and renown of Amsterdam and its public officers is pronounced by heavenly heralds, but it also is derived from the routine ground-work of cartographers.
At least, this is the assertion that I think was being made by early modern mapmakers. One of the next profile views of Amsterdam, Willem Blaeu’s of 1606, elaborates on Bast’s acclamation (Fig. 2).3 Indeed, Blaeu’s panoramic scene almost makes us suspect that Bast’s 1601 angels were foretelling the future of Amsterdam, for here the metropolis appears in full glory, largely a result of the founding of the hugely profitable East India Company, the VOC, in 1602. The Blaeu engraving is composed in three bands: at bottom is the harbor crowded with ships; in the middle, the burgeoning city skyline; and above, cloudy skies filled with mystical beings. Central among them is the allegorical Amsterdam Maid flanked by Mercury and Neptune, gods of commerce and the seas. Representatives from all parts of the world materialize in the clouds on either side, bestowing their trade goods as gifts to the Maid. And, there are angels. Now there are two types and a division of angelic labor among them. The adults do the work of glory: Christian messenger mingles with classical Fame in the act of trumpet-blowing veneration (Fig. 4, details). The children—part-angel, part-classical-putti—come from on high to perform administrative functions: they carry instruments that seem too cumbersome for their small bodies (Fig. 3, detail). At left, hovering above the tower of the recently built Calvinist Zuiderkerk, is a winged boy who brings down the scriptures and Ten Commandments. Proximity to foreign and presumably pagan peoples suggests that he arrives to help with the mission of the church. At right, another aerial spirit carrying an astrolabe, compass, and quadrant brandishes the mariner’s cross-staff like the cross of Christ while his plumb line drops to align with the tip of the Nieuwe Kerk spire. He brings the tools of navigation and cartography, which enable the gathering of the world in Amsterdam.
The putti-type baby angels—the ones who take on the administrative tasks—became a favored leitmotif of the Amsterdam mapmakers. Fluttering infants proliferate in art, and we most often classify them as Cupids or Amors. However, as Gotthold Lessing insisted in an essay written in 1769: “not every winged boy or youth need be an Amor.” While they can signify the spirit of love, Lessing identified winged youngsters more broadly as genii. His conclusions are key to understanding the meaning of this ubiquitous visual device: “every place, every man, every social connexion of mankind, every occupation of men from the lowest to the highest, yes, I might say, every inanimate thing, whose preservation was of consequence, had its genius.”4 Drawing on Lessing’s insights, Charles Dempsey has shown how Donatello revived these ancient spirits, combining them with Christian angels to create a lively artistic form that was widely taken up by subsequent artists.5 Winged figures animate works of art; as Lessing claimed, they were a versatile visual means to represent the spirits of places, people, occupations, and things as well as social connections between them. Early modern art is crammed with cupids; like the angel, they are so pervasive that their precise pictorial functions often are overlooked.6
Following from Lessing and Dempsey, then, we appreciate how the winged figures on maps evoke both the Christian angel and the classical genius. In several instances, we can identify them as genii loci—the spirits of a place—a fitting motif to articulate the geographic depiction of a specific region. Decorating a representation of the diocese of Liège by Willem Blaeu and his son and successor Joan, the appealing little spirits of the place shoulder heavy festoons of fruit, the bounties of the land (Fig. 5).7 At the edge of Johannes Janssonius’s rendering of the Irish province of Munster, the winged boys present attributes of the locale—grain and fish (Fig. 6).8 Like the fruitful garlands, these denote fertility and plenty but probably also trade goods. Often the spirits humorously carry out typical activities of the inhabitants. In the Munster example, the fish-toting genius loci mimics the fisherman pictured with spear and catch in hand. This genius of the place is also the guardian spirit of the fisherman, representing an important local occupation.
Another witty variation occurs on Balthasar Florisz van Berckenrode’s nine-sheet engraved wall map of 1625, which celebrates Amsterdam as the world’s primary trade emporium. It is inset with a diagram of the surrounding rural lands (Fig. 7).9 As in Bast’s cityscape, the productivity of the countryside is emphasized. The scene is decorated with farm animals and implements; pendant swags of fruits and root vegetables hang from bucrania. Here, the genii loci of the farmland impishly do the milkmaid’s job. These putti are churning milk into the butters and cheeses that are piled on the ledge that frames the bottom of the vignette. As spirits of Amsterdam, they also are genii of its dairy industry. One of the functions, therefore, of the motif of the genius loci is to celebrate, concatenate, and condense all of the human labor involved in the production of local goods, a point I return to below.
They do this work playfully. The lighthearted vivacity of the motif appeals to the sentiments of beholders. The ornament is of a different visual order than the map. The engraved lines that make up the representational system of cartography create what print historian William Ivins has termed a “net of rationality”: printed maps efficiently employ precisely measured and charted lines to convey a dense amount of exactly repeatable visual information about every part of the known world.10 The ornamental engraved lines of the genii move in a different manner,11 opening up a space of play within the rational linear networks of the cartographic enterprise. These spirited figures create a small hiatus on the map, prompting viewers to pause and possibly relate the antics of genii loci to characteristics of the meticulously charted geographical region.
In ornamental marginalia, the artists hired to decorate maps could showcase their ability to engrave in what was termed the “delicate manner.” According to art theorist Giovanni Bellori, the “beautiful style of putti” was a child of tender age, and the rendering of its chubby body required great delicacy of handling.12 Looking again at the putti that decorate Blaeu’s map of Liège (Fig. 5), we see the skill of the engraver in the undulating lines that swell and narrow to delineate the contours of fleshy bodies, and in the delicate cross-hatching that shades and highlights subtle curves of thighs, bellies, and rounded cheeks. This particular engraving technique was described by Joachim von Sandrart as “saftig”: juicy, voluptuous, plump.13 The saftig line was especially developed by Dutch artists such as Hendrik Goltzius. Notably, Goltzius influenced and trained a generation of artist-engravers, and a number of them were employed in the workshops of the Amsterdam cartographers to design inventive embellishments.14 Artful saftig lines transform the factual plotting of geographic data. Their swelling and curving dynamism animates the engraved image, permeating it with lively movement and spirit so that it becomes an affective and moving artwork. While the exactitude of cartographic lines prompts a considered response, the saftig rendering of adorable infants solicits a sensuous, instinctive reaction, arousing feelings like affection and humor, as well as appreciation for the linear artistry of maps.15 The spritely manner in which the plump putti are engraved accordingly conveys the ingenuity or genius of the mapmaker as well as the genius of the place.
Indeed, art theorists such as Karel van Mander and Samuel van Hoogstraten praised mapmaking as “not least of the many decorative and ingenious arts.”16 The cartographic engravers were members of the artists’ guild of St. Luke and no doubt familiar with concepts of artistic genius. In his artist biographies, Van Mander described how the souls of gifted artists received a heavenly outpouring of spirit at birth, endowing them with the inventive powers of genius.17 Moreover, in a transfer of spirits, the artist’s genius inspired and permeated the work, enlivening and animating it. It was genius, received from God, which infused the artwork with its lively and moving qualities. According to this theory, the spirit of the artwork could in turn enter its viewers, so that it infected them with its emotive energy.18 As we have just seen, the pictorial ornament of the winged child operates along similar lines. Engraved in a lively manner, it does not just depict genius but imbues the work with genius, which prompts an affective response.
The engravers frequently mobilized the image of the genius to reference their own practice—the complicated procedures of mapmaking. A recurrent motif is that of winged children wielding cartographic instruments, which we have already noted in Willem Blaeu’s panoramic city profile (Fig. 4). Blaeu’s representation of the East Indies provides another example (Fig. 8).19 The winged tots at the bottom of the sheet frolic with various cartographic and nautical devices. At left, next to a cartouche containing Blaeu’s signature and his dedication to Laurens Reael, the Governor-General of the East India Company, is a putti who twirls an armillary sphere. At right, two genii use dividers to measure distances on a globe, while another carries the mariner’s cross-staff and two more consult a compass as they splash in the waters. These industrious mapping angels seem to convert the painstaking exertions of the cartographer into playful sport.
Without a doubt, the mapmaker did require assistance. Mapping, as Joan Blaeu declared in the introduction to one of his atlases, is an extremely arduous endeavor: it cannot be completed by a single individual within the span of one lifetime.20 Kees Zandvliet’s important study, Mapping for Money, provides detailed evidence of the enormity of the Dutch cartographic enterprise. Global knowledge was given material form through the labors of the skilled craftsmen who trained and worked long hours for low pay in the workshops of Amsterdam’s publishers.21 These laborers collected, compiled, compared, corrected, copied, and recomposed material gathered by thousands of intermediaries: surveyors, engineers, hydrographers, draftsmen, pilots, sailors, merchants, missionaries, scouts, explorers, and artists, as well as indigenous informants around the world. Every servant of the VOC was instructed to collect geographical data on a daily basis. They were issued blank charts with printed compass lines, and the typical labor contract stipulated that all logbooks, maps, charts, documents, drawings, and descriptions had to be turned in to the Company directors. Nothing was to be held back or given to others on penalty of a loss of wages.22 The immense difficulty of assembling and controlling—not just the information, but also its mediators—is evident. With so many involved in the vast project of plotting the planet, the possibilities for human error must have seemed infinite.
Representations of helping spirits who take up the tools of cartography allude to the immense labor involved even as they appear to effortlessly overcome the myriad challenges of mapping. John Durham Peters has shown that “speculation about the angels has been one dominant form of considering communication in the history of European thought.”23 As God’s mediators, angels were conceived of as perfect communicators and have long served as a means to imagine the unmediated transfer of information, which is an impossibility on earth. Their ability to traverse great distances to carry messages directly from the deity was theorized by Thomas Aquinas in his thirteenth-century Treatise on the Angels: “Now, the actual passing from one extreme to the other, without going through the mid-space, is quite in keeping with an angel’s nature…. So an angel can be in one place in one instant, and in another place in the next instant, without any time intervening.”24 It is this superpower—the ability to transcend both space and time—that qualifies them as particularly expedient guiding spirits for mapmakers. Unconstrained by time and space, angels furthermore escape the mediating impediments of the body and the senses. As Aquinas asserted: “it can in no way be said that the angels perceive through the organs of their assumed bodies,” which are condensations of air.25 They do not rely on physical comprehension: “Sense does not apprehend the essences of things, but only their outward accidents…. The intellect alone apprehends the essences of things.”26 Angels possess perfect intelligence. They have “heavenly minds” and receive the truth directly from God without any interference from flawed mediators. Aquinas concludes: “they know all things at once: just as in heaven. Therefore there can be neither deception nor falsehood in the angel’s knowledge.”27 This was a common early modern understanding. The Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher echoed Aquinas’s suppositions when he noted: “I daresay that if an observation is to be perfect and free from all error and falsehood, it must be made by an angel.”28 And the Florentine geographer Francesco Berlinghieri wrote that maps allow us to: “leap up within ourselves, without the aid of wings, so that we may view the earth.”29 The map, he intimates, can transform us into angels, so that we seem to escape our earthbound bodies and see all things at once as if looking down from heaven. In this manner, maps appear to offer godlike intellect to humans—this is at the very heart of their mysterious potency. Yet, what Aquinas, Kircher, and Berlinghieri surely also imply is how the faultiness of embodied human sensory perception falls far short of divine understanding. Only celestial agents can overcome the many miscommunications spawned by the collective enterprise of tabulating innumerable observations provided by multitudes of flawed human intermediaries worldwide.30
Depictions of divine inspiration authenticate the mapping enterprise. A tremendous amount of human labor—and human error—is elided by the imagery of mapping angels, who authorize cartography as the perfect and effortless work of genii. There are many cartographic works that mobilize the motif in this manner. On the title print of a pilot guide by Arent Roggeveen (Fig. 9), for example, instrument-wielding genii surround a cartouche containing the author’s portrait; they are the cartographer’s guardian spirits.31 They also appear at the top of the page, tending to the turf bonfires set along shores to alert navigators and prevent shipwreck. The outlines of South America, the West Indies, and Africa are pictured to either side of the flaming turf.32 As guiding forces, these putti direct seafarers, helping them chart safe passages. They do not just ornament this guide for ship pilots—they are shown performing its purpose. Genii represent ideal pilot guides who impart faultless knowledge of the coastlines and seas. The visual device simultaneously pinpoints terrestrial concerns, showing how the difficult procedures and potential failures of mapping stood in need of divine aid. In this example, the guiding spirits call attention to the many complications, breakdowns, and miscarriages involved in transmitting information, people, and goods across boundaries of space and time, which were significant horizons of incommunicability in early modernity. On the title print of the pilot guide, the representation of guardian spirits serves to reassure that nothing is misunderstood, mistakes are not made, ships are not wrecked, and no messages, lives, or cargoes are lost in transit. The pictorial device of the cartographic genius thus defines the finished product—a pilot guide imbued with spirit, which communicates perfect information.
In sum, the imagery of angels and genii operated as a means to represent the transfer of unmediated knowledge.33 Why then, do the map putti handle so many navigational and cartographic instruments? As perfect instruments and ideal media, angels do not need mediating devices. Recent studies in the history of science have examined the numerous early modern illustrations of scientific gadgets being operated by putti, focusing on how this visual trope connects the intermediary role of spiritual intercessors to the mediations of technology. An illustrative example is the telescope-wielding putto that adorns Galileo’s printed portrait. As Nick Wilding has argued, this visual ornament indicates how the telescope expands and augments fallible human sensory organs, giving access to what had hitherto been the purview of the divine. Such inventions point to the limitations of mortal perception while simultaneously raising it to heaven.34 A similar dynamic is conveyed by depictions of cartographic tools in the hands of an angelic taskforce. As these marginal figures engage in broadening the bounds of the known world, they redefine what can be known about the world.35 The lively putti’s operation of instruments both references and distracts from the onerous realities of cartographic processes. With the aid of God’s emissaries, the drudgeries of human toil and the inconsistencies of human understanding are surmounted. This bridges the very sizable gap between abstract theories and on-the-ground practices.36 The distanced divine theoretical truth claims of the map can be reconciled with the defective terrestrial and maritime procedures of its making. Wit, inventiveness, and ingenuity come to the fore.37 The mapping spirit is the genius of the mapmaker; it expresses the celestial intelligence that imbues his practice.
The prevalent imagery of angels as guardians of experimental undertakings accordingly shifts agency from the human to the divine. Their supervisory interventions imply that people are not complete masters, makers, or knowers of creation.38 Only with assistance can humanity strive to comprehend what is conceived and created by God. The helpful genius was thus a useful visual embellishment that extended the notion of divine inspiration to mortal activities, especially when the efforts in question pushed beyond received knowledge through direct exploration of God’s handiwork. This is why the motif of the ministering spirit was so widely deployed, not just on early modern maps, but also in a range of scientific treatises: as a recognizable symbol of the genius that inspired human labors, it gave divine sanction to new forms of investigation that extended horizons of thought.39
If the pictorial job of the industrious mapping angels was to signal the delivery of absolutely accurate information about the world to its inhabitants, then this made them ideal assistants for worldly administrators, especially those invested in territorial and commercial expansion on a global scale. If angels are like bureaucrats, as Agamben contends, then I would argue that the instrument-wielding junior angels represent a particular type of bureaucrat—they are technocrats, public servants with special technological abilities. As the cartographer’s spritely assistants take up their tools, we witness how the concept of an animate, inspirited cosmos in which every place has its genius loci begins to give way to the paradigm of a human-controlled domain, managed and understood through bureaucratic manipulation of ever-improving technologies.40
Willem Blaeu, to give a pertinent example, learned instrument making during his apprenticeship with Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe.41 Illustrations of a winged genius holding the armillary sphere often appear near Blaeu’s signature on his maps, a personal emblem that publicizes the maker’s highly specialized training and skills. As we have seen in cartographic dedications, Amsterdam’s technocrats mainly served the city magistrates and the governors of the trading companies. The Blaeu firm held the monopoly for outfitting every East and West India Company ship with navigation tools and charts.42 The importance of this role was recognized in the appointment of Joan Blaeu to a series of administrative positions in civic government.43 The cartographers were indispensable public servants who contributed significantly to the wealth, glory, and governance of Amsterdam.
The wittiness of the technocratic mapping angel motif can appear—to us at least—as rather dark humor when we observe how these figures were enlisted into the profit-making ventures of powerful trading empires. Consider the depiction of Xanzi province in China (Fig. 10), published by Joan Blaeu in his immensely ambitious Atlas Maior.44 Here, the genius of the place and the genius of cartography conflate in the same figure—a Chinese youth who looks toward Blaeu’s device, the armillary sphere, while wielding a set of cartographic dividers. The small red-robed figure decorates the cartouche surrounding the map’s scale, so that he appears to helpfully measure and plot his own land. A similar motif, a naked black boy, sits atop the scale at the bottom left of Blaeu’s Ethiopia, also in the Atlas Maior (Fig. 11).45 Like the Chinese figure, this African putto holds dividers, implying that he has aided in the precise calculation and transfer of distances onto the printed sheet. When the motif of the playful genius loci is portrayed with ethnic features and cartographic tools, it appears that the spirits of these locales are giving up perfect intelligence about themselves—they are obligingly mapping themselves—for European benefit. Paradoxically, while these figures could signal the importance of indigenous knowledge and assistance in the work of cartography, their significance is belittled by the manner in which they are portrayed—as cooperative and childlike servants of the Dutch global mapping enterprise.
To be sure, the endgame played by technocratic angels was profit. As Zandvliet aptly summarized it, the Amsterdam cartographers were “mapping for money.” Their extraordinarily laborious gathering and dissemination of data was largely dedicated to the expansion of commodity markets. Cartographic lines “draw things together,” in the pertinent phrase of Bruno Latour.46 The lines on Dutch maps—whether rational and navigational or saftig and emotive—were designed primarily to transport and accumulate merchandise, drawing together all sorts of global wares. In the contrast between Bast’s bucolic city profile (Fig. 1) and Blaeu’s teeming harbor scene (Fig. 2), we have already witnessed the precipitous transformation of Amsterdam into the world’s primary trade entrepôt. The successes of the merchant companies were interconnected with the achievements of the cartographers; both were working to bring the world and its goods into Amsterdam.
The city became renowned for its astonishing assortment of merchandise. As René Descartes, who moved there in the 1630s, exclaimed: “What place on earth could one choose where all the commodities and all the curiosities one could wish for were as easy to find as in this city?”47 Descartes did not exaggerate. Here is just part of the list recorded in Amsterdam’s courant of the cargo unloaded “in the Fatherland (God be praised)” on the 27th and 28th of June 1634: 3,267,333 ½ lb. pepper, 297,446 lb. cloves, 292,623 lb. saltpetre, 141,278 lb. indigo, 483,082 lb. sappan wood, 219,027 pieces blue Ming ware, 52 further chests of Korean and Japanese porcelain, 75 large vases and pots containing preserved confections, much of it spiced ginger, 660 lb. Japanese copper, 241 pieces fine Japanese lacquer work, 3,989 rough diamonds of large carat, 93 boxes of pearls and rubies (misc. carats), 603 bales of dressed Persian silks and grosgrains, 1,115 lb. of raw Chinese silk, and 199,800 lb. unrefined Kandy sugar.48
In their clever adaptations of the motif of the genius loci, the mapmakers found a succinct way to picture this copious influx of luxury goods in a manner that acknowledged divine support as well as human efforts. Returning to Willem Blaeu’s city profile, for instance, the infant envoys in the clouds around the Amsterdam Maid appear as an assembly of global genii loci who offer up the attributes of their locales (Fig. 4). As we saw in the examples of fish, grain, and dairy products, the things carried by genii loci often specify the export goods of a particular region and its industries. Blaeu’s global genii accordingly convey articles like coral, incense, pearls, and ivory, while the billowing clouds around them morph into pillowy bundles of goods. This visual trope of child-like inhabitants from every part of the earth presenting their valuables to the Maid was repeated in numerous portrayals of the city as a pictorial means to signal its status as a trade emporium. What is especially striking about the motif is the physical displacement of these genii. The genius loci, after all, is the essence of a particular geographical region—it abides there, suffusing it with the potency of its distinctive spirit. When the genius loci starts to travel, it becomes detached from the area it characterizes, losing its place in the world. With this dispossession, the genii’s precious attributes also are separated from their places of origin and production, so that they can belong to another place. This resonates with the shipping list cited above: Persian grosgrains, Japanese lacquer, Chinese silk, Korean porcelain, Kandy sugar—a fortune in foreign cargo now possessed by “the Fatherland (God be praised).”
On the title page of Tobias van Domselaer’s civic history (Fig. 12), to consider another variation of the theme, four children surround the Maid, who floats on a throne in the harbor.49 She holds a navigational logbook and maritime compass on either knee: nautical expertise and cartographic knowledge of the world secure her place at its center, where delegations of intercontinental infants gather to pay tribute. Dark-skinned Africa carries ivory and coral; laurel- crowned sceptered Europe bestows a cornucopia; feathered America hauls in tobacco and pearls; and squinting Asia donates porcelain and incense. As framing devices that establish and attend to the center, these marginal putti structure more than the pictorial field.50 Clustered around the knees of queenly Amsterdam, they indicate how her sovereignty extends far beyond the municipality as she embodies a city defined primarily by the immense accumulation of information and goods into a small space, reconceived as the governing central point.51 Amsterdam is no longer imagined as one place among others. She is pictured as the principal locale, receiving and thereby incorporating all other places. Infantile global genii and their goods appear as attributes of the Maid. They do not just come to do business in Amsterdam but to do obeisance to her. And she takes in more than just foreign merchandise—it is as if the potent spirit of every displaced locale accrues to the central gathering place, defining Amsterdam’s powerful new position in the world. Above her head, an eagle descends, the Keizer’s crown in its beak about to drop in mythic coronation of the Maid as Empress of the whole earth.
The depiction of global genii loci at the outskirts of the city resonates with the belief that spirits can be in one place in one instant, and in another place in the next instant without going through the mid-space. It is as if the genii and their goods simply arrive in Amsterdam, without effort and without cost. All of the messy face-to-face dealings of trade—of manifold encounters amongst peoples with divergent or resistant world-views and desires—are overcome by such an image. The dangers, uncertainties, and slowness of seafaring and overland travel are likewise avoided. Spirits from the four corners of the earth just materialize, as if out of nowhere, to cooperatively relinquish their belongings. The idea that angels could cross great distances in no time at all, avoiding the middle space as well as the middleman, makes them a suggestive means to represent not just the perfect communication of global information, but also the faultless conveyance of the world’s commodities. Here it is useful to recall Lessing’s insistence that every place, every man, every occupation, and yes, every inanimate thing, had its genius.52 As this essay has traced, the motif of the winged child could signify the genius of a location, of a mapmaker, or of the practice of cartography; it could likewise represent the spirit of a thing. The ancient writer Philostratus wrote that artistic putti “are many because of the many things men love.”53 The affective and aesthetic appeal of this visual motif had long been appreciated for its capacity to picture and rouse the numerous loves of humanity, which range from the sacred to the profane.54 This possibility is present in the prolific depiction of putti bearing goods. If the pictorial purpose of these appealing decorative figures was to solicit an emotive response, then their presentation of trade wares could perpetuate market activity by arousing cupidity for easy access to what Descartes described as “all the commodities and all the curiosities one could wish for.” Regarded in this way, the saftig dynamism of swelling and curving lines makes visible the intangible restive desires that drive trade.55
The use of the migrating genius loci device to trace the global movement of commodities is particularly evident in the much repeated visual trope of the ivory-bearing African boy, which appears on many maps and city profiles. Pictured in the bottom corner of Daniel Stalpaert’s map of Amsterdam (Fig. 13),56 for instance, is a young African who shoulders a hefty tusk as he climbs a small hill, undertaking the final leg of what we imagine was a long journey to the outskirts of the city to bestow his valuable cargo. On the Domselaer frontispiece (Fig. 12), in which infants from the four corners of the world bring gifts to the city Maid, the African looks to be the last to arrive, marked by a gap between his figure and the water-throne of the City Maid. Like Stalpaert’s figure, he moves toward Amsterdam but remains at the edges. Densely crosshatched lines conspicuously demarcate his dark body, an engraving technique that distinguishes him from the other personifications. In the clouds of Blaeu’s urban profile (Fig. 4), the tusk-bearing black youth again appears as an anomaly within the group of youthful envoys that deliver their wares.57 While the others look toward the Amsterdam Maid, the African figure is the only one that looks out, directing his smiling glance at the beholder of the print. This obliging smile draws viewers into the scene, as if we are in Amsterdam (or even as if we are the Maid herself), graciously receiving global gifts, which are gladly given.
Similar tusk-bearing African boys decorate Dutch maps of Africa. On Joan Blaeu’s representation of Guinea in the Atlas Maior, two winged African sprites splash merrily in the waters at the bottom of the sheet, burdened with an enormous elephant tusk (Fig. 14).58 The tip of the tusk directs attention to a convergence of lines and ships along the Gold Coast at El Mina, the African slave trading post, which was captured from the Portuguese by the Dutch West India Company in 1637. Not incidental to our understanding of this map is the fact that its publisher, Joan Blaeu, was actively involved in the African slave trade. He invested some of his technocratic business profits in slave trading and bought landholdings in the Virgin Islands, where he established slave-run plantations.59 Looking at the depiction of Guinea with this in mind, we recognize that these spirits of the place proffer two types of goods: white ivory and black ivory. While the cartographic illustrators were no doubt adapting the longstanding allegorical tradition of representing Africa as a black figure carrying ivory or gold, the visual device signifies differently when it is included on the margins of a map that facilitated the burgeoning of Dutch involvement in the Atlantic slave trade.60
Returning to Philostratus’s claim that artistic putti represent and arouse a spectrum of human loves, it appears that the black cupid particularly denoted profane earthly love. In all of the representations just discussed (Figs. 4, 12, 13, 14), this distinctive ornamental motif could be perceived as an obliging slave who happily offers himself as well as the material resources of his region. Ironically, in the figure of the helpful black genius, the angels’ service to humanity appears as a form of slavery. Whether the engravers intended it or not, the repeated image of the smiling tusk-carrying black putti created an especially appealing fiction for those—like Blaeu—who profited from transatlantic slavery. In keeping with the nature of angels, it seems as if the Africans could usefully be in one place and then in another without going through the mid-space—which in this case includes the Middle Passage. As argued above, the depiction of the genius loci’s effortless conveyance of goods on maps and city views epitomizes the dream of pure commodity exchange, occurring without intermediation and so without labor or expense, and also without war or conquest and all of the attendant brutalities that were inflicted on dark-skinned bodies especially. Instead, the arduous activities of the Dutch commercial empire are represented as the unproblematic work of ministering angels. The lighthearted vivacity of decorative saftig putti—their freedom, their innocence, their humor—thus generates a small diversion in the immense mapping and trading enterprise, obliquely referencing while also denying the cruel physical, historical, and geographical realities of the African slave trade. As we have seen, the witty and affective portrayal of moving spirits stimulates desires for earthly things while distracting from the on-the-ground work of legions of laborers, including indigenous peoples and slaves. In carrying out the angel’s jubilant two-fold mission of glorifying and ministering, they remove human work from time, space, and the body, a pictorial ploy that paradoxically points to the earthly miseries that they were employed to surmount.
Rise and Fall
While the work done by visual variations of the motif of the winged genius was wide-ranging, it especially served the interests of Amsterdam’s cartographers. On Stalpaert’s city map (Fig. 13), the merchandise brought by genii from distant realms is contrasted with locally made things. At left are the outsiders (including the African youth) who handle raw materials like ivory tusks and gold ingots, whereas at right, Amsterdam’s mapping angels fiddle with finished products, mainly globes and nautical devices. Not just valued for their utilitarian use nor only as attributes of the profession, these were homemade state-of-the-art luxury goods. The juxtaposition of foreign and local commodities highlights more than the high-tech superiority of Amsterdam. It indicates how a concentration of expertise in mapping and navigation allowed Amsterdam’s technocratic and administrative class to demarcate their own location as the center of the world.
The shops of the instrument, globe, and mapmakers were largely concentrated in Dam square at the heart of the metropolis, where they attracted an international clientele.61 Typical are the remarks of the English gentleman John Evelyn who visited Amsterdam in 1641 and recorded visits to Blaeu and his neighboring competitor Hendrik Hondius:
Upon St Bartholomew’s-day I went to Hundius’s shop to buy some Mapps, greately pleasd with the designes of that indefatigable Person: Mr. Bleaw, the setter-forth of the Atlas’s & other Workes of that kind is worthy seeing: At another shop I furnish’d my selfe with some shells, & Indian Curiosities; and so towards the end of August quitted the Towne.62
Evelyn’s comments indicate how the city was known for cartographic as well as exotic commodities. Both were celebrated in the decorative program of the New Town Hall, constructed on Dam square at mid-century. Exterior tympanum sculpture portrays the Maid standing on an orb in front of a trading ship, with nautical devices at her feet, while representatives of the four parts of the earth pay her homage with their trade wares. Inside the building, the floor of the main hall, the palatial Burgerzaal, was inlaid with elaborate copper and marble maps derived from Joan Blaeu’s 1648 Nova et accuratissima terrarum orbis tabula.63 Thus, while earlier depictions of Amsterdam had featured agrarian dairy products and farm produce (Figs. 1 & 7), by mid-century, the city’s distinguishing attribute was triumphantly characterized as cartographic invention. With this shift, the mapmaker’s genius became the genius loci of Amsterdam itself. What the Maid had to confer on the peoples of the world in return for their bounteous riches was her abundance of geographic information. This knowledge was her power, and it was fashioned and disseminated by the advanced technologies that were made, vended, and celebrated at city center on Dam Square.
However, just as the globes and maps carried by Amsterdam’s genii loci were locally made things, so too was the concept of the global that they conveyed. As Peter Sloterdijk has pointed out, there is no single fixed viewpoint from which to conceive “the global.” An elusive abstraction that defies comprehensive perception, it is always produced in a specific place to serve its histories and concerns.64 In the seventeenth century, new ways of imaging the world were manufactured in the workshops of Amsterdam’s cartographers, whose organizational aptitude and bold experimentation facilitated the depiction of their own perspective as universal. The cartographic know-how that was concentrated in Amsterdam allowed its map producers to create the world, and consequently to comprise global mastery within their own imagery, presenting themselves as the genii of world making. While they worked for the city and its trading companies, in deploying the motif of the mapping angel, cartographers intimated that the genius of the servants constituted the glory and power of the governors.
Such assertions invite scrutiny, and Edwaert Collier’s Vanitas Still Life of 1662 (Fig. 15) provides rare evidence of a contemporary response to the inflated claims that were made with the ubiquitous map angels.65 A table covered with shiny purple cloth is arrayed with precious things. Looping strings of pearls evoke the slide of satin, so that a left-leaning crown and turban also appear to be slipping. Dangling beneath the crown are the heavy collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece, various gold medallions, and an imperial scepter topped with double-headed eagle, emblem of the Habsburg Empire. It’s not clear what anchors all of this gold to the slippery surface; the weight of it bunches the tablecloth into dynamic folds in an uneasy, prescient movement. An elaborate goblet rises above this precarious ensemble, its virtuoso metalwork mimicking sea-forms—coral, shells, and the motion of waves. A triumph of human artistry, it conveys both stability and undulation. To the other side of the goblet are books, a moneybag, and a pair of celestial and terrestrial globes. At far right lies an opened volume; its curling pages look soft and slightly discolored. The verso displays a map of the western hemisphere, which resembles Blaeu’s Nova et accuratissima terrarum orbis tabula and thus the inlaid floor of the Amsterdam Town Hall as well. Noteworthy about this map is its unfinished quality: the Pacific and Northern coasts of North America are yet to be charted. In the course of time, such a map is neither new nor accurate. On the facing page, cropped by the painting’s edge, is the motif of Amsterdam’s mapping angels (Fig. 16). The map book inclines to the right, counterbalancing the leftward slant of the Habsburg crown and Ottoman turban. Collier evidently assumed that viewers of his painting would be as familiar with the claims made by cartographic putti on behalf of the Dutch trading empire as they were with the showy accoutrements of the world’s dominant political empires.
Between these signifiers of earthly power lies another open volume, displaying a rubric that promises an account of the destruction and fall of ancient Jerusalem. The columns of text and marginal references are illegible. The viewer doesn’t need to read a full history to grasp the message, which is that of the painting too: kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall. At the fulcrum of the painting, precisely centered between the two groups of outward-leaning objects, is a small timepiece, its lid overlapping the account of Jerusalem. The watch key hangs from a twisting loop of silk. A seemingly minor detail, this is also the key to the painting. Worldly power and earthly knowledge are alluring, but every terrestrial super-power will come to an end, defeated by time. Almost unnecessarily underlining this message is a tattered piece of paper tucked between the leaves of a clasped book beneath the angels: vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas (vanity of vanities all is vanity). The mysterious potency of cartography does not transcend temporality in this view. Atlases, maps, and globes are emphatically decentered in the painting’s composition, displaced by the pivotal timepiece. Time exposes the limits of worldly understanding and its cartographic representation even as the painting acknowledges their power.
Vanitas Still Life indicates that the functions of Amsterdam’s mapping angels—as cosmological communicators, triumphant heralds, and ingenious world makers—were familiar enough to be mocked. Cartographic genii are deflated by Collier’s rendering (Fig. 16). The delicate engraving technique of delineating their plump bodies with saftig curving and swelling lines is reduced to dabs of gray paint. The painter’s brush does not attempt to imitate the artistry of the engraver’s burin but parodies it. This gives the figures an indeterminate clumsiness, as they are neither etched nor painted with any great skill or ingenuity. This painted pastiche of printed putti effectively turns their characteristic wit against them as they are made to look laughable. It appears as if spirit has deserted them, and all that remains to be seen is the paradoxical uncertainty of creating the world with such small figures.
The research and writing of this article have been supported by two grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada—Making Worlds. Art, Materiality and early modern Globalization, and Early Modern Conversions. My thanks to the members of these collaborative research initiatives as well as Le Séminaire des Nouveaux Modernes for many stimulating discussions and opportunities to present work-in-progress.
The compositional formula of a city profile forming the horizon of a rural foreground scene peopled by local inhabitants is likely derived from Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg’s Civitates orbis terrarium (Cologne, 1572). Bast’s profile can be viewed here: http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.335803.
Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government (Homo Sacer II, 2), trans. Lorenzo Chiesa with Matteo Mandarini (Stanford, 2011), 165.
G. E. Lessing, “How the Ancients Represented Death,” in Selected Prose Works, ed. Edward Bell, trans. E. C. Beasley and Helen Zimmern (London, 1890), 183.
Charles Dempsey, Inventing the Renaissance Putti (Chapel Hill, 2001). For a visual example of one of the earliest deployments of the classical genius motif in renaissance art, see Donatello’s emotive putti in the Annunciation c. 1435, Santa Croce, Florence.
Christian Kleinbub, Vision and the Visionary in Raphael (University Park, PA, 2011); and Meredith J. Gill, Angels and the Order of Heaven in Medieval and Renaissance Italy (Cambridge, 2014).
William Ivins, Prints and Visual Communication (Cambridge, MA, 1969), 70. See also the discussion in Michael Gaudio, Engraving the Savage. The New World and Techniques of Civilization. (Minneapolis, 2008), xx, 48-49.
Drawing on Aby Warburg’s concept of the Pathosformel, Dempsey calls putti “ornament in action,” Inventing, 34. Also Robert Klein, “Spirito Peregrino,” in Form and Meaning. Essays on the Renaissance and Modern Art, trans. Madeline Jay and Leon Wieseltier (New York, 1979), 62-85.
Giovanni Pietro Bellori, The Lives of the Modern Painters, Sculptors and Architects, trans. Alice Sedgwick Wohl (New York, 2005), 230-34.
Elizabeth Cropper and Charles Dempsey, Nicolas Poussin. Friendship and the Love of Painting (Princeton, 2000), 82-83.
J. Keuning, Willem Jansz. Blaeu: A Biography and History of His Work as a Cartographer and Publisher, rev. and ed. by Marijke Donkersloot-de Vrij (Amsterdam, 1973), 83.
Cropper and Dempsey, Nicolas Poussin, 47; and Estelle Lingo, François Duquesnoy and the Greek Ideal (New Haven, 2007), 19.
Kees Zandvliet, Mapping for Money: Maps, Plans, and Topographic Paintings and their Role in Dutch Overseas Expansion during the 16th and 17th centuries (Amsterdam, 1998), 64, 214.
Karel van Mander, The Lives of the Illustrious Netherlandish and German Painters: From the First Edition of the Schilderboek (1603-1604), trans. and ed. Hessel Miedema (Doornspijk, 1994), 2: 13.
On the movement of spirit through artists, media, artworks, and viewers, see Thijs Weststeijn, “ ‘Painting’s Enchanting Poison’: Artistic Efficacy and the Transfer of Spirits,” in Spirits Unseen: The Representation of Subtle Bodies in Early Modern European Culture, ed. Christine Göttler and Wolfgang Neuber (Leiden, 2007), 141-77.
Joan Blaeu, “Aen den Leser,” Toonneel der Steden van de Vereenighde Nederlanden (Amsterdam, 1649).
Zandvliet, Mapping, 121-22.
Zandvliet, Mapping, 9-14.
John Durham Peters, Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago, 1999), 74.
Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica of Saint Thomas Aquinas (Chicago, 1952), I: 283-84.
Aquinas, Summa, I: 277. On the visualization of angels in Byzantine art, see Glenn Peers, Subtle Bodies: Representing Angels in Byzantium (Berkeley, 2001).
Aquinas, Summa, I: 277.
Aquinas, Summa, I: 295.
Cited in J. L. Heilbron, “Domesticating Science in the Eighteenth Century,” in Science and the Visual Image in the Enlightenment (European Studies in Science History and the Arts, 4), ed. William R. Shea (Canton, MA, 2000), 7.
Cited in Jerry Brotton, Trading Territories. Mapping the Early Modern World (London, 1997), 23.
Michael John Gorman, “The Angel and the Compass: Athanasius Kircher’s Magnetic Geography,” in Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man who Knew Everything, ed. Paula Findlen (New York, 2004), 247; also Nick Wilding, “Galilean Angels,” in Conversations with Angels: Essays towards a History of Spiritual Communication, 1100-1700, ed. Joad Raymond (New York, 2011), 79.
Arendt Roggeveen, Het Eerste Deel van het Brandende Veen (Amsterdam, 1675).
Peters, Speaking, 64.
Wilding, “Galilean Angels,” 67-89; and Simon Schaffer, “Newtonian Angels,” in Conversations with Angels, 90-124.
Wilding, “Galilean Angels,” 74; also Thomas L. Hankins and Robert J. Silverman, eds. Instruments and the Imagination (Princeton, 1995), 5-10.
See Karsten Harries, “Descartes, Perspective, and the Angelic Eye,” Yale French Studies 49 (1973), 28-42. Harries explores how Descartes posits an impossible “angelically pure or transcendental” point of view in order to overcome the faultiness of human sense perception.
Wilding, “Galilean Angels,” 79; and Schaffer, “Newtonian Angels,” 95.
David Albert Jones, Angels: A History (Oxford, 2010), xiv; and Massimo Cacciari, The Necessary Angel, trans. Miguel E. Vatter (Albany, NY, 1994), 28.
Particularly artful are Peter Paul Rubens’ illustrations for F. Aguilonius, Optica (Antwerp, 1613); and the putti in Andreas Vesalius, De Humani Corporis Fabrica (Basel, 1543).
Alexandre Koyré, From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe (Baltimore, 1957).
Keuning, Willem Jansz. Blaeu, 6.
Zandvliet, Mapping, 86.
Y. M. Donkersloot-de Vrij, Drie Generaties Blaeu: Amsterdamse Cartografie en Boekdrukkunst in de Zeventiende Eeuw (Amsterdam, 1992), 45.
Novus Atlas Sinensis by Jesuit cartographer Martino Martini. On Joan Blaeu’s atlas, chapter 8 of Jerry Brotton, A History of the World in Twelve Maps (London, 2012). For the map: http://objects.library.uu.nl/reader/img.php?obj=1874-253727&img=/79/95/45/7995459242808639203126739742542591214.jpg.
Bruno Latour, “Visualisation and Cognition: Drawing Things Together,” in Knowledge and Society: Studies in the Sociology of Culture Past and Present, ed. H. Kuklick, vol. 6 (Greenwich, CT, 1986), 1-40.
Cited in Claudia Swan, “Lost in Translation: Exoticism in Early Modern Holland,” in Art in Iran and Europe in the 17th Century: Exchange and Reception, ed. Axel Langer (Zurich, 2013), 101.
Courante uyt Italien ende Duytschlandt, &t. no. 26 (Amsterdam, 1634).
The Maid resembles the Virgin Mary receiving treasures and adoration from Magi who come from afar. See Joseph Leo Koerner, “The Epiphany of the Black Magus Circa 1500,” in The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume III: From the “Age of Discovery” to the Age of Abolition, Part 1: Artists of the Renaissance and Baroque, ed. David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Cambridge, MA, 2011), 11, 35-7.
Latour, “Visualization,” 31.
Lessing, “How the Ancients Represented Death,” 183.
Philostratus, Imagines, trans. Arthur Fairbanks (Cambridge, MA, 1931), I: vi.
Erwin Panofsky, “Blind Cupid,” in Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance (New York, 1972), 98-100.
If genii imbue inanimate objects with spirit, when the things are commodities, this insight resonates with Karl Marx’s term of analysis, “commodity fetishism,” coined to describe the lively mystical qualities of trade wares, which “appear as independent beings endowed with life.” See Section 4, Chapter One, Volume 1, “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof,” in Karl Marx, Capital. A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, ed. Friedrich Engels (New York, 2003). Also Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA, 2000), 221-22.
To see the full map: https://beeldbank.amsterdam.nl/afbeelding/010001000828.
Zandvliet, Mapping, 121.
On slavery and Dutch cartography, see Elizabeth Sutton, “Possessing Brazil in Print, 1630-1654,” Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art 5, no. 1 (2013): 1-12.
The Blaeu shop was on Damrak next to their competitors, Henricus Hondius and Johannes Janssonius. The Blaeus later moved their presses to Bloemgracht but kept the sales shop on the Dam. Keuning, Willem Jansz. Blaeu, 10-13; and Donkersloot-de Vrij, Drie Generaties, 9-10.
John Evelyn, The Diary of John Evelyn, ed. William Bray (London, 1901), I: 36.
See Brotton, chapter 8 of A History of the World. To view the Blaeu map: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nova_et_Accuratissima_Terrarum_Orbis_Tabula_(J.Blaeu,_1664).jpg.
Peter Sloterdijk, In the World Interior of Capital. For a Philosophical Theory of Globalization, trans. Wieland Hoban (Cambridge, 2013), 28-32. Also Bruno Latour, “Spheres and Networks. Two Ways to Reinterpret Globalization,” Harvard Design Magazine (Spring/Summer 2009): 142-43.